Q&A: One-on-One with Sali Hughes, Beauty Journalist

One of the world’s most respected beauty writers, Sali Hughes has earned a loyal following for her quippy product reviews and no-BS reporting

Like many a rom-com meet-cute, it was an encounter at a bar that sparked Sali Hughes’ lifelong affair with beauty. In 1990, as a 15-year-old who had just run away to London from her home in South Wales, she was introduced to makeup artist Lynne Easton, a favourite of musical acts like the Pet Shop Boys, while out one night in Soho. “I was such a beauty and fashion nerd that I knew her work really well,” recalls Hughes, now the resident beauty columnist of The Guardian. “We started talking and she said, ‘Well, you seem to know lots about makeup. Do you want to be my assistant?’ ”

That’s how Hughes, who had no formal training in cosmetics, ended up spending two years in the beauty trenches alongside Easton, assisting on commercial shoots and meeting celebrities like George Michael. The stint equipped her with a keen practical grasp of how products truly fare (or flop) on the job. When Hughes made the move to journalism, the career she’d dreamed of since childhood, she took that get-real perspective with her. For 13 years, she worked as a freelance features writer for U.K. glossies like Elle, Cosmopolitan and Glamour before The Guardian enlisted her as its beauty columnist in 2011.

There, Hughes’ witty, reporting-driven product coverage has made her one of the world’s most trusted beauty writers. “Whether you’re a makeup artist on counter, beauty columnist or influencer, if you’re asking women to part with their hard-earned money to buy products, you’d better really believe in your recommendations because that’s a huge responsibility,” she says.

To that end, in 2014 Hughes published her first book, Pretty Honest: The Straight-Talking Beauty Companion, a no-nonsense guide to skincare, cosmetics and haircare. Now, she’s following it up with Pretty Iconic: A Personal Look at the Beauty Products That Changed the World.

“I was lying in bed thinking about the products I’d grown up with—Johnson’s Baby Lotion, Brylcreem, things like that—and I realized I could chart my life with them,” she says of Pretty Iconic. “Whereas lots of people think about the records they were listening to, the dresses they were wearing or the places they were going, I also remember the makeup on my face, the shampoo at the side of the bath, and so on.”

The nostalgic tome catalogues more than 200 iconic items, including personal favourites (her grandfather’s Old Spice Original), industry game-changers (YSL’s category-defining Touche Éclat), and her predictions for the next hall-of-famers (Urban Decay’s beloved Naked Palette). It’s full of Hughes’ vivid bons mots: the afore­mentioned Touche Éclat, for example, is criti­qued for creating “the impression of a fortnight spent skiing in goggles,” if misused. 

As Pretty Iconic hits shelves, we asked Hughes about making sense of product overload, what she deems great service at the counter, and how she keeps it real in an industry known for selling fantasy.

What skills did you learn as a makeup artist that help you as a beauty writer? Infinite, infinite skills. The main thing I learned was about products—how they work and how to harness their maximum benefits. Unless you’re getting down and dirty and using product every single day, I don’t see how you can expect your readers to spend money on your recommendations.

How often do you test items? Literally every day. My handbag is insane. Whereas people carry around a lip balm, a compact and a lipstick, I’ve always got far, far more makeup than is healthy. It’s a huge amount of time and a huge commitment. Probably thousands of different products go on my face, body and hair every year. I don’t always feel like getting everything out and playing on a Sunday, but very often I have to.

With so many launches, how do you make sense of it all? I look for trends and consumer patterns, or for shifts in the beauty industry, and I look at those products first because I think the reader really wants to know about them. Instagram has created a very specific makeup look, and my job is to find ways around that, so as to not always do what everybody else is doing.

How has shopping at the beauty counter changed over the years? The amount of expertise and knowledge is so much more than it was. One thing about a really brilliant consultant on counter that’s a real acid test for me is if somebody on one brand sends you to another brand for a product. I want good service, but I also want honesty.

You have a rep for honesty in an industry that isn’t always transparent. How do you maintain your integrity? It’s really easy if you take the view that if you do something dishonest, it will cost you.

In the acknowledgments for Pretty Iconic, you wrote that some brands tried to pay their way into the book. They did! I was shocked, although I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed composing my reply. To me [the fact that they asked] shows some people say yes to that kind of thing.

So what made the cut? The most memorable products—the ones that changed the way we think of beauty, that changed how products are made and changed my life personally. I had a hell of a time narrowing it down.


Sali Hughes’ Go-To Products

Above, from left:

Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Body Emulsion, $10
“It’s genius. Every now and then, they try to discontinue it and I’ve totally lost my shit over it.”

Charlotte Tilbury Luxury Palette in The Sophisticate, $64
“It’s all killer, no filler. Whatever the occasion, I can do my makeup with that.”

Chanel No. 5, $149
“It doesn’t matter where you go, Chanel No. 5 is never wrong. It makes you feel strong and confident. It’s always appropriate.”


Sali Hughes’ Beauty Rules

Face-cleansing is everything. “I mean with a washcloth and a proper balm or oil cleanser that removes everything before bed. Not just a face wash, not a micellar water—unless you’re drunk or super tired.”

Favour foundation with a yellow undertone. “It’s more flattering, it gives a glow, it looks more realistic, it looks healthier. Probably only about five percent of women need a pink undertone in their foundation.”

Don’t be shy. “All of us will definitely be dead soon, and there is absolutely no reason for anyone to be frightened of putting a colour that’s appealing to them on their face. If you fancy wearing a red lip, get one immediately. You will not lie on your deathbed and think, I’m glad I didn’t wear that red lipstick.”


This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Cosmetics magazine.