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In the most literal sense, lipstick provides a reliable tonic in trying times.
Lipstick may be small in size, but it packs major meaning—a significance beyond what a punny shade name and pretty packaging suggest.
Just take a look at any one of the many varied roles it’s played over its estimated 5,000-year history.
There’s lipstick the protector: In Elizabethan times, women thought wearing it could help ward off death’s crawl. There’s lipstick the rebel: Iconic suffragettes Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton slicked their mouths in red—a look that, at the time, was considered the province of “loose women”—as a form of sartorial protest.
But perhaps its most potent, and most overlooked, incarnation is that of lipstick the healer.
In the most literal sense, lipstick provides a reliable tonic in trying times. For cancer patients, it often serves as a symbol (however small) of health and vibrancy.
“Lipstick helps restore a normal sense of self that a patient can lose during incredibly difficult cancer treatments and help them feel like themselves,” says Bobbie Rimel, M.D., a gynecologist and oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Learn about some of the crazy beauty treatments women have used throughout history:
The same ameliorative effect can be seen in other women who have undergone massive changes to their bodies: In her recent study of the relationship between women and makeup, Madeleine Ogilvie, Ph.D., an associate professor of business at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, discovered that lipstick helped recent mothers reconnect with their femininity.
“If they were feeling asexualized and unglamorous in their new mother role, by putting on their lipstick, it was almost like getting back to their old identity,” she explains.
Beyond these more extreme physical and emotional circumstances, lipstick provides a daily dose of color therapy.
In a WH Twitter poll, 80 percent of respondents said that the right lipstick can positively impact their mood.
The ways in which different hues elicit specific emotional responses is well documented.
Nudes and muted neutrals channel warmth and calm; reds symbolize power; brights, like orange or fuchsia, convey daring; and anything in the plum family is associated with being refined and professional, says Victoria Fraser, Ph.D., director of scientific communication and consumer beauty at CoverGirl, who has conducted research on women’s perceptions of lip color.
And there may be no more visible way to reflect who you are—or project who you want to be—than the color that sits smack in the center of your face.
Whichever shade you choose—and really, the one that makes you feel most confident, most cheerful, most yourself, is subjective—what comes next is equally rejuvenating.
In Ogilvie’s research, respondents were as delighted by applying lipstick as they were by actually wearing it.
It’s ritualistic, comforting, and deeply entwined with memories of a profound relationship: that between a woman and her mother.
“The association people have with having watched their mothers put on lipstick is truly unique and unmatched,” says Poppy King, founder of the Lipstick Queen line and author of the new book The A to Z of lipstick.
She recalls the lightning-bolt impact of her first childhood encounter dipping into her mother’s makeup drawer: “Lipstick immediately made me feel different on the inside,” says King, “like I was capable of more with it on than I was without it.”
It’s a feedback confidence loop, explains New York City psychologist Vivian Diller, Ph.D., and while it can be hard to determine whether lipstick first led to confidence or vice versa, it doesn’t really matter—the effect is the same.
What is clear is that these perks don’t translate across all forms of lip painting.
(Sorry, gloss.) Because before color transforms your face, before formula even meets mouth, lipstick’s very particular therapeutic benefits begin. “Everything about the lipstick experience matters,” says Sarah Vickery, Ph.D., executive director of scientific communications at Estee Lauder.
Just the click of uncapping is enough to trigger a pleasure response. The weight of the tube in your hand.
The waxy, nostalgic smell. The mood-enhancing power of lipstick is a feeling that has lived across decades. As Audrey Hepburn so succinctly put it, “On a bad day, there’s always lipstick.”
Meet the charities (and charity-minded cosmetic brands) that are using beauty as a means of giving back—and giving a boost to women in need.
Lipstick Angels: Launched in 2012 by makeup artist Renata Helfman to provide beauty service—including makeup application, facials, hand massages, and aromatherapy—to cancer patients at L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai, the organization is now expanding to New York-Presbyterial Weill Cornell in NYC.
Kiehl’s: The skin-care brand is donating $25,000 plus 100 percent of net profits from its limited-edition Butterstick Lip Treatment Duo —a set of balms, one sheer pink, the other untinted—to Bright Pink, a national nonprofit aimed at prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancers.
Beautiful Rights: The lip color brand donates 20 percent of all sales (not just profits) to organizations promoting women’s rights, including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, Emily’s List, and Legal Momentum.
Creator and makeup artist Kristen Therese Leonard chose this percentage as a reminder of the pay gap between genders.