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What in My Makeup Bag Is Truly Essential? A Minimalist Guide

I’ll be honest. I am not a makeup minimalist at home. But when I travel with only a bag, you bet I’ve paired it down to the essentials.

In this post, we’ll talk about the categories of makeup and how you can decide what’s actually necessary. That way, we can make sure you can cobble together the perfect bag for your needs!

Now, if you want to see an example of a basic makeup bag before reading the rest of the article…

What in my makeup bag is truly essential? Here’s a list:

  • Foundation
  • Concealer
  • Setting spray
  • A small blush, bronzer, and highlight palette
  • Mascara
  • An eyelash curler
  • An eyebrow pencil
  • A complexion brush
  • A multitasking eye brush
  • Eye primer
  • A small, versatile eyeshadow palette
  • A lipstick
  • A lipgloss
My makeup bag spilling out my essential products
Here’s what’s in my bag

That’s just an example of one person’s results after picking and choosing from the categories below.

So let’s talk about those categories to determine what your makeup bag will look like.

We’ll start with complexion products.

Pick and Choose Your Complexion Essentials

“Complexion” here will cover all the makeup that goes on your face.

Here’s what most people would call part of a core collection. I’ll discuss the finer points of why they might be need-to-haves or just nice-to-haves, depending on who you are.

Primer

Probably not essential

If you have a primer that you absolutely love and that delivers results you can’t live without, you can go ahead and call this an essential for you. But there’s no primer in my makeup bag.

Here are some reasons why:

  • Moisturizing is often prep enough.
  • You can take care of longevity with a setting spray (see below).

Primer is essential for some people, but it’s worth thinking twice about whether or not it’s essential for you.

Sponge or Complexion Brush

Probably not essential

I bring a brush because it’s hard to put on powder foundation without it. But before you take up room in your bag with one, consider this. Makeup goes on best when it’s warmed, and what’s the best warming tool we have on hand (no pun intended)? It’s our fingers! And bonus—they’re free.

Don’t toss out your fingers as an option just because it’s what you used when you tried out makeup as a preteen. Test it out and see if it works for you. It could be that you don’t need a complexion brush or sponge taking up room in your makeup bag.

Foundation

Essential

If you don’t wear foundation, obviously you can skip this one. But most people prefer to have at least a little coverage to even out skin tone, if nothing else.

Maybe it’s a light BB cream. Maybe you prefer a full coverage beat. Or maybe you’d rather bring a concealer and just use that for foundation. For me, it’s powder foundation all the way—quick, easy, and never any patchiness or blending problems.

Keep in mind that, if you’re packing for travel, places have different water and you may be using different products for skin care (minis or travel-specific items). These things can cause problems with your skin that you’d like to cover. That’s why I would call foundation a true essential for most people.

Concealer

Essential

Concealer is core to most people’s routines because of its ability to cancel out undereye darkness. I personally don’t use concealer on the daily, but I have it in my bag for emergencies, like a nasty breakout. You never know when concealer is going to be a lifesaver.

Pick out one the same color as your skin so you don’t wind up drawing attention to any problems that pop up—you don’t need one concealer for brightening and one for spot concealing when you’re sticking to the need-to-haves.

Setting Spray

Not essential unless you didn’t choose a primer

I’d argue this is an essential if you have long days where the last thing you want is to worry about is your makeup. I find that Urban Decay’s All Nighter (link to Ulta) setting spray makes it so I can have an epic day with zero stress, as far as my makeup goes. No one has time to deal with touch ups or reblending broken-down foundation.

That  being said, if you added a primer you love to your makeup bag, you can probably skip the setting spray. Remember, though—primer only sets the makeup that goes on top of it, so you won’t be sealing in your eye look.

Bronzer, Blush, and Highlight

Probably not essential, but great to have in a small palette

Again, this is subjective. If bronzer is your favorite thing in the world, pack one in that bag! If you have a small highlighter that you could wear every day, into the bag it goes! And many can’t imagine life without blush. If that’s you, don’t let me stop you.

I don’t depend on these things, but I like them, and I’ve found it most convenient to bring a face palette with blush, highlighter, and bronzer all in one. My makeup bag palette is the Dior Backstage Glow Face Palette (link to Sephora). If a high shine blush makes you skeptical, you might want to consider something a little more matte, like Midas Cosmetics’ Dusk to Dawn palettes (link to Midas). They have great options for deeper skin tones, too—a rare thing in the face palette world.

My Dior Backstage Glow Face Palette with bronzer, blush and highlighter
My Dior Backstage Glow Face Palette

Pick and Choose Your Brow Essentials

All right. Time to move to an important, eye framing element: your brows. What to pack in the bag for those sisters-not-twins?

