The Problem with Today’s Buzzy No-Makeup Makeup Look

The "Five-Minute Face," a version of the popular no-makeup makeup look, is one of the biggest beauty trends today—but it isn’t as easy to achieve as you may think. Here's what to do instead.

Back in 6,000 B.C., Cleopatra helped establish makeup as a signal of wealth. In the 1920s, cosmetics brands used advertisements to encourage women to deem makeup a necessity. But a hundred years later, wearing as little makeup as possible has become a status symbol.

The idea behind this trend is to wear just enough makeup to look like the naturally best version of yourself—and create the look in just a few minutes. There are almost 100 million views of TikTok makeup tutorials tagged with variations of “Five-Minute Face,” each one touting minor spins on the same message: You don’t need a lengthy makeup routine or dozens of products—all you need is a handful to look this fresh-faced! 

Cosmetic companies like the new-ish makeup brand Merit have responded to this demand with a “Five-Minute Morning” collection. The kit includes seven “core” products, the same ones that can be found in most “Five-Minute Face” kits by other brands, including a concealer, brow gel, mascara and a lip tint. The products were created to emphasize your assets, not hide who you are. “Get compliments on your skin, not your makeup,” reads the marketing copy.

Although mastering the look may seem effortless, it’s anything but: Most of the women on social media boasting about wearing only a few makeup products don’t reveal the full picture—specifically, the considerable time and resources they’ve poured into the treatments to achieve it.

“Today’s five-minute face—as modelled by beauty influencers, editors and entrepreneurs—is predicated on the behind-the-scenes beauty work of skin care products, cosmetic procedures and plastic surgeries,” argued journalist Jessica DeFino in “How the ‘5-Minute Face’ Became the $5,000 Face,” which she published on Substack last May. “These days, even injectable procedures like Botox and Juvéderm are marketed as self-care. Minimal makeup, then, is maximal everything else. It’s more masquerading as less.”

Pricey dermatologist visits make the “Five-Minute Face” possible: Laser treatments lighten dark spots, so only a touch of concealer is needed to achieve a clear complexion. Botox lifts the brows, so they’re perfectly shaped long before an eyebrow pencil even approaches them. Lip filler plumps the pout before the lightest swipe of tinted lip oil completes the look. Like Instagram photos that have been doctored by skin-smoothing filters, this sleight-of-hand can be damaging to anyone’s self-confidence.

“It doesn’t do society any good when people aren’t accurately portraying everything that has gone into getting a look,” says Catherine Sabiston, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in body image, mental health and physical activity. Plus, she says, “most of the people displayed are already perpetuating the idealized standards of attractiveness,” meaning they’re youthful, they have symmetrical features and they’re predominantly white.

Case in point: This fall, Melisa Raouf, a 20-year-old contestant in the 2022 Miss England beauty pageant, made headlines for being the first makeup-free participant in the competition’s 94 years. She told the Washington Post she wanted to challenge unrealistic beauty standards. That’s admirable, but Raouf already has the advantages of youth and seemingly flawless skin, so how much is she really pushing back?

Sabiston is passionate about freeing us from the pressure to have a specific face, so we can genuinely appreciate our differences. “If we can challenge those stereotypes,” she says, “we’ll see little shifts in what is considered to be attractive.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to stop wearing makeup if you don’t want to. But instead of aiming for the “Five-Minute Face,” a more attainable option is to use a light hand with makeup to embrace your uniqueness. “It’s really nice to see actual features,” says Simone Otis, a Toronto-based makeup artist. You could play up the features you have by providing a little extra glow and a little extra definition—no dermatological procedures required. This look “is very democratic,” she says. “Everyone could do it.”

Otis likes starting with a tinted moisturizer or serum, as it offers sheer coverage that can help you “look a bit groomed and polished and feel your best,” she says. “I love the idea of a product that has a bit of colour and that will give you warmth, plus has all those good ingredients that can help skin.”

Look for tinted moisturizers or serums with beneficial ingredients, says Otis, such as sunscreen, hyaluronic acid (which can boost skin’s hydration), and vitamin C (which can help brighten skin tone over time). These products will give you some coverage without fully concealing spots or blemishes. And then if you’d like, add whatever else you’d like—brush, brow pencil, tinted lip balm.

Otis believes we’re headed in a promising direction. Companies like 19/99 Beauty, for which Otis works as a makeup artist, feature models with “real” skin, meaning fine lines and wrinkles. What’s more, there are influencers who call themselves “acne-positive” and share photos of their unfiltered, uncovered blemished skin. And, at the Khaite show during New York Fashion Week in September, models were sent down the runway with their dark circles intentionally unconcealed. “It’s as if the brand is saying there’s nothing wrong with dark circles and, actually, there’s almost a mysterious beauty to them,” says Otis.

Does that mean you should stop concealing your dark circles? Not if you don’t want to. But it’s certainly nice to see this shift in the beauty world.

No Makeup Makeup Tinted SerumsImage: Sarah Wright/ Yes And Studio

Our favourite base for a no-makeup makeup look is one of the buzziest products on store shelves today, tinted serum. It offers a sheerer, more natural look than a tinted moisturizer and is typically made with ingredients that are beneficial to skin. Here are our top five picks:

This clean beauty pick by celebrity makeup artist Gucci Westman comes in 20 shades and can help boost hydration, even out skin texture and promote firmness.
Westman Atelier Vital Skincare Complexion Drops, $68 USD, sephora.com

Available in four shades, this drugstore tinted serum is formulated with hyaluronic acid to keep skin hydrated and looking radiant.
True Match Nude Hyaluronic Tinted Serum, $27, shoppersdrugmart.ca

Squalane and hyaluronic acid are the star ingredients in this new tinted serum, which keeps skin from drying out while giving it a little warmth through 10 different shades.
Summer Fridays Sheer Skin Tint with Hyaluronic Acid + Squalane, $55, sephora.com

For a tinted serum that provides light coverage and a natural-looking finish, try this squalene-rich option from Rose Inc, founded by model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. It comes in 14 shades.
Rose Inc Skin Enhance Luminous Skin Tint Serum Foundation, $65, sephora.com

Available in 30 shades, this pick provides light and dewy coverage that leaves skin glowing without any harmful chemicals. It’s formulated with SPF 40 to offer extra protection against the sun.
ILIA Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40 Foundation, $62, sephora.com

Next: The Best Skin Care Routine for Your Age, According to Dermatologists

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada