News & Politics

Best Face Forward: Top Makeup Counters in Washington

Whether you want a makeover or just a few new beauty products, these makeup counters and shops have the goods.

MAC artists do flawless makeup. Photograph by Jeff Martin.

Swiss Skin-Care Secrets: Alchimie Forever

This line’s anti-aging creams, masks, and face washes pack a powerful punch, without the harshness and side effects of some competitors. Ada Polla, the Georgetown-based founder, developed the gentle, botanical formulas from knowledge she acquired growing up with a cosmetic-dermatologist father and biomedical-researcher mother. We love the products for their brightening properties, especially on uneven or sensitive skin. We’re not the only ones—Alchimie is stocked in spas and doctors’ offices throughout Washington. 1010 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Suite 201; 202-530-3930.

Beginner-Friendly Beauty : Bare Escentuals

As natural makeup grows in popularity, BareMinerals by Bare Escentuals remains a pioneer for its complexion-perfecting products containing minerals. Alluring tables full of loose eye and face powders tempt you to test one—or three. Application is unlike that of traditional makeup, so artists here can show you the ropes with complimentary “make-unders,” which don’t require an appointment. Also for the uninitiated, complexion starter kits are available, complete with instructions and some of our favorite makeup brushes. Multiple area locations;

Hard-to-Find Brands: Bellacara

It’s easy to trust this beauty boutique, as owner Angela Sitilides personally tests each line. Hard-to-find, high-end brands abound—the Fairfax location has the largest selection of Kevyn Aucoin makeup we’ve seen in the area. Other favorites include Molton Brown body washes, scented Tocca candles, and an impressive selection of the latest Butter London nail polishes. 1000 King St., Alexandria, 703-299-9652; 2910 District Ave., Fairfax, 703-992-0850.

Generous Employees: Bloomingdale’s

The brightly lit beauty section of this department store is home to some of the friendliest cosmetics reps—they’re generous with product applications and beauty samples and often invite clients back for store events, such as mini-facials. It’s the first place we spotted Laura Mercier’s French-inspired bath-and-body collection, along with new releases by such brands as Bobbi Brown, Shiseido, and Tom Ford. There’s also an excellent selection of fragrances and men’s items by the likes of the Art of Shaving and Acqua di Parma. 5300 Western Ave., Chevy Chase, 240-744-3700; Tysons Corner Center, 703-556-4600.

Top Skin-Care Lines: Bluemercury

Since Bluemercury’s first store opened in Georgetown 14 years ago, the retailer has expanded across the country, including seven locations in Washington. Marla Malcolm Beck, the chic cofounder, offers some of the top skin-care brands, many of which are hard to come by elsewhere. Mario Badescu, La Roche-Posay, and M-61—Beck’s line—are some of the standouts. At selected locations, makeup applications are free with a three-product purchase; otherwise, sessions cost about $75. Skin-care services such as facials are available at some branches. Multiple area locations;

New Look: The Body Shop

This chain’s once-limited selection has expanded in recent years to include a full makeup line, shampoos and conditioners, and almost any kind of skin care you can think of, such as new single-use face masks. We’re fans of the store’s commitment to fair trade and sourcing from raw ingredients when possible; our favorites include coconut, pink grapefruit, and seaweed. The promotions and sales, which usually involve free products, are hard to pass up, as are the plentiful samples. Upselling is serious here, but with its budget-friendly prices, giving in won’t break the bank. Multiple area locations;

Insider Favorite: Kiehl’s

Kiehl’s products work so well that you may not believe they’re made from lavender, blue algae, and other natural ingredients. A beauty-industry favorite is the Ultra Facial Cream ($26.50 to $46.50), though we’re partial to the products made with soy milk and honey—a divine-smelling polish and butter—and the shampoos and conditioners. A recycling program rewards you for returning empty Kiehl’s bottles; three earn you a free lip balm, for instance. 3110 M St., NW, 202-333-5101; Tysons Corner Center, 703-734-1252.

French Touch: L’Occitane

While this brand is available at Sephora and some department stores, we prefer to visit one of its many shops, decorated like cozy French boutiques. The collection of high-quality body and skin care is categorized by ingredient—we like the Almond and Rose collections—and includes everything from hand soaps to wrinkle-fighting serums to colognes. One standout is its Mom & Baby line, full of balms, creams, and cleansers delicate enough for a stretched stomach or a baby’s skin. Multiple area locations;

Guilt-Free Pampering: Lush

Every product at this shop is handcrafted with organic fruits, vegetables, and essential oils and minimal preservatives. Known for its house-made soaps, body butters, and “bath bombs,” Lush also has wallet-friendly prices. In addition to the bath items, we’re fans of the toners, such as the brightening tea-tree water, and the gift sets. Georgetown, 202-333-6950; Pentagon City, 703-418-1878; Tysons Corner Center, 703-893-5874; Westfield Montgomery Mall, 301-365-7444.

