When talking about cosmetics, one naturally becomes preoccupied with the visual aspect of beauty. This isn’t so strange – we all know make-up is all about appearance. But it isn’t only about appearance – is it?
If you think about a product you like, maybe your favourite lip gloss or eye shadow palette, and really start to consider why you like it you will inevitably consider not only the appearance – the colour, the luminosity, even the packaging – but also other sensory properties like texture and scent.
One of my favourite lipsticks, for instance, has a smooth and balmy texture and a kind of soft, vaguely floral but also cocoa butter-y scent that is both unusual and appealing. The way it feels and smells kind of makes up for the lack of intense pigment, which is usually what I look for in lipstick. At the end of the day, makeup plays a broader sensory role than you’d think at first glance. It’s not just about how it looks on the skin, but how it feels and in no small part how it smells.
A lot of people love the Nyx Butter Glosses for instance, and claim said glosses are some of the best on the market – and most of the reviews bring up the scent and the texture as the product’s central virtues. In this case, the non-visual properties are what makes this product “special” and popular. (Personally, I don’t really think these glosses are all that special – perhaps because I find the scent nauseating.)
Scent is one of the most powerful and subtle senses, capable of vividly re-awakening a memory or constructing elaborate fantasies. In makeup, scent not only covers up various unwanted ingredient odours, but also become part of the brand. You may not consciously recognize the scent of a YSL lipstick, but your brain probably makes the connection subconsciously, remembering. The Nyx glosses I mentioned have a very strong artificial toffee scent, and MAC lipsticks supposedly smell like vanilla. I’m sure there’s a lot to be said about the fact that many cosmetic products smell like (and are named after) sweets, considering the pressure on women to be skinny and deny themselves the real deal.
For me, makeup is most appealing when it smells like makeup – if you ever took a peek in your grandma’s purse you know what I mean- kind of powdery and soft, with floral elements like violet and rose. Paul & Joe products have this smell, and sometimes I just take a whiff of them like a weirdo because the scent is so nostalgic and enticing – it reminds me of snooping in my great aunt’s bathroom as a child! Byredo has a candle that smells like lipstick, which I also find strangely appealing – not because I necessarily think it smells good, but because of the imagery conjured by it. Scent is pretty groovy in that way.
I also mentioned texture (and other physical sensations, like the tingling of a lip plumper!) as an important factor – every beauty guru’s favourite word seems to be “creamy” (or emollient, buttery, smooth, hydrating, etc) and texture is often a deal breaker, even if a product performs well in other regards. A matte lipstick may stay all day, but if the texture is unpleasantly dry and waxy, you won’t see many people singing its praises no matter how good it makes you look. If an eyeshadow is, to borrow a youtube favourite term, “chalky” it’s bye-bye even if the colour is a total dream. Even if texture often means workability, it’s also important in that it feels pleasant on the skin.
Other sensations, like the “tingling” of lip plumpers and mentholated skincare products, often make reviewers claim you can “feel it working!”, even if this is not necessarily the case. Tingling is actually a sign of irritation, which is what makes your lips swell. In skincare this is generally not a good thing (though there are exceptions). However, if said tingling is pleasant to you, I’d not completely dismiss it as I believe pleasure is an important part of the beauty ritual (even if irritation is bad for you in the long run).
The visual is not all there is to cosmetics. The ritual of makeup application is, in itself, a sensory experience where a sharp scent or rough texture wouldn’t be welcome. I think sitting down in front of the mirror can be more profound than just a supposedly vain compulsion. The ideal beauty regimen appeals to all the senses – including ones I didn’t mention here.