Holiday Eyeshadow Palettes: How To Choose Them, How To Use Them

It’s everything you ever wanted to know about holiday eyeshadow palettes and were not AT ALL afraid to ask!
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It’s everything you ever wanted to know about holiday eyeshadow palettes and were not AT ALL afraid to ask!

I remember the first makeup palette I ever got. I was 12 or 13, and it was a sleek black case with 15 eyeshadows and five lip gloss circles neatly packed inside it. They weren’t very high-quality products, and the applicators fell apart after one use, but this was what I used to learn about makeup. 

Everything I’m able to show you guys today has its roots in that $10 makeup palette, and the experiments that I made with it. I mean, they weren’t always successful experiments. But I learned even when I failed.

Nowadays, the quality of makeup palettes has increased exponentially. And because it's the season for holiday gifts and gift cards, you’re probably thinking, Holy mackerel, LOOK AT ALL THIS EYESHADOW! Which ones are the best? Which should I buy for other-people-slash-myself? And then how do I use everything once I have them?

I’m so curious!

I’m so curious!

I know you are thinking this, because you guys have emailed me about it. And I am here to help!

It seems that you guys are the most curious about eyeshadow palettes, probably because there are so many colour options. That’s what I’m going to write about today--if you’d like me to tackle lip sets, nailpolish multipacks or even multiple blush kits in the future, sing out in the comments!

Now let’s talk about how to pick the palette that will work for you, how to get all the colours out of your dreams and onto your face, and some of my very favourite quality eyeshadow palettes at several different price points.

STEP 1: Assess your needs.

The first thing to ask yourself is, “What do I need this palette for?” This sounds like a totally duh answer--I need it because makeup is fun--but you gotta get a little deeper than that.

If you answered, “Because I am learning about makeup,” or “I am buying this for someone who is learning about makeup, and I want them to have access to a variety of stuff,” consider a mega-palette with ALL THE COLOURS in it. This is like handing someone the keys to the makeup kingdom--through blending and mixing and general ingenuity, they will have every colour they’ll need to create any look on the planet. I’ve already mentioned how beneficial this was to me and my cosmetic education, so consider going this route if you’re looking to learn, too.

If you answered, “Because I want one item that contains many products that I will use every day,” consider a smaller, high-quality palette in a colour scale that works for YOU. Palettes are great ways to buy ONE thing that fills in a lot of holes in your cosmetics wardrobe, without spending all your dollars purchasing everything separately. I wear a lot of neutrals and browns on my eyes, so I would look for a palette that contains those specific shades. If I were buying this for my mum, I would look for eyeshadows in coppers and golds, because those shades really bring out the richness in her dark eyes. The specifics really depends on you, what you like and your individual colouring.

If you answered “I DON’T KNOW STOP ASKING ME QUESTIONS,” consider a general-purpose palette that has a little bit of everything in it--a range of fun colours, but also a solid grounding in the basics. And keep the receipt in case it’s not quite what you wanted.

What I’m getting at here is that you need to have an idea of what you want your makeup to do before you go looking for a palette. There would be very little point in me buying a giant rainbow palette with 60 shades of blue in it for myself, because I’d never use them. Likewise, I wouldn’t buy my 12-year-old niece a super-expensive palette full of muted browns and greys when she’d rather douse herself in glitter and One Direction perfume. Know your audience, is what I’m saying, even if that audience is yourself.

STEP 2: Figure out your essentials.

Let’s say you’re looking for a solid all-round eyeshadow palette--something that you can use for fun looks, but mostly the every-day-going-to-work grind. How do you know what you’ll need?

Here are my essential ingredients: the eyeshadows that I absolutely cannot live without, and without which any good all-the-time palette is incomplete:

•Matte black and shimmery white. On their own, they are crucial for shading and highlighting, and mixed with other shades they can make a too-light shade deeper, or a too-dark shade lighter. 

•A dark, a medium and a light brown. Preferably matte. The exact shades will be relative to your skin tone, or the skin tone of the gift recipient, so test them out before you buy. 

•A slightly shimmery colour one shade lighter than your skin. This is the base of almost every makeup look. I consider this so important that if you can’t find a palette that gets this right, buy it separately. 

•At least one decent brush. Sponge applicators build character, but they can also be really frustrating. Brushes are best.

