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Lip gloss, ugh. What does one do with it these days? Do you wear it? Do you eat it? The very phrase brings back images of the thick, sticky, glittery stuff of the aughts, including every Britney Spears video and Kelis singing about bringing all the boys to the yard. Even Lil’ Mama’s more recent “Lip Gloss” video makes you think “No, girl, not cool, not even with the MAC brushes — not in 2017.” This year, and last year, and the one before have been the years of the matte liquid lip.
But browse Sephora, Ulta, Beautylish, or your favorite indie brand and you’ll find a flood of new products resembling blinged-out lip gloss on steroids, only re-branded as “lip top coats” and “lip toppers.” Sephora's Union Square location currently displays a standalone rack heralding “Top Coats — Top off your lip look with an extra sparkle or vinyl finish.”
What the heck is a lip top coat? Top coats and toppers are supercharged glosses — like jewelry to wear on top of your lipstick. Instead of just shine, they offer an array of exotic finishes like glitter, iridescence, prismatics, metallics, “strobe,” and holographic.
They can be worn either alone or over lipstick, preferably liquid lipstick. The result is a range of new special effects on the lipstick you’ve been wearing every day. I found that while they’re fun on their own, the “top coat” name exists for a reason — they all look more intense over a liquid lip or lipstick.
Here’s how lip top coats found their niche: When it comes to the big moneymakers in the lip game, liquid lipsticks are where it’s at right now. They don’t budge or smudge; they’re highly pigmented; they come in a billion colors at a zillion price points. You can’t walk more than a few blocks in retail Manhattan right now without finding an affordable, cool-looking liquid lipstick to add to your collection.
Can you top that? Well, actually… maybe you can. Liquid lipsticks aren’t perfect; they’re drying, and they lack a variety of finishes. Your choices basically range from “very matte” to a “satin” finish like ColourPop’s — which is a matte that’s just sort of slightly less matte.
“We launched our Jouer Skinny Dip Lip Topper in May 2016,” says Lucy Graham, social media and PR coordinator at Jouer Cosmetics, adding that their lip toppers are among the brand’s best-selling products. “Our founder and creative director, Christina Zilber, loves the matte liquid lipstick trend, but prefers a lip product to wear all day that’s a little more comfortable. She designed our Lip Topper to be [a] shimmery, glossy top coat that can sit on top of a matte liquid lipstick without breaking down the formula.”
The trend has, in part, trickled down from high fashion. Pat McGrath, for instance, released her Lip Lust collection last August, and the collection of lipsticks came with gold pigment, ultra-shiny gloss, or red glitter to be worn on top.
At the most recent couture shows in Paris, Maison Martin Margiela featured models with blood-red lips highlighted with silver and gold that looked like liquid metal. It was McGrath, of course, who did the makeup.
The lip category is growing at such a fast rate that there’s certainly room in the market for more subcategories. Beauty Inc. reported last October that in the United States alone, retail lipstick sales were up 9.6 percent between 2015 and 2016 — from $2.02 billion to $2.22 billion. A healthy uptick in lipstick sales is part of a trend that’s been growing for some time. North America as a whole has the fastest-growing rate of lipstick sales, up 7.1 percent between 2010 and 2015.
Last week, Becca sent out an email blast about its new Lush Lip Balms, reminding us that we could pair them with one of the brand’s duo-chrome Liquid Crystal Glow Lip Glosses.
This isn’t the beauty industry’s first attempt to breathe new life into gloss.
Last summer, brands tried to make gloss happen in a different way, with a flurry of light, watery oil-based formulas. GlossyLip oils from Milk, Physicians Formula, Clarins, and Burt’s Bees promised the best marriage between a thin gloss and stain. Lancôme’s Juicy Shaker Lip Oil, a watery gloss that went on with a sponge applicator, was launched in 22 colors. (The brand just re-launched that line as the Matte Shaker High Pigment Liquid Lipstick.)
Now, after more than a year of frantic highlighting, special effects, especially anything resembling holographics, is where it’s at. “Holographic is the next evolution of the glow trend,” says a spokesperson for Urban Decay. The finish “is not only great with liquid lip, but any lipstick — or alone.”
And so top coats and toppers it is.
Notable examples on the market include Kevyn Aucoin's the Molten, which comes in an eerie alien pinkish-blue color called Cyber. Too Faced’s Latex Lip Color offers a similar bluish-holographic glow called Unicorn Tears. Stila’s Glitterati Top Coat is not too glittery and comes in a pleasant watery formula. Lime Crime Diamond Crushers are foil metallics in colors you won't find anywhere else.
Chanel has a mini line of three Rouge Coco Gloss Top Coats — one that illuminates, another that adds warmth, and a third to intensify color. Of course, it’s suggested that the top coats are worn on top of Chanel’s own Rouge Coco Gloss or lipstick.
But be warned: None of these have any real staying power. The lip top coats of today feel like the sticky and thick lip glosses of yesterday. Two pleasant exceptions are Urban Decay’s Vice Special Effects Long-Lasting Water-Resistant Lip Topcoat, which has a creamy formula that the company says was designed to dry down quickly and never feel sticky, and Lime Crime’s Diamond Crushers, which is also creamy and acts almost as a lip highlight.
But even the Urban Decay top coat, for all its promises of long wear, came off on my straw after half an iced coffee.
So while these are still glosses, the extra oomph still makes them a lot of fun. Love sparkle and holographics? Who doesn’t? That’s one reason that the re-branding might stick (to your hair) — the sheer bling and novelty of top coats just may convince the gloss-averse to try something that isn't called a gloss, simply because of the unique finishes.
Let's be honest: Top coats are still regular lip glosses at heart. But as brands want to convince you, it’s not a regular gloss — it’s a cool gloss.