Update: After publishing this story, we uncovered documents that reveal the company's monetary ties to the Trump administration. Given the current political climate, we feel it's important information to have before making the decision to purchase or sell LipSense products. Read more about it here.
This story was originally published July 1, 2017.
I was standing in a crowded bathroom in Montauk reapplying my red lipstick when my friend from Texas slinked up next to me.
“Have you heard of this new lip topcoat they’re selling down South?” she purred in her thick accent, describing it like some sketchy new drug circulating an underground club scene. “Apparently, it lasts all night — you can even make out with it — and it doesn’t go anywhere. But you can only buy it from certain people."
She pulled up her Facebook feed and we scrolled through video after video of her friends carefully painting the glossy, pigmented stuff on their lips, then wiping them with their hands and taking a bite of food or sipping out of a coffee mug. Not a single trace came off, not even a hint of gloss or color.
Wait, wtf? I can confidently say I've tried just about every “magical” lipstick that's ever hit the market, but I had never seen or heard of anything like this. When I asked my college friends from the Midwest, they said their feeds are also flooded with the videos. But in New York, Los Angeles, and other big cities, most of the people I know had never even heard of it.
So, I tracked down a Facebook friend from Oklahoma where the brand is based, dropped $52 for a pack in the brightest shade, Blu-Red, and fell down the deepest lipstick rabbit hole of my life.
How It Works
Like any other lip kit, Lipsense comes with a set of products: color (there's 50+ to choose from), topcoat (glossy or matte), and remover. Unlike any other lip kit, it requires an undergraduate degree to apply it correctly.
“Start from the right and work to the left, being sure not to go back and forth or you’ll mess up the bonding system. Three coats,” advised Kelley Bennet, my lipstick dealer who watched me carefully as I tried it for the first time in a mirror. The company claims that by applying a first and third coat, you protect the middle second layer — which is what keeps the color lasting 18 hours.
Cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson says there is actually science to back this stuff up. "The key to this product is the Acrylates/Octylacrylamide Copolymer, a very water-resistant film former. It's resistant to quite a few oils as well. It's the same technology used in waterproof mascara and you know how tough it can be to remove mascara!” she says.
What It Feels/Smells/Tastes Like
But that doesn’t mean it necessarily feels great. Sweeping on the first two coats is what I would imagine painting your lips with nail polish would be like: tacky with a slight burning sensation, and a strong (like really strong) chemical smell. Once you smooth on the accompanying lip gloss though, things get much better. Your lips feel moisturized and soft, and you can move, talk, and eat comfortably. And the acetone smell disappears.
I wore the lipstick all day, reapplying the top coat as needed (this is key, otherwise your lips will dry the eff out) and met my boyfriend for drinks. Much to his horror, I went in for a giant kiss right when I saw him — his eyes following my sticky-looking, candy-red lips like a slow-moving train wreck. I showed him his lips in my compact mirror. “What the hell?” he said. (I've found this to be the most common reaction.)
Then I tried the party trick famous among Lipsense sellers: wiping my lips with my fingers. I vigorously rubbed my lips with my hands, then held up my fingers for the rest of the dinner table to see.
They all looked equally impressed and horrified. “Um, is that even safe?” one asked. Great question...
Is It Safe?
Wilson says the ingredients check out from a is-this-going-to-give-me-cancer standpoint. “According to the Safety Data Sheet, it is not expected to be irritating or harmful,” she says.
But after using the product, I have to be honest, my lips were dry and peeling for a couple of days. In an email interview with the brand, they claim the exfoliation actually helps the lips become smoother and plumper in the long run and you’ll get used to it. (This is a line the sellers use as well.) But derms don't exactly agree.
“Overall this looks ok to me, but the high levels of denatured alcohol have the potential to cause skin dryness and irritation in the process of exfoliation,” says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner. “However, you must be careful not to overly exfoliate. Dry, flaky skin — be it on the skin or on the lips — is lacking hydration and aggressive exfoliation can cause irritation and inflammation."
It's the same technology used in waterproof mascara and you know how tough it can be to remove mascara!
Ni'Kita Wilson, cosmetic chemist
How It Comes Off
What goes on must come off, and when this stuff starts moving (which, for me, was about 11 hours in), it’s not pretty. The color fades from the inside of your lips out to the edges, creating this weird, patchy, lipliner tattoo effect that you’ll want to wipe off immediately. And good luck with that.
Remember how Wilson said the main ingredient is resistant to some oils? She wasn't kidding — which is why the fact that they sell an oil-based remover with this is especially befuddling. The little gloss-like wand smelled like honey and vanilla, which is nice but didn't do much to take the lipstick off. I rubbed and scrubbed, and still the color stuck. (At this point, I wondered if all the scrubbing was turning my lips as red as the shade).
Imagine removing gel nail polish. But on your lips.
Is Selling It Safe?
Lipsense, which is part of a beauty brand called SeneGence International founded in 1999, is sold by individual distributers, many of whom claim to be making thousands. Of course, this begs the question, is this all just one giant pyramid scheme?
“By dictionary definition, a scheme just means a plan or program [in a] systematic or organized configuration, which it is," says Priya Malani, founder of Stash Wealth, a financial planning firm. "That said, the definition of pyramid scheme almost always has a negative connotation, so people have their own preconceived notions about how honest these programs are. Sometimes it can feel like 'the house always wins.’”
She warns to not quit your day job expecting to make money overnight or commit to capital you aren’t willing to lose — and make sure you’re comfortable tapping friends and family first to purchase. “As long as you don't have to put your own money in, your risk is limited to your time commitment,” she warns. Judging by the 1.2 million Instagram posts tagged to #lipsense, there's a solid chunk of time being invested.
Since trying Lipsense, I've gone back to it a few times. Between the meticulous application and scrub down, it's a little like Spanx — great for special occasions, but not something you'd necessarily throw on with jeans every day.
That said, if your job as a burlesque performer, actress, or professional greasy salad reviewer calls for impeccable and impenetrable lipstick, by all means, this could be your new savior. And there's more than enough people on Facebook just waiting to introduce you.
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