These are Wild White (Max Factor), Wedge (MAC), Sable and Dark Chocolate (both Studio Grafix) and a discontinued Urban Decay matte black best duped by Carbon (MAC).

These are Wild White (Max Factor), Wedge (MAC), Sable and Dark Chocolate (both Studio Grafix) and a discontinued Urban Decay matte black best duped by Carbon (MAC).

A helpful tip: A lot of the really big, cheap makeup kits have eyeshadow that’s on the powdery side. This means they’re very easy to blend, but that the colour payoff and staying power isn’t very good. To get around this, buy a good eyeshadow primer if one isn’t included and turn even the cheapest eye colour into long-lasting, pigmented fabulousness. Urban Decay’s primer is considered the gold standard, and I’ve always found it really excellent.

This is a very sheer gold shade with Urban Decay primer (left) and without (right). Pretty dramatic difference!)

This is a very sheer gold shade with Urban Decay primer (left) and without (right). Pretty dramatic difference!)

If you have exceptionally oily skin, though, this primer may not work as well. I am still looking for an excellent shadow primer for you guys, though, and the SECOND I find it, I will let you know all about it.

STEP 3: Look at the finishes.

So let’s say all the colours are right for you, and you’re totally stoked to buy this awesome palette with the gift card Great Aunt Hermione sent you. There’s just one problem: all the colours are really glittery, and you’re a Supreme Court Justice. Should you buy it anyway?

Probably not.

There are products out there that will make shimmery shadows matte, and you can always use a powder highlighter to make matte shades shiny. But you really can’t remove actual GLITTER from eyeshadow. I went out and tested a lot of shadow palettes, and I’ve noticed that this year, extreme shimmer and sparkle is very popular, especially at cheaper price points. Take that into consideration as you shop!

For my money, I consider matte or nearly-matte shadows to be the most versatile. It’s easier to make matte shadows shiny than the other way around. It’s definitely something to consider, no matter who the recipient of your palette will be!

STEP 4: Consider the packaging.

This is more important than you think. A lot of holiday gift sets come in cardboard cases. I can see why: they’re easy to make and cheap to decorate.

And I truly, honestly hate them.

Cardboard cases crease, break, warp and rip. They get dirty and you can’t clean them. They melt when you get them wet. They aren’t very sturdy for travelling. And if they break apart, the shadows are ruined and get all over your stuff. HARD PASS.

In short, those boxes don’t work for my life. Consider whether they work for yours, of if maybe something in a hard plastic case would be better.

So now you have thought about all this stuff, and have a much clearer idea of what you’re looking for in a palette. Excellent! Here are a few of my favourites, just to get you started. As always, my guiding light was “How is the quality?” and well as “Would I buy this with my own money?” so you know for sure that everything here deserves its hype:

Urban Decay, Naked 1, 2 and 3 Palettes, $52 each.

They’re classics for a reason. Urban Decay’s eyeshadows are all superb quality, and these palettes have exceptionally beautiful colours in them. They are all pretty neutral, but if you’re looking for kits that are good for every day, this is where you should start.

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The original Naked palette is full of lovely bronze neutrals. The silver accent shades are amazing and compliment the warm coppers so nicely.

Naked2 is a brown-taupe range that is excellent for creating a wide variety of looks. It’s one of Mari’s favourites, and you know she knows what’s up with her makeup!

Naked3 is new this year and features rosy pink shades that are so gorgeous, I can hardly handle it. Buzz is such a wonderful neutral pink, and Blackheart is INCREDIBLE.

One of my favourite things about these palettes is that they come with a really high-quality, versatile brush. So important! And if $52 is a bit too much for you, there’s also a mini palette called Naked Basics that has six neutral shades with awesome matte finishes. The brown-black (Crave) is especially good for crease-shading and liner.

I wanted to swatch these, but my local Ulta apparently has a very strict rule about photos. Sigh.

I wanted to swatch these, but my local Ulta apparently has a very strict rule about photos. Sigh.

The only issue with these is that a lot of the colours are available in the palette only. So if you really fall in love with a single colour, use it all the time and it runs out before the rest of them do...you’re kind of out of luck. This isn’t a problem limited to Urban Decay, but it’s worth mentioning, because it can be a total heartbreaker.

NYX Cosmetics, basically everything, starting at $6.

