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Image: Archi Banal
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BusinessFebruary 28, 2022

The perils and pleasures of lipstick-wearing in the age of the face mask

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Alex Casey talks to some local lipstick experts who refuse to let daily mask wearing get in the way of their makeup routine.

For those of us who wear makeup, revealing the inside of one’s mask has become as intimate an experience as peeling back one’s pillowcase. Demasking in public frequently comes with thrilling new adornments within – orange pinch marks around the nose, drips of flesh-coloured foundation around the jaw and, the most telling of all, a set of bright red ghost lips. 

Given that we are now two years into the pandemic, and mask wearing has become part of our daily lives, you might think that makeup wearers would be giving up the hassle, the stains, the smudges, in exchange for a bare face. But the reality is quite different. Makeup consumption is continuing to explode in New Zealand, with beauty giant Mecca reporting a growth in sales of 9.1% since 2020, and 22% since 2019. 

Within that makeup buying, we are still lapping up lipsticks – despite our mouths being more covered than ever. Lipstick sales at Mecca grew 12.3% between 2020 and 2021, and local brand Karen Murrell has continued to see “steady” sales throughout lockdowns and changing restrictions. “I think this all comes around to the joy of the process and the ritual,” says Murrell. 

Karen Murrell’s range. Image: Supplied

Having worked in the cosmetics industry for over 30 years, and 12 years into running her own eponymous lipstick brand, Murrell’s business has suffered through the pandemic like everyone else. “Being so reliant on freight and manufacturing has meant that times have been tough,” she says. “I’ve had times where I’ve sat at my desk and started crying.” 

Still, the country hasn’t turned its back on lipstick. Murrell mentions her local stockists Unichem and Life Pharmacies as being her “bread and butter” through the last two years. “If we didn’t have them we wouldn’t be in business,” she says. “It really makes you so grateful.” Personally, Murrell says she continues to wear her own lipstick even when working from home. 

“It just makes me feel good,” she says. “That routine that comes with putting the lipstick on, pressing your lips together, and having this air of confidence about you.” 

The importance of routine is something that Evie Kemp, interior designer and beauty writer, can attest to. “For me, I felt really shit about my appearance and my self-esteem plummeted in lockdown.” She says she has worn lipstick all her adult life, is notorious for getting it on her teeth, and that wearing it “felt like coming back to yourself” during lockdown. 

Evie Kemp in her favourite shades. Images: supplied

Food writer and television personality Peta Mathias feels the same. She has worn lipstick since she was 12 – shades of pink, before transitioning to vivid red in her 30s. Decades on, she seldom goes a day without it. “I would never leave the house without lipstick, not even to put the rubbish out, because there’s no point in frightening the neighbourhood dogs.”

Even in lockdown, she wore her signature red lipstick on her daily walks. “Forgetting who you are and opening the door without lipstick on would be a major tragedy for me,” she says. “Putting on a bit of lipstick and a nice dress everyday for my walk made me feel better than I already felt and like I could face it for another day.”

In the era of mask wearing, Mathias and Kemp have both found ways to prevent their lipstick from sliding off into oblivion. “Whenever I take my mask off and I’ve got lipstick on, I am always bombarded with questions like ‘how did you get your lipstick on?’ or ‘how is it not all over your face?’,” says Kemp. 

Her secret, after testing every long-lasting liquid lipstick available during the pandemic, is Maybelline Superstay Matte. “It is unbudgeable,” she says. “You can put it on under your mask, you can eat greasy food and somehow it still looks good.” After trying everything from Dior to Yves Saint Laurent, Mathias swears by Coral Colours in shade Scarlet – recommended by her good friend Astar from TVNZ’s Good Morning.

Peta Matthias found her perfect shade through TVNZ’s Astar. Image: Supplied

Karen Murrell is a firm believer in a good lip liner, and has no qualms about popping her lipstick on straight from the tube and letting it sit under her mask when she heads out. “We all have natural body chemistry, so when the lipstick is on, as your body temperature mixes with the lips, it emulsifies. If a little comes off on the inside of your mask, that’s fine – it’s your mask.” 

Although lipstick habits may seem trivial to some, Murrell says it can be a reflection of the state of society. “Makeup revolves a lot around financial habits, so when times get harder, makeup gets brighter. After wars or financial hardships, you see the makeup colours become brighter.” She references the red lipstick boom in the 1940s as an example. “During the war, what did people smuggle in? It was lipstick, it was those little luxuries that people would fight for.”

And, with the more effective respirator masks, like KN95s,  now more widely available after early shortages, Matthias says conditions are now “fabulous” for lipstick wearers. “They’re very pointy, so there’s absolutely no problem whatsoever at all, it doesn’t go anywhere near your lips.” It leaves people like her free to express themselves without fear of the smudge and smear, a daily ritual of normality that she assures is not a “superficial pursuit”.

“It’s the closest that we get to art if we aren’t artists ourselves,” she says. “It’s beauty, it’s identity, it’s history.” 

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