The Rise & Fall Of The Eyeshadow Palette

Photo: Courtesy of Anastasia.
We seem to be drowning in excess more than ever: too much content, too many TikTok trends, too many things. For beauty in particular, it’s become apparent that the age of indulgence (likely sparked by the early stages of YouTube hauls) may be quietly sunsetting itself. 
Frequent “What I’m not gonna buy” posts in the infamous r/BeautyGuruChatter subreddit are an indicator of which beauty products people are choosing to leave on the shelves, for example, while a new era of de-influencing pulls back the curtain on viral products that influencers claim have changed their life (that day). 
If social media is anything to go by, the once-beloved makeup palette appears to have taken the biggest hit in our era of beauty fatigue. TikTokers often film themselves throwing out dozens of expired palettes they have barely touched, while eyeshadow palettes often feature in influencer Maddie Peed’s popular TikTok series, “Makeup brands I’m 99.9% sure nobody uses anymore.” 
But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the palette was the beauty industry’s version of the latest It bag. Just like the Dyson Airwrap today, makeup palettes like Too Faced Semi Sweet Chocolate Bar, Urban Decay Naked Smoky Palette, and Anastasia Beverly Hills Master Palette by Mario became status symbols in their own right. It was a serious flex to own a little slice of a viral brand beloved by celebrities and makeup artists alike. To that end, we demanded more and more from beauty brands — and they responded tenfold.
But it feels as though change is in the air. We’re eight months into 2023, and while there have been hundreds of shiny new beauty product launches, it has been pretty quiet on the makeup palette front. In January, Morphe Beauty — a brand that was leading the charge in palettes — revealed they would be closing all of their US stores. There was also the uproar when brands discontinued beloved palettes — we all know where we were when we found out the Urban Decay Naked palette would be laid to rest. Brands that used to pride themselves on Instagram-worthy colour combinations and innovative finishes are moving on to multi-use sticks and do-all balms, and it feels like the palette launches we have seen aren’t sparking any fires when it comes to palette choices, themes, or even formulas. The same old, same old, isn’t quite doing it for us anymore. So, is this the beginning of the end of the once-cherished makeup palette? What exactly is missing from the pan?

Makeup palettes are wasteful — period

Many beauty enthusiasts are coming to realise that they may never get through all of the palettes they have bought in recent years. In a Reddit thread titled 'Has the eyeshadow palette craze died down?', posters hint at feeling overwhelmed by the countless makeup palettes that flooded the market in the late 2010s #shelfie era. A lot of people are still trying to get through the Urban Decay Naked Palettes they bought years ago, says one Redditor, who suggests the market is highly saturated. In the same thread, another Redditor admits that from 2020 to 2021, they threw away 35 expired eyeshadow palettes bought between 2017 and 2019. It’s little wonder, then, that many makeup enthusiasts who collected these palettes now have buyer's remorse. 
Green Circle data suggests the North American beauty industry contributes 877 pounds of waste to landfills every minute, and the British Beauty Council estimates that 95% of cosmetic packaging is thrown away. While those numbers aren’t specific to makeup palettes, it’s time to say the quiet part out loud: they are inherently wasteful. It’s a nice idea to think we’re all sitting around breaking down our palettes piece by piece, but let’s be real. Depending on what your palette is made of, the packaging can be hard to recycle, mainly due to the many individual components. Magnets and mirrors need to be recycled separately. Environmental charity Earth Day warns that anything smaller than a credit card is too small to be recycled. This, then, disqualifies the multiple, individual pans inside most eyeshadow and face palettes on the market currently.   
Happily, thanks to companies like TerraCycle and MAC, it’s now easier for consumers to drop off their empties in stores. Eyeshadow compacts, for example, are accepted on the Maybelline Makeup Recycling Programme, as are clean, empty compacts at MAC. The brand claims that anything that cannot be recycled is turned into energy. Certainly, beauty brands are making big strides in sustainability, but the anti-waste movement is making an even bigger noise. 
Aleena Khan, co-founder of CTZN Cosmetics, says, “With our generation’s heightened awareness of the negative environmental impacts of overconsumption, brands are being held accountable for creating and gifting excessive products that are deemed unnecessary or would never be used by a recipient.” This has changed the way we shop, says Meg Lim, Credo Beauty’s senior colour merchant. “Customers are now more focused on sustainability than ever before, and don’t need a whole range of colours to achieve the look they like or a palette with shades they may not want,” she says. Makeup palettes can certainly feel excessive given that it’s unlikely you’ll use every single shade provided equally — or even at all.  
The cost of living crisis has forced us to rethink what we spend our money on, too. Risking £50 on a palette only to use one shade is no longer feasible or realistic. As well as this, makeup enthusiasts report feeling cheated into buying palettes that repeat shades from previous launches. Brands whose new palettes sold out in record time three years ago now seem to receive the heaviest critiques online, such as Pat McGrath Labs and Charlotte Tilbury. 

Is the makeup palette dead?