I am a big ol’ fan of NYX makeup. Their lipliners are the best that I’ve ever used, and their eyeshadows are fantastic--great quality for the price, with an amazing range of colours. And their holiday selection this year has something for everyone.

Want a complete kit for your little cousin who is just learning about makeup? How about the All I Ever Wanted Box that has 72 eyeshadows in it--oh, and also four blushes, eight light foundations and six lip colours. For $27, you literally cannot go wrong.

The range of shadow shades is amazing. It really is all I ever wanted!

The range of shadow shades is amazing. It really is all I ever wanted!

Rather have something a little more work-appropriate? How about the Nude On Nude palette, which has twenty neutral but pretty eyeshadows that you’d be guaranteed to use on a daily basis (and ten lipsticks). The applicator isn’t great, but at $25 for everything, you can afford to pick up a really good brush.

This is legit impressive. The lip colours are also pretty decent.

This is legit impressive. The lip colours are also pretty decent.

When I was testing this at Ulta, I noticed that a lot of these shades are really similar to ones found in the first two Urban Decay Naked palettes. I’m not sure I’d call them dupes exactly because the NYX shadows aren’t quite as long-wearing and a little more shimmery, but you could comfortably compare the formulas and not be disappointed.

I checked at my local Target, and they had EVEN MORE sets. I could not find a flaw with a single one--the shadows are all high-quality with an excellent range and variety of colours, and the prices are so, so right.

Seriously. Expensive brands: You are on notice. NYX is coming for you.

MAC Build-Your-Own Palette, $22 - $312.

This is one of my favourite things in the world: Certain stand-alone MAC stores and the MAC website allow you to take their entire range of colours and build your own eyeshadow palette.

Don’t mind me, just designing my dream palettes for several hours.

Don’t mind me, just designing my dream palettes for several hours.

It’s magical. Pick 2, or 4, or 15, or 30 of your favourite colours, pop them into the high quality black plastic case, and you’ve got your own custom palette. No worrying about buying six “eh” shades to get the ones you really love, or teeny tiny sizes that run out quickly: These are full-sized eyeshadows in a professional quality case.

Fun, right?

Fun, right?

The downside to this is that it gets expensive fast. This isn’t something you’d put together just to test out some new colours, or let your kid play with. But if you already know your favourite MAC shadow shades, this represents a pretty sweet deal--instead of costing $15 each, the colours are only $10. Buying in bulk, guys. It works out.

Cargo, Let’s Meet in Paris palette, $39.

This one surprised me, but this palette totally rules. A good selection of basics? Check. Some more fun colours to play with that are also really wearable? Check. Really awesome colour payoff? Check. Works on a variety of skin tones? Check check check. 

If you’re especially looking for colours with which to create amazing smoky eyes, this is totally what you should buy.

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My ONLY criticism is that the packaging could be better. It’s a little flimsy. But that’s outweighed by how good the colours themselves are, so that will tell you how much I liked it.

Lancome Color Design All-In-One 5 Eyeshadow and Liner Palette, $49.

These are my favourite palettes of all time, and they’re available year-round. 

There are 26 combinations in this line, and they are all so beautifully coordinated and wearable that once you get one, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

This is Taupe Craze, which I’ve been using constantly since I bought it. It’s got the cute Alber Elbaz decoration on the case, too.

This is Taupe Craze, which I’ve been using constantly since I bought it. It’s got the cute Alber Elbaz decoration on the case, too.

The shadows are wonderful--rich and pigmented and, like everything Lancome makes, a pleasure to put on your face. The liner, which I wasn’t expecting to like as much as I did, applies really easily and gives great colour payoff with lots of blendability.

My mum is also a huge fan of these palettes, as the shadow doesn’t feather into mature skin or bunch up in her eyelid creases. They’re also easy to use and come with little mini makeup lessons, which she appreciates. When I asked her if she thinks this would be a good present for mums, she said, “Yes, if she likes makeup.”

(Later she added, “But I think it would be really nice if you told your readers to take their mothers to the Lancome counter and help her pick one out.” I think she’s giving me a hint, you guys.)

Again, these aren’t the cheapest in the world--about $10 per shadow and liner. But if you’re looking for a beautiful palette filled with flattering, gorgeous colours, this is a really good place to start.

I liked a lot more palettes, but these are the ones I was most impressed by and would be totally willing to spend my own money on. Hopefully, now that you have some guidelines, you’ll be able to use some of your own wisdom and pick out the palettes or sets that are right for you. 

Just be sure you test the eyeshadows first, OK? Like you, I was seduced by the “SIX HUNDRED SHADOWS FOR TEN DOLLARS” sets in a few stores, but when I tried them out, the quality was terrible. I’d have been better off saving my money and putting it towards one of the NYX palettes. The most expensive makeup you’ll ever buy is that stuff that you never wear.

So now we have THAT sorted out, and you have your palette. How can you use these amazing colours that you just bought?

As usual, the general rule is that you should use dark colours for shadows and light colours for highlights. This applies no matter where you’re working on the colour wheel. 

I hope you are excited for a big picture of my eye to demonstrate what I mean, because BAM:

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I’ve used black to show where the very darkest colours should go, purple to show where the medium colours should be and yellow for the highlight shades. You aren’t limited to those colours--thank goodness--but this is still the general map for placement that you should be using.

Of course, these rules aren’t immutable laws. Once you’ve gained confidence with the basic forms, you can experiment. Get crazy with it! See what works and what doesn’t! Take some selfies and post them on instagram for other xoniverse people to see! If something really, really fails, you can just wash it off. That’s the beauty of cosmetics.

Brights can be especially intimidating. How about using a fluffy brush and doing a light wash of colour across your eyelid? This is a super-bright purple that I made less intense by adding a wash of sheer shimmery white overtop. If you use a light hand, brights are totally chic and beautiful rather than crazy.

This is a Lancome Colour Design eyeshadow called Purple Pumps with a thin veil of white shimmer shadow overtop to cut the vividness a little.

This is a Lancome Colour Design eyeshadow called Purple Pumps with a thin veil of white shimmer shadow overtop to cut the vividness a little.

You can also blend a couple colours together. I like coppers and pinks, so why not fade them into one another for a gorgeous ombre? Blending is, as always, your friend. If you need more guidance to step up your blending game, check out my well-referenced article here.

The pink is Make Up For Ever Star Powder in Pink-Gold. The copper is another Lancome shade in Hotness.

The pink is Make Up For Ever Star Powder in Pink-Gold. The copper is another Lancome shade in Hotness.

Another awesome thing you can do is mix a teeny bit of contact lens solution into your eyeshadow--we’re talking a couple drops, max--mix it up with a thin brush, and turn it into eyeliner. I was using plain water originally, but a couple of you suggested this trick and it’s AMAZING. 

Now you have a million amazing rainbow shades of liner possibility! The sky is the limit, guys!

The blue-green shade is Bloom Cosmetics eye shadow in Lagoon. The matte lime green is a no-name brand that I picked up from the clearance bin at Walgreens several years ago, and works surprisingly well as liner. I cut my crease with bareMinerals eyecolour in True Gold. Then I wanted some more fun, so I underlined everything with silver Urban Decay Heavy Metal glitter liner. TAH DAH!

The blue-green shade is Bloom Cosmetics eye shadow in Lagoon. The matte lime green is a no-name brand that I picked up from the clearance bin at Walgreens several years ago, and works surprisingly well as liner. I cut my crease with bareMinerals eyecolour in True Gold. Then I wanted some more fun, so I underlined everything with silver Urban Decay Heavy Metal glitter liner. TAH DAH!

I also wrote about some work-appropriate (but still fun) makeup styles here, which is a good place to start being creative. Try them out! Switch up the colours and make them yours! Stare at pictures in magazines and try to recreate the makeup on your face! Makeup is a skill, sure, but it’s also really really fun. It’s even OK to screw up sometimes, as long as you figure out what went wrong afterwards.

Woooooh, what a post! We’ve covered a lot of ground today! Are you guys looking to buy makeup palettes this year? Which have you tried and loved? Which did you find weren’t worth the money? Would you like me to talk about any other multiple sets in the future? Do you have any other palette questions? ASK AWAY, and I (and the rest of the community) will do our best to help you! 

And also: An important announcement! At the behest of you wonderful people, I’ve made a public Facebook page. Is it weird if I tell you to go “like” me? I don’t know, but now you can! HERE is the page. ARE WE FRIENDS YET?