Pencil, Powder, Gel, or Pomade

Essential

Unless you have big, beautiful, full brows naturally (or if you’re microbladed), you’ll want to shape and fill them with something in the pencil, powder, gel, or pomade category. Bonus if a tinted gel works well for you; you’ll get both the filling effect of the color and the hold of a gel.

If you’re a beginner, just choose a simple pencil. That’s still the thing I always come back to, as it’s the most no-brainer option.

Pick and Choose Your Eye Essentials

Okay, let’s move to the eyes!

Mascara

Absolutely essential

If there’s one thing that really makes a difference, it’s mascara. It brings your eyes forward and sets the stage for any additional eye makeup you want to put on…or not put on. Some days, a simple coat of mascara and some lip gloss is just the perfect look for how you’re feeling.

This is something you can’t forget to put in your makeup bag, in my opinion.

Eyelash Curler

Probably not essential

Very few people need to use a curler on the daily. Unfortunately, I’m one who does, and if you have downward-pointed lashes, you know the pain. Curlers are essential for us.

But if you’re like the majority, you naturally have some lift to your lashes. That means a good mascara will do you just fine without the assistance of a curler. Lucky you, because those curlers take up a lot of space in a makeup bag!

Eyeliner

Probably not essential

Unless you dislike the way you look without it, you can probably pass on eyeliner. Yes, eyeliner does enhance your pretty peepers. And it doesn’t take up much space, so you aren’t wasting a lot of capital if you throw one in your makeup bag. But you can use eyeshadow as liner by wetting it and minimize the number of products in your bag that way.

Eye Primer

Probably not essential

It’s very common these days to use concealer as primer. If that appeals to you, that would mean you can use something already in your bag and save on space. It’s especially a good option if you have normal to dry skin.

Take caution, though. Concealer doesn’t promise longevity for the color products you put on top of it. And if you have oily skin, concealer will break down on your lids and leave you needing to do some removal or serious touchups in a few hours.

I have oily lids, and I wouldn’t be without an eye primer in my bag.

Before just assuming concealer will work as primer, take it for a test run one day.

Eyeshadow

Probably not essential but great to have

It seems like the whole world is head over heels for eyeshadow, especially palettes. So while this product isn’t completely essential, it’s arguably the most fun part of doing your makeup. Many wouldn’t consider leaving it out of their bag, even if just for enjoyment’s sake.

If you have a small palette that can suit you for any occasion, it’s worth throwing in the makeup bag. I bring Kaleidos’ Astro Pink palette (link to Kaleidos), which is a skinny six pan with, among other things, a great black, some neutrals, and a sparkly blue that looks spectacular as liner. Even just with six pans, I could do a different each day for a week or more. I suggest choosing something with variety so you don’t get bored but with the workhorse basics like neutrals so you’re covered for all situations.

My Kaleidos Astro Pink palette
Here’s my essential eyeshadow palette. I’ll understand if you prefer something a bit more neutral 😀

Pick and Choose Your Lip Essentials

Last but not least, we’ll move onto lips. One thing that I’d say about this is that if you chose to put a foundation in your bag, make sure you also choose a lip product you love. Wearing foundation with nothing at all on the lips can tend to look strange.

Lip Liner

Probably not essential

The good thing about lip liner is that it’s skinny and will fit even into a stuffed-to-the-gills makeup bag. If you tend to struggle with lip products bleeding outside of your lip line, maybe a liner is essential. But for most of us, we can pass on this one and just use our main lip products.

Lipstick (Bullet or Liquid)

Probably essential

You should really have at least one nude color you love the formula of in your bag. You might want to add one with more color, too. But I think one lipstick can suit the minimalist if they find the right shade that goes with everything.

Of course, if you don’t like wearing lipstick, period, it’s not essential for you. Throw a gloss in instead!

Lip Gloss

Probably essential

Celebrated for its shine, comfort, and ease of application, lip gloss definitely has a place in most of our makeup bags. You can layer it on top of your lipstick, or you can just pop in on by itself and be out the door. Bonus if you have a nourishing, skin-loving gloss, which can double as a sleeping mask for your lips.

I actually think Laneige’s Lip Sleeping Mask (link to Sephora) makes an excellent multitasker this way. It’s flattering and glossy for daytime, and it’s great in its intended purpose—a night treatment—too.

Buxom Full-On Plumping Lip Polish in Clair, a mauve gloss with glitter
My current favorite gloss: Buxom Full-On Plumping Lip Polish in Clair

Conclusion and a Checklist

As you can see, there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all makeup bag. You’ll need to pick and choose according to your preferences and individual needs.

To help you out, here’s a PDF of a checklist that you can fill out and save to your computer. That way, you’ll always remember what goes into your perfect minimalist makeup bag.

CLICK TO DOWNLOAD

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