2023 Buying Guide: Red Lipstick

December 21, 2022 (updated January 24, 2023)

Don’t call it a comeback: red lipstick is iconic and an incredibly easy way to perk up your complexion, whether or not you have time (or desire) to wear a full face of makeup. But where should you start on your quest for the best red lipstick? We’re breaking it all down in this buying guide—including comparing the best clean beauty lipsticks with conventional shades. Plus, SWATCHES.

A woman with long gray hair and red lipstick

By: Lisa Fennessy

IN THIS POST:

At the heart of the matter, clean beauty lipsticks are lipsticks that are made with good-for-you ingredients. And….scene. This article is done.

Jkjk. Let’s dive in. 

Now, I know talking ingredients can get scary and intimidating, but really, I think it’s pretty obvious when you take a bird’s eye view like this. My take is, it’s really less about “shopping to avoid ingredients” and more about “choosing what ingredients you want to use” on your skin. (And I don’t know about you but I’ll take organic jojoba seed oil for $1,000, Alex.)


Lipstick color 101: synthetic vs. natural dyes

Let’s start this synthetic vs. natural convo with a caveat: we’re not living in a black and white world where anything natural automatically trumps anything synthetic. Pervasive marketing and greenwashing (and misinformation) may make it seem like it’s all or nothing, one or the other, or good or bad, but the TRUTH is that sustainability, personal choice and lack of information play into how each of us evaluates products.

This applies to any comparison between a conventional formula and a better-for-you option, from makeup and skincare to dairy alternatives and baby formula.

But we’re just gonna start with lipsticks. 😏 If you want more of the synthetics vs. naturals info, head here

In conventional lipsticks, you will find a lot of petroleum-derived ingredients (like paraffin, synthetic wax and ozokerite), questionable preservatives (like BHT), ingredients with carcinogenic contamination concerns (like acrylates copolymer, synthetic wax and polyethylene) …and even plastics (like polyethylene, polybutene and nylon-12). 

RELATED: TNK’s NO THANKS List—ingredients we skip altogether (and WHY).

On the flip side, in clean beauty lipsticks, you will find a lot of nourishing oils (like olive oil, coconut oil and jojoba seed oil), moisturizing butters (like shea and mango seed butter and cocoa seed butter), antioxidant-rich ingredients (like vitamin E and rosehip seed oil) and if you are lucky, even some third-party certified organic ingredients. 

If only those were the *only* things to consider in lipstick, right? What we are talking about here are the base ingredients for a lipstick. What makes a lipstick glide, what gives it texture, what drives finish, what stops it from getting moldy or growing bacteria.

When we step into the world of clean beauty, there is a whole other conversation going on that revolves around COLOR. And this is where it gets fun because you get to choose what’s right for you.

There are basically three different ways to add color to a lipstick and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Here we go…

Synthetic Dyes

Synthetic dyes are FD&C or D&C synthetic colorants. You will see them on an ingredient list like; CI 15850 (Red 7 Lake), CI 19140 (Yellow 5 Lake), CI 45410 (Red 28 Lake), CI 73360 (Red 30 Lake), CI 45380 (Red 22 Lake), etc. 

PROS: These colorants deliver the reddest reds and the pinkest pinks. Typically, brands that use these dyes are able to achieve true reds while brands that opt to avoid fall short of true reds. 

CONS: These colors, originally derived from coal tar and now petroleum (1), have been linked to cancer (1), neurotoxicity (2), genotoxicity (2) and concerns with long-term safety (3). Most dyes, including Yellow 5, have been banned in Europe (4). 

CAVEAT (and it’s a big one): These dyes are typically used in very low percentages. They tend to show up last on ingredient lists, which means they make up the smallest volume percentage of that formula, as opposed to castor oil for example, which may show up first and takes up the most volume in that formula. I talked to RMS reps at an event one time and they said they use synthetic dyes in some of their lipsticks in something like .01%—although I can’t remember the exact amount.

Our thoughts are, if you choose a lipstick with synthetic dyes, you’re not instantly *throwing your life away*. There’s a lot to take into consideration like frequency of use, percentages, personal preference, etc. If you want a true red, this is the only ways you are going to get it. And since there are such small percentages of these dyes in even some more ethical beauty lipsticks, the impact is much more nominal. 

RELATED: Synthetic vs. natural ingredients—which one is better for you?

Iron oxides / titanium dioxide / mica

These are natural elements that are found in the earth. You will see them on an ingredient list like: Ecocert iron oxides, Ecocert mica, Ecocert titanium dioxide, iron oxides, mica or titanium dioxide, or by their color codes, like: CI 77891 (for titanium dioxide) or CI 77492 (yellow iron oxide) or CI 77491 (red iron oxide).

PROS: They are natural elements that are generally considered safe to use. 

CONS: When using natural elements like this, there’s the possibility of contamination with heavy metal and other impurities. Some brands will test for this; some won’t. You can always ask. And there are also ethical issues around fair working conditions when it comes to mining natural mica. This is often why many brands will choose to use synthetic mica over natural mica. This is a question you can ask brands too. 

CAVEAT: Some of these natural elements can be sourced Ecocert certified, which ensures these ingredients have been third-party vetted with respect to human health and more. 

RELATED: How to read a beauty label + understand beauty certifications.

Fruits / berries / botanicals 

Fruits and berries meaning literally just that. You will see them on an ingredient list like: alkanet root, elderberries, bilberries (and so on).

PROS: These ingredients are generally considered safe to use. 

CONS: It’s really hard to get a high color intensity when just using fruits and berries. 

CAVEAT: We’ve found one brand that may have cracked the code. (Keep reading!) 

If you’re feeling confused about these ingredients, you’re in good company. Even the certification bodies can’t decide. COSMOS won’t certify an ingredient list with synthetic colorants in it, but Credo Beauty will sell it based on their standards. It’s just another example of how the ethical beauty industry’s standards aren’t regulated, and you need to choose for yourself what you feel comfortable with (we dive more into that convo here). 


15 clean beauty red lipsticks compared 

Swatches of red lipsticks on a woman's arm with labels of their brand name.
All the lipsticks we compared, swatched.

Sooo to help you choose the best clean beauty red lipstick for you, we rounded up 15 of the most popular shades of red and put them to the test here. Let’s first look at allllll the shades compared.


Best pink red lipstick


Best brown red lipstick


Best orange red lipstick


Best true red lipstick


Best matte red lipstick


What’s your go to red lipstick?

xo, lisa in cursive

TNK Team Note: This article contains affiliate links. TNK uses affiliate links as a source for revenue to fund operations of the business and to be less dependent on branded content. TNK stands behind all product recommendations. Still have questions about these links or our process? Feel free to email us.


References

1. Kobylewski, Sarah; Jacobson, Michael F; Toxicology of food dyes; International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health July 2012.

2. Taylor, S.L.; Baumert, J.L.; Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Food Systems, 2014.

3. Nomination background D &C red no. 27 [CASRN 13473-26-2], D&C Red No. 28 [CASRN 18472-87-2]; National Institutes of Health, October 2000.

4. Food dyes; Center of Science in the Public Interest, 2008.

By Lisa Fennessy

Lisa is the founder of The New Knew. Passionate about clean beauty, organic eats and nontoxic lifestyle, Lisa writes to create awareness. Conscious consumerism and informed decisions will impact the marketplace, our health and THE WORLD!

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