Jess Varney, head of consumer products at global beauty manufacturer, Atelier, believes the beginning of the end of the makeup palette can be pinpointed to the launch of Glossier in 2014. The brand’s mantra — “skin first, makeup second” — was a far cry from the unrealistic glamor that the beauty industry had thrust onto consumers. Suddenly, easy, minimal looks usurped the intricate, airbrushed makeup that previously dominated social media feeds. 
The pandemic has also changed our outlook on makeup. Data from a 2022 study showed a significant decline in the use of makeup compared with pre-pandemic levels. In a similar vein, makeup sales decreased from 2019 to 2022. Sophie Shab, a makeup artist best known as Trendmood on Instagram, hints that the slowness of the pandemic may have reignited the natural makeup trend. Now, we tend to “favour products that are quick to apply and lend a natural, radiant look,” says Shab. It makes sense: When plans were canceled and we were forced to spend more time at home, many of us simply weren’t fashioning architectural cut creases with ombré effects. “Most of us have simplified our looks, especially during the pandemic,” wrote one Redditor in the aforementioned thread on how maximalist palettes are falling out of favour. Another suggested that skincare and base products are more likely purchases versus makeup palettes, simply due to how the pandemic impacted makeup usage.
It could be argued that the pandemic killed the “I want it to say I have it” energy, too. A lot of people lost their jobs, others were furloughed for indeterminate amounts of time, making saving money more of a priority than ever before. And of course, we weren’t exactly going anywhere, so we didn’t need to flex to our friends quite as much — it became kind of gauche. It wasn’t long ago that brands like Urban Decay and Too Faced would launch one limited-edition eyeshadow palette for the holiday season. It would create such a buzz and sell out immediately, prompting beauty lovers to stalk eBay and reselling websites to try and get one. 
Following the minimal beauty trend, multi-use makeup sticks that make it easy to swipe and blend without worrying about how steady your hand is or which brushes to use (not to mention when to wash them) have soared in popularity. Doubling up as eyeshadow, blush, lipstick, and more, you get all the benefits from a palette, and then some. 
Clinique Chubby Sticks have been a staple in the makeup bags of beauty editors for years, while Nudestix’s burgeoning collection is adored by makeup artists and celebrities like Sofia Richie. But as with most makeup trends these days, the TikTok beauty community has propelled the multi-use makeup stick to new heights. ILIA Multi-Stick, Charlotte Tilbury Easy Lip & Cheek Wand, and Milk Makeup Lip and Cheek Tint are just a handful of multi-use makeup products with viral TikTok status. “I’m a fan of anything that allows for ease and practicality, without feeling intimidated, or that you have to have a level of makeup expertise to partake in a fun product,” says Khan.
On one hand, our current obsession with “quiet luxury” — a new age of minimalism — is fuelling the trend for subtle makeup and effortless, multi-purpose products such as these. “It’s self-expression through subtlety, as excess and ostentation seen in the 2010s takes a back seat,” says Varney. But if social media is anything to go by, we’re simultaneously heading back to the ‘90s era of imperfect, messy, smudged makeup, and multi-purpose makeup sticks can help achieve that look easily, too. Tayaba Jafri, global beauty director at Laura Mercier, explains that the texture is why makeup products like these are so hot right now. “The ease of use is the biggest benefit,” she says. “When you can just swipe, blend, and go, it feels more achievable for those who are less ambitious with makeup.” 
Space is an issue, too. While makeup palettes are fun and beautiful, they’re often not conducive as we transition to a more remote, on-the-go lifestyle. “Now that we’re all out and about, where does that palette fit in?” asks Sarah Brown, executive director of Violet Grey's Violet Lab. “You want something you can throw in your bag and touch up as you go.” When our living areas are becoming smaller and storage is few and far between, one Redditor asks, “How are some of you storing your 30+ eyeshadow palettes?” 
Angela Neal, senior director of product innovation for Victoria Beckham Beauty, swears by eyeshadow sticks. “The wear insurance you get with a shadow stick versus a traditional powder palette is unmatched,” she says. Most users apply the stick directly on their eyelids and use their fingers to smudge out the shadow up toward the brow bone or clean out for a wing effect. One pro tip is to apply the shadow stick to your finger, then dab it onto your eyelids from there — your finger warms up to the product and helps with ease of application.
So, have we reached peak palette? Not everyone agrees. Shab points out that the limited edition Danessa Myricks Beauty Lightwork IV Transcendence Palette and the Anastasia Beverly Hills’ Cosmos Eyeshadow Palette, have proven to be incredibly popular among her Instagram followers. Varney concurs that palettes still hold a place in the hearts of makeup enthusiasts who cherish the artistry and possibilities they offer, but going forward, it’s all about customisation. “Eyeshadow palettes are no longer seen as the ultimate status symbol and instead, consumers seek purposeful curation, versatility, and innovative formulas that align with their desire for a streamlined and mindful beauty routine,” she says. Brands like Half Magic and Colourpop allow shoppers to select their own preferred shades to make a palette that’s entirely their own.
Listen, it’s okay if you haven’t touched your makeup palette in months — you’re not alone. It’s also okay to hold onto one solely because you like exactly three out of 15 — whatever works for you. But if you should ever find yourself wishing you could get the time back you spent cleaning your multiple eyeshadow brushes, maybe it’s time to put them down and get to smudging. 
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series