What Moving to London Taught Me About Makeup and Diversity

Updated 04/18/19

When anyone goes on vacation to faraway cities like Paris, Madrid, or Seoul, they might want to go to a restaurant or a play, but for me? All I want is to go to the nearest makeup counter. Because I, Courtney Gilfillian, am a certified beauty junkie. So when I moved to London for grad school in 2015, I was super excited to go to the British pharmacies and buy all the exotic makeup. As a student, I didn’t have the same budget as I did when I was employed full-time, but the UK drugstores seemed like they’d offer the perfect solution.

That is, until I discovered how difficult it was to find makeup shades that suited me as a woman of color.

As many epic beauty struggles do, it all started with concealer. I have some discoloration on my face, and during my first week in London, I was on the hunt for a thick concealer that would fit my skin tone. I have medium to deep skin with yellow undertones, and I usually wear foundation shades that are right in the middle, which are fairly easy to find in the United States, even at the drugstore. There are definitely many women of color darker than I am. But to my dismay, my local Superdrug and Boots didn’t have concealers dark enough even for my skin.

I scoured Rimmel, Sleek, Essence, Lottie, and the bigger brands like Maybelline and L’Oréal. For them, “Beige,” the darkest color they had on offer, could be a highlighter for me. What was even more disheartening was when I discovered that some of my favorite, slightly more niche drugstore brands like Nyx were sold at exclusively at Selfridges, an expensive department store. (Oh, and did I mention there’s no Sephora in London?) I was left confused: Why were black women not represented in the makeup aisles of one of the most international cities in the world?

Makeup Brands for Dark Skin
Courtney Gilfillian

I remember being especially frustrated one afternoon when I was trying to find a flesh-toned setting powder. (In the London rain, my makeup often melted off, and I needed a solution.) However, all the setting powders available were light pink or very light brown. I ran into the same problem when I wanted to set my cream contour with a darker warm brown powder. I came up empty-handed. Hunting for the perfect beauty product was once one of my favorite activities (if you love makeup as much as I do, I’m sure you can relate).

But in London, something that was supposed to be the highlight of my week after long days at the library only made me sad and discouraged.

Why were black women not represented in the makeup aisles of one of the most international cities in the world?

British Makeup
Style Laboratory

Hope seemed all but lost until a little Yelp research led me to a side of the beauty market I had never known before: Professional makeup stores. My first stop was Kryolan, a shop in London’s West End Theatre District where pro makeup artists go to find the best swag. The drugstore seemed like child’s play compared to this place, whose inventory boasted everything from liquid glitter to fake teeth to makeup shades that actually matched my skin.

What was even better was that since Kryolan caters to professionals, you could buy refills of products, which are less expensive than full-price items. I got a small pot of concealer that matched my skin for five dollars and change. But Kryolan was a special treat because the makeup, brushes, lashes, and glitter were all expensive. I wanted to be able to take a short walk and go to my local drugstore.

There was one other makeup venue in London where I was able to find makeup for my skin. One day I was watching an English beauty guru on YouTube, and she mentioned that IMATS was coming to London the following weekend. IMATS is the International Makeup Artist Trade Show, and anyone can go, so I immediately jumped online and bought a ticket.

At IMATS, I saw women of every color and brands from Velour Lashes to Artist of Makeup London. For a beauty junkie with dark skin, this place felt like home.

Nude for women of color is not a shade of pale pink or peach—it’s brown.

Kryolan Ultra Foundation Palette $140
Shop

What’s disappointing, though, is that I shouldn’t have to go to specialized stores and makeup trade shows to find a makeup shades dark enough for my skin tone. I want what the fair-skinned Londoners have—to able to take a short walk, go to my local drugstore, and delight in the launches of new contour palettes and cushion foundations.

I shouldn’t have to search the city tirelessly for setting powders that don’t make me look like a ghost or lipstick shades that make my perfect “nude.” Because guess what? Nude for women of color is not a shade of pale pink or peach—it’s brown. That’s what we need in drugstores: More shades of brown, not six shades of Ivory, Vanilla, Beige, Pale Peach, Cream, and then one shade of Chocolate. If professional makeup stores can catch up, so can the rest of the industry.

The lack of drugstore makeup for women of color in the UK means that someone sitting at their desk at a makeup company didn’t think about England’s large ethnic population. The U.S. at least has L’Oreal True Match and Maybelline Fit Me, foundation ranges that promise to match every skin tone—though there’s still so much room for improvement in the U.S. One day I hope there is a happy medium of both professional and high-street cosmetic markets. I’d take that over glitter eye shadow any day.

The Flipside

Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so... welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation, too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here, on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.

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