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Can you wear red lipstick at any age? A celebrity makeup artist weighs in

Taylor Swift's Eras Tour put the classic makeup look back in the spotlight, but this bold lip shade is perfect if you're 40, 50, 60 — and beyond.

Jennifer Lopez, Taylor Swift wearing red lipstick
Taylor Swift re-popularized the classic red lipstick look during her 2023 Eras Tour — here's why it's universally flattering for women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. (Jennifer Lopez, Viola Davis, Taylor Swift, Helen Mirren: Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, as the U.S. leg of Taylor Swift's 2023 Eras Tour was winding down (culminating in a mega-successful Eras Tour movie) and the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce relationship was heating up, I received a message from a friend: "going to need an identifier on that Taylor Swift lipstick ASAP." My pal was not alone: fans had been trying to track down the official Taylor Swift Eras Tour red lipstick for months. In fact, makeup artist Pat McGrath's 'Taylor Made' Lip Kit had already sold out (so had McGrath's LiquiLUST, another alleged Eras Tour pick). But, fear not, the internet is on the case: As I type this, the hashtag #taylorswiftlipstick has more than 1.3 million TikTok views, most of which clock NARS Dragon Girl and MAC Ruby Woo as the most viable Eras Tour dupes.

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Though it's not considered the official Taylor Swift Eras Tour lipstick, this NARS pencil is for sure a favorite: the singer posted a photograph of herself applying this shade before the Met Gala in 2014. With good reason: it's precise, surprisingly non-drying and leaves behind a vibrant red hue. 

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MAC's iconic and ultra-popular Ruby Woo is the lip shade most frequently associated with Swift — she mentioned it in an interview with People magazine in 2015.

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In the world of makeup, a red lip is certainly nothing new. Some historians believe the look dates back to at least 3500 BC when ancient Sumerians would crush red rocks and gems into a powder to tint their lips. The practice of red-lip painting can be traced to at least ancient Egypt, to the bust of Nefertiti and to when servants reportedly created red waxes out of insect parts to shade Cleopatra's pout.

Elizabeth Taylor wearing red lipstick and a pink dress
Elizabeth Taylor rocked the red lipstick look back in 1960.

Post-ancient times — and up until the 20th century — red lipstick was worn almost exclusively by performers and sex workers and was considered in bad taste for everyone else. But all that changed in 1912, when young suffragettes began wearing the makeup staple as an act of rebellion while marching for their voting rights. Flappers followed suit, embracing red lips in the 1920s. And by the 1940s, when more women entered the American workforce than ever before, female workers considered red lipstick an essential part of their grooming routines. The look came to signify professional polish.

'Rosie the Riveter' wearing red lipstick
In 1940, even 'Rosie the Riveter' wore red lipstick.

Since then, we've seen iconic red lips on rockstars, first ladies and even, once again, a queen. Today, the bold color signifies glamour, confidence, sex appeal and a certain kind of French-girl chic. In fact, in 2023, there's just one lingering stigma surrounding this classic makeup trend: that older women shouldn't wear it.

Spend any time googling beauty advice for women over 50 and you'll uncover dire warnings and silly rules about how red lipstick is too harsh for mature skin, how it can appear too clownish, how, if you're over a certain age and try to pull off a red lip, you'll resemble Bette Davis in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

However, according to celebrity makeup artist Jamie Greenberg, none of this is true. Greenberg — whose client list includes Kaley Cuoco, Rashida Jones, Kristen Stewart, Tracee Ellis Ross and Judith Light — says: "Adding a pop of color to your makeup routine is actually a great way to brighten your features. And when it comes to lipstick, red can definitely be worn at any age." Armed with the right information and a few pro tricks, Greenberg (and I!) believe women can — and should — wear red lipstick in middle age and far beyond.

How to find the right red lipstick for your skin tone

Dame Helen Mirren wearing a warm-brick-red lipstick
At 78, Dame Helen Mirren often chooses a warm-brick-red lipstick.

"Red lipstick has the potential to suit any skin tone, hair color and eye color," Greenberg explains. "The key is to find a product with the undertone that works best for your skin." This may sound intimidating (or at least it always has for me) but Greenberg says it's quite simple: "If you have warm undertones, choose a warmer red lipstick, like one with orange tones, to compliment your skin. Same with cooler tones: blue-toned reds are the best option."

Roughly the formula breaks down like this:

Deeper skin tones = all reds

Olive skin tones = warm reds

Light, ruddy skin tones = warm reds

Fair, pale skin = cool reds

"I love the Lime Crime Soft Touch Lipstick in the shade Radical Red as it’s super intense and the color payoff is amazing," Greenberg says. The saturated orange-y red is ideal for those with warmer skin shades. 

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"A staple of mine is the MAC Powder Kiss Lipstick in the shade You’re Buggin, Lady — MAC formulas are truly impressive!" Greenberg says. This blue-undertone pick is ultra-moisturizing too. 

$26 at Macy's

There is one exception to the undertone rule. "'True red' is considered a universal color that is flattering for any skin shade and undertone," Greenberg tells me. "The key to a true red is it not having any yellow or blue undertones/tints, that's how you know it will be balanced and suitable for all skin." For those of us who are not professional makeup artists and/or colorists, here are some "true red" picks to start with:

"I love the vibrant color this leaves on the lips," Greenberg shares, "and that it's formulated with lip-loving ingredients like chia seed oil and hyaluronic acid." Pro-tip: this is highly layerable, so you have a choice between soft and subtle or super dramatic.

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Urban Decay's Unbreakable shade is meant to flatter a variety of skin tones and the moisturizing-but-not-too-shiny formula is ideal for mature lips. 

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I've rarely been as impressed by anything as I am with Kiko Milano's lip shades. They go on glossy, but quickly turn to a matte finish that's not at all drying. Plus, they're inexpensive enough that I can buy a few and keep in my car and my purse. This shade looks more orange than it actually shows up on your lips. My skin has warm undertones and, on, this is the perfect apple red.

$13 at Amazon

If you just want to dip your toe in the red lipstick pool without jumping right in, Greenberg's Bloss may be for you. "I love my very own Bloss in the color The Red One," says Greenberg. "It's a glowy, moisturizing hybrid formula between a balm and a gloss that gives you the perfect red pout."

$26 at Jamie Makeup

The best way to apply red lipstick if you're over 40

Turns out, you'll need one more element to perfect your crimson look and that is an inexpensive lip liner, of a similar shade to your lipstick.

"Red lipstick can oftentimes run and spread outside of the lines, so it's important you give your lips a barrier for the color to stay inside with a good liner," explains Greenberg. This version by NYX is affordable and beloved by pros.

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And the last three tips to keep in mind:

1. Start with a moisturized, non-scaly canvas. Don't attempt to apply lip color over chapped lips.

2. Go for subtlely — at least at first: "Depending on the pigment of the red lipstick, less can be more," Greenberg explains, a rule that can be ESPECIALLY true for older lips with more creases and lines. "If you're dealing with a high pigmented lipstick, start with a light hand and build up the intensity by preference." If the result turns out to be too much, you can, as many a grandmother has before you, blot your lips on a tissue until you have the desired result.

2. Apply lightly but with precision: "I like to start the application towards the center of my lips and build towards the outer edges for a more blurred, undone look that’s effortless," says Greenberg. And I'll add here that the best trick I know for wearing red lips in my 50s is to make the lip-line soft and blend well. Do this and you'll want to rock red lipstick forever.