Here's Everything We Learned From An Anonymous Sephora Employee

In Depth
Here's Everything We Learned From An Anonymous Sephora Employee

Last week, an anonymous Sephora (inside JCPenney) employee invited us to pick her brain. Here are all of the questions you asked and the answers she gave in one handy place. The following has been edited for clarity.


Do you worship at the altar of Anastasia?

Anastasia is good. I like the Brow Wiz, but I can’t bother with the dip brow pomade because it’s so time consuming and while I like brows, I don’t want mine to look painted on. Some girls can pull it off. I haven’t tried their eyeshadows or new lip products because they aren’t in stores yet. (Though I think Macy’s has a selection).

Oh, but the contour palettes are not diverse enough in shades. They’re all very bronzey/orangey.

Mascara recommendations! I hate Buxom. Had a tube of Guerlain Maxi Lash, which was lovely, but too $$$ to replace as often as I should. Tubing mascara is the itchy, watery-eyed devil. What should I try next?

I hate tubing mascara. I wish I had a golden answer for this. I honestly think you have to work your way through as many as you can and narrow down what you like. For instance, I learned that I like more silicone/plastic bristles as opposed to the classic bristle-y brushes. I like very narrow brushes because my lashes are short and stick straight and anything too big (Diorshow, Too Faced Better than Sex, Buxom, Benefit They’re Real) just ends up getting all over my lids and I can’t really get to the roots of my lashes. Get the sample kits that come out at holiday time and work your way through them!

I need a black eye pencil that will actually stay on my lower lid/waterline, not just turn me into a raccoon within two hours. Make Up For Ever Aqua Eyes doesn’t work.

Try Marc Jacobs. It’s the only one that doesn’t transfer from my upper tightline when I blink.

I have super straight, long eyelashes that I have to curl so they don’t brush against my glasses and drive me crazy. I’ve been using metal curlers forever, but I HATE that they don’t sell refills. I’ve heard it’s a hygiene thing, but it is just so damn wasteful to keep throwing the whole thing in the trash. I recently bought the Sephora heated curler and was totally disappointed by it — didn’t do much and there was no hold — and I don’t have any real luck with the “curling” mascaras. Any suggestions for a less disposable means of getting a good curl that lasts?

Yeah, you can replace the rubber pads. A lot of them come with an extra one. I was using the Revlon one for ages and then I used a Kevyn Aucoin one and was like WHOA, I didn’t realize there could actually be a difference.

I’m over 50 and have brown hair, pale skin and blue eyes. Black mascara and eyeliner don’t look right on me any more — it just looks harsh. I love browns and blues but they tend not to last all day. Plums/purples make me look like I’ve been crying. Any suggestions?

I think you just need waterproof browns and blues? Try Make Up For Ever’s Aqua range of eyeliners.

I am always curious about eye makeup: What do you think the best brands are? Best meaning longest lasting and best color intensity.

Make Up For Ever reformulated their shadows this fall and they are gorgeous.

I need a new mascara – I have used Mary Kay for the past several years but it feels old. I like length, not too worried about volume (are those even different things?). Not willing to spend more than $30. Recs?

A lot of people like Too Faced Better Than Sex and Benefit They’re Real, but I don’t because the brushes are too big. You have to get to know what brushes you like best, I think. And if you like a dryer or wetter formula