Why Michelle Phan Will Always Take a Sweatpants Approach to Makeup

The EM Cosmetics founder and original beauty YouTuber on why it's important to not follow trends.

Beauty Boss: Michelle Pham
Photo: Luis Trujillo

While filters and a full face beat have become checkboxes for today's beauty content creators, you still won't find Michelle Phan, one of the original beauty YouTubers, wearing over-lined lips or drawn-on brows on an average day.

Phan has gained millions of subscribers in her decade plus long career for her approachable, pared-down, everyday makeup looks and it's why she continues to prioritize texture and wearability since relaunching her makeup brand, EM Cosmetics in 2017.

"[If] everyone is already putting filters on their face, then what is the purpose of doing a full beat look? Just get your makeup 60% there and then you can throw a filter over it and you look great, but then you still look great in real life," she tells InStyle. "Your makeup doesn't have to feel like you have so many layers on your face."

Since buying her brand back from L'Oréal (it originally launched in 2013), Phan has launched a handful of products that achieved cult status for their comfortability, skincare-infused formulas, and universal shade ranges. Take the fan-favorite Color Drops Serum Blush for example, which goes on skin like a hydrating serum, but also leaves a soft, natural wash of color.

"Texture is one thing that makes us stand out from other brands. The moment you touch one of EM Cosmetics' products, it just feels comfortable," Phan says. "I want it to feel like sweats on your face."

Here, InStyle caught up with Phan to chat about the importance of taking a break, why it's ok to start over, and what she hopes to see in the future of the beauty industry.

How did you know it was the right decision to relaunch your brand?

I took a digital detox from YouTube after spending almost a decade being online and constantly producing content. I reached a point where I needed to step away, and it gave me a lot of time to really think and reevaluate my life. At this point, L'Oréal still owned EM Cosmetics, and I wanted the opportunity to buy it and own it myself. So I went into negotiations and was able to buy the brand. From there it took another six months to transfer everything over and rebuild the team from the ground up. It probably would have been easier to launch a new brand from scratch, but I also wanted to show the beauty community how important it is to have ownership over your brand, and that just because something doesn't work out the way you want, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to quit. I remember I had a lot of naysayers and people who were skeptical about it, but I stuck with my gut and when the brand relaunched it was very well received compared to when it first launched in 2013. There's wasn't a specific moment where I felt, "Oh this is the time to do it." I went with my intuition.

How does this version of EM Cosmetics better reflect your personality and philosophy on beauty?

I was very inspired by balance and quality. I spent a week creating the first video I ever uploaded on YouTube. I made three different drafts, decided on which one I liked, and then that video established my style and tone. In the case of EM, I wanted to take that same meditative approach. I was very inspired by balance and quality, and I was learning a lot about hermetics, astrology, ancient designs, and Egypt, too. So I found a creative director and worked these inspirations into the logo and packaging.

I also incorporated my personal philosophy on beauty into the products. I was never the type to go full beat with my makeup unless it was for a costume or Halloween video. The time of the relaunch was when we hit peak Instagram makeup look with drawn-on brows, over-lined lips, and liquid lipstick. This was not my style, but I felt the pressure to go with it because it was on trend. Ultimately, I decided I shouldn't compromise my values of quality formulations, good skincare habits, and the right makeup and techniques. It's important as a brand founder and creator to have your own point of view.

How do you decide what products to make? Do you consider your community or is it based on your own personal pain points with makeup?

I definitely take the community into consideration. For example, Infinite Lip Cloud was originally a lip primer that you apply before a liquid lipstick. But I fell in love with the formula as I was testing it because it's so soft and comfortable. During that time, I had so many comments from people requesting that I make a comfortable liquid lip. In a way, they inspired me to look for this, but it was also me playing around with the formula and seeing the potential in it. So I went back to the chemist and asked if we could add color and not make it a primer, but instead, a one-step comfortable liquid lip.

But I don't really have a blueprint where I follow certain rules. It's a little bit intuitive. For example, with Color Drops Serum Blush, I'm in my 30s and I noticed my skin has been getting drier. I love blush but I felt all the formulas were very powdery or matte, and I wanted something more dewy but didn't feel sticky. I also wanted something nourishing because I love skincare so much, and that was the birth of Serum Blush.

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As someone who has worked in many sides of the beauty industry, what changes to you hope to see in the future?

I was one of the early YouTubers and I see each generation becoming smarter because of the access to information and they're more conscious with their wallets. We're moving towards a creator-passion economy and in the future, I would like to see more businesses owned by creators that are hyper-specialists in different areas. I think that's actually a better change compared to conglomerates and monopolies owning everything because they lack intention compared to creator-owned brands. The problem right now is that there isn't a lot of support and funding going to creator founders.

I also hope to see more BIPOC-owned brands. I think it's so important because even myself include, I think about these consumers. We're living in America where we probably have one of the most diverse pools of ethnicities all here, and that's what makes American makeup products so interesting. I'm Asian and very familiar with Korean beauty and the trends happening there, but a lot of them are hard to translate here because they aren't thinking about deeper skin tones when they're formulating products and shades.

Shop EM Cosmetics Products

01 of 05

Color Drops Serum Blush

EM Cosmetics Products

Phan's innovative blush has quickly achieved cult status because it offers the same skincare benefits as a hydrating, dew-boosting serum, but with the buildable color of a cream blush. Venetian Rose is a favorite shade of Phan's because it offers a soft flush that suits a wide range of skin tones.

02 of 05

Daydream Cushion Tinted SPF

EM Cosmetics Products

Another serum-infused product, this skin tint offers SPF 50 protection in addition to lightweight coverage. It comes in six flexible shades.

03 of 05

Illustrative Eyeliner

EM Cosmetics Products

With a fine, flexible felt tip, EM Cosmetics' liquid eyeliner makes drawing precise or bold lines a breeze.

04 of 05

Infinite Lip Cloud

EM Cosmetics Products

The light and fluffy texture of this lip creme is inspired by clouds. In addition to feeling comfortable on the lips, the formula offers the matte finish of a liquid lipstick. It comes in 12 classic lipstick shades, including this rosy nude.

05 of 05

Moonbeam Cushion Highlighter

EM Cosmetics Products

This cushion gives skin an otherworldly glow while simultaneously nourishing it with skincare staple ingredients like niacinamide, squalane, and hyaluronic acid.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Beauty Boss profiles the brains behind the brands making waves in the beauty industry. From the ideas that first inspire brands to how best-selling hair, makeup, and skincare products are made, find out how these leaders get it done.

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