Edgy and Reliable: MAC Cosmetics

Of all area beauty stores, we find MAC’s representatives the most impressive: Flawlessly made-up faces prove the artists’ edgy skills and product knowledge, and they’re eager—though not overwhelmingly so—to help you select products that suit your skin and taste. It’s a reliable brand for long-lasting foundations and cult-favorite lipstick shades. Appointments are required for a makeup applications, which are around $50. Pentagon City, 703-415-2212; Tysons Corner Center, 703-356-3182; Tysons Galleria, 703-556-3492; Chevy Chase, 301-654-0102.

Trendy Upgrade: Macy’s

The new Impulse Beauty section at Macy’s Bethesda location boasts younger, playful brands such as Benefit, Urban Decay, and Too Faced as well as top tools such as Clarisonic brushes and T3 flatirons. The boutique-like experience is a welcome addition to the reliable ranks of Lancôme, Estée Lauder, and Clinique that already can be found here. Westfield Montgomery Mall; 301-469-6800.

Great Makeup and Brows: Nectar Skin Bar

You needn’t be a client at this glitzy Georgetown spa—consistently ranked among the area’s best since its 2011 debut—to take advantage of its terrific collection, which includes high-end skin-care labels such as Darphin, Comfort Zone, and Paul & Joe Beaute. It has exclusive rights in Washington to some hard-to-find brands, including Becca, FarmHouse Fresh, and LashDip. You can also book a session with makeup artist and brow expert Adrian Avila, whose services range from $25 to $150. 1633 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-4332.

Luxe Finds: Neiman Marcus

It’s a little hard to come by samples here—especially without some pressure to buy—but La Prairie, Clé de Peau Beauté, Guerlain, and Sisley keep us coming back. High-end European brands are the specialty, alongside the usual department-store suspects of Clinique and Lancôme. You’ll find a few luxuries exclusive to Neiman Marcus—such as fabric softener by Francis Kurkdjian—making for both aspirational eye candy and tempting impulse buys. Candles, aromatic oils, and other beautifying home items are also within close reach. Mazza Gallerie, 202-966-9700; Tysons Galleria, 703-761-1600.

Lavish Experience: Saks Fifth Avenue

As with the rest of the store, the beauty section at Saks offers posh shopping. The Chevy Chase location—packed with SK-II, La Mer, and the highest of the high end in beauty—has been redesigned with bright white walls and crystal chandeliers, making for a setting as glitzy as the Valentino and Céline handbags steps away. 5555 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-657-9000.

Italian Elegance: Santa Maria Novella

Everything about this boutique—from its lovely decor to the opera music—radiates luxury. The shop specializes in high-end Italian body and skin care, including musky fragrances, softening milk soaps, and exfoliating bath salts. A large selection of sandalwood, patchouli, and mint-scented items are offered for men, and the staff pays close attention to customers to ensure they understand the products. For the home, potent potpourris and tall, aromatic candles are available. 5454 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase; 240-743-4949.

Longtime Favorite: Sephora

With a vast array of the newest in makeup, skin and hair care, fragrance, and beauty tools, this chain makes for a kid-in-a-candy-store experience. Staffers, with brushes on their belts, gladly help apply any products—from Sephora’s affordable brand to Dior—but be mindful of weekend crowds, which can make it hard to get attention. If you’re not already a member, join the free Beauty Insider club, through which you can easily earn samples and rewards. Multiple area locations;

Concierge at Your Service: Target

That woman dressed head to toe in black with a full face of makeup in the beauty aisle? She’s there for you. Target has been playing around with a “beauty concierge” concept for months, hoping to offer a personal-shopping experience similar to that of department stores. After launching in Chicago last year, the service has made its way to 27 locations in the Washington/Baltimore area. The reps—whom you can meet with during limited store hours without an appointment—will point you in the direction of Sonia Kashuk, Boots No. 7, Yes to Tomatoes, and other drugstore brands that suit your skin and style. Multiple area locations;

One-Stop Shopping: Ulta

The massive selection makes this chain a destination for nearly all beauty needs. The seemingly endless shelves are packed with drugstore necessities, an array of hair-care tools, and splurge-worthy favorites by BareMinerals, Tarte, Essie, Philosophy, and nearly any midgrade brand you can think of. In addition to its house line of body care and its in-store salons, selected locations feature Benefit Brow Bar—a fun, girly bit of pampering. Multiple Maryland and Virginia locations;

Drugstore Goes Glamorous: Walgreens

The top levels of the branches in Chinatown and Van Ness look and feel like anything but a drugstore. With gleaming shelves neatly stocked with a huge variety of products—including hard-to-find labels such as Cargo and Pop Beauty—Walgreens’ Look Boutique rivals Sephora in glamour. Think beauty advisers, samples with purchases, and mini-makeover stations. Still not convinced? Perhaps a $12 manicure at the in-house salon in Chinatown will lure you in. 801 Seventh St., NW, 202-789-5345; 4225 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-903-2019.