What it is: Colorful, painterly, hyperpigmented eye makeup in shades both neon and muted. Sometimes it’s applied in a swath across the eyelids, sometimes it’s the basis for unexpected swoops and streaks, and sometimes it’s the accent on an otherwise standard look. It can be precise or a little messy, like a rogue brush stroke on a canvas. But matte, opaque formulations, as opposed to shimmery or sparkly ones, are key here.
Where it is: All over Instagram, but also the faces of celebrities like Rihanna and Kendall Jenner. While looks like these have long existed in beauty editorials and on runways — both spaces for daring makeup — they’re now thriving out in the real world. They say print is dead, so maybe Instagram is the new fashion spread.
Why you’re seeing it everywhere: This is a story about a beauty trend, but it’s also a story about a certain Sephora eyeliner. I was recently struck by the urge to acquire a matte eye shadow in some challenging shade of pale green, specifically the kind of chalky, queasy green you’d see in a painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. At a Sephora store in midtown Manhattan, I found my perfect shade and formulation: A jumbo eye pencil in “Fresh Limeade,” which can be applied as an eyeliner or an eyeshadow. The only problem was the store was sold out of it. I went to another Sephora downtown. Same thing. Apparently, I was extremely late to the party.
It was one of those occasions where I was reminded that though we may think our stylistic impulses are totally novel — who would ever think to wear an eye crayon in such an unusual color? — they are not. (As if Sephora is not a giant corporation with gobs of data about people’s beauty habits and desires.) I wanted Fresh Limeade because everyone was already wearing some version of it. It had simply reached the critical mass necessary for someone like me, a person who is not a beauty risk taker, to jump on board.
Suddenly, Fresh Limeade was everywhere I looked. While reporting this story, I learned that Rebecca Jennings, a culture reporter at The Goods, had also tried and failed to buy it. (“I was about to go to Miami and was very much looking forward to having a neon green liner moment, yet was foiled by multiple Sephoras,” she tells me.) On a recent episode of my favorite beauty podcast, Glowing Up, co-host Caroline Goldfarb, a writer on The Late Late Show With James Corden, sang the praises of Fresh Limeade, which she got at Sephora’s VIB Sale.
Chelsea Moylan fully beat me to it. A former YouTube beauty vlogger, she now owns a clothing store in San Francisco called Anomie. Moylan frequently uses herself as an e-commerce model, and when she’s shooting product photos, she often applies that same lime green Sephora eye pencil, or a similar shade from the brand Nyx.
“It actually goes with everything,” she explains. “There’s something about that pukey, citrusy green color that literally goes with everything. I can do a super pared-down, earthy [clothing] look, or I can do other bright colors and it complements them.”
This trend is much bigger than a single Sephora eyeliner — sales data for which the company declined to share with me — and Sephora isn’t the only one catering to, or amplifying, shoppers’ interest in it. On May 10, Rihanna’s influential Fenty Beauty brand dropped a range of neon eyeliners (and lipsticks) in summery shades like lime, papaya, and a blue that perfectly mimics a swimming pool in high summer. When Glossier, known for its minimalist approach to makeup, launched a secondary color cosmetics line called Glossier Play in March, it did so armed with eyeliners in shades of mustard, magenta, and moss green.
Eye makeup looks often aim for some degree of naturalism, as with a “smoky eye” created from a tonal range of brown or black eyeshadows, but the movement toward in-your-face color is all about artifice and playfulness. Color-focused brands like 3INA (pronounced “Mina”) and Suva Beauty offer customers all manner of eyeshadows ideal for creating the look, which figures heavily on their Instagram feeds. 3INA, which was founded in Madrid in 2016, says that its intensely pigmented cream eye shadow is a best-seller in the eye makeup category, with interest in it continuing to grow today. This formulation also happens to be “the easiest way” to create a painterly, colorful look.
“Bold colored makeup is definitely having its moment right now and [the] monochromatic look is also a hot trend,” a 3INA representative said in an email. “You don’t have to be a makeup pro to recreate it: just choose the color of your mood today and apply it on your eyelids with fingertips or a synthetic makeup brush.”
Moylan’s Instagram is filled with photos of her everyday outfits — selling clothing is, after all, her job — and with them, an ever-changing wash of color on her eyelids, ranging from turquoise to canary yellow and brick red. Everyone has their own way of adapting a look, and while Moylan tends to go for a full eyelid of color, her friend Lillian Ahenkan, a DJ and MTV presenter based in Australia, mixes things up with a graphic bow of color arching across her lid or slashes of mismatched neon eyeliner. The makeup artist Katie Jane Hughes has posted photos of herself wearing dashes of bright green eyeliner or a soft mustard yellow hazeemanating from the inner corner of her eye.
Moylan started getting into hyperpigmented, pastel, brightly colored eyeshadow last year, and she links it to a wider resurgence of “Lisa Frank ’90s vibes” happening in fashion and visual culture. Cases in point: a 2017 Kickstarter to create a kaleidoscopic Lisa Frank makeup line and a revival of the teen brand Delia’s, in all of its ’90s glory, by the e-commerce company Dolls Kill. For Moylan, that means wearing a yellow Marc Jacobs Highliner with a purple sweater, or an eye shadow that picks up the green stripes on a shirt.
“It feels so fun, and like a return to being a kid,” she says.
Millennials do seem to have a strong interest in revisiting the markers of their childhoods, as evidenced by the abundance of rainbow fashion and accessories on the market and by the emergence of the term “kidulting.” But even among brands that don’t seize on nostalgia, we’re seeing refreshingly bright colors coming to the fore — notably, neon green — as with fast fashion brands like Asos, the up-and-coming French label Marine Serre, and establishment player Balenciaga. Hughes, the makeup artist, also believes that the way people are using bright colors on their eyes at the moment has a certain level of sophistication to it.
“When I think of neons and bright pigments on the eyes, I think of the ’80s,” she says. “I think now we’re doing it in a much more refined, stylized way. It’s a minimal little tweak of color here or there, a little dash or line or dot, as opposed to a blown-out, smoky version.”
Though this look is proliferating, it still feels fresh and unique. Indeed, Ahenkan, who has 34,500 followers on Instagram, made a conscious move toward bright, artistic eye makeup last year as a way of defining her personal brand.
“I was thinking about easy ways to differentiate my ‘look’ for TV/video/DJ-ING/hosting and came to the conclusion that investing the majority of my income on clothing and footwear wasn’t smart or sustainable,” she writes in an email. “The move to pigmented, colourful hair and makeup was my strategic and fiscal way to brand myself, but also have the agency to transform easily.”
This makeup style is ultimately a case study in how we sway each other on social media: While Ahenkan has no doubt influenced the tastes of her followers, she in turn draws on beauty-focused Instagram accounts like @v93oo. Hughes points to the even wider influence of celebrities like Kendall Jenner, whose apparent love of neon green has translated into her makeup choices. We see other people taking big swings, and eventually, whether we realize the forces guiding us or not, we believe that we too can take the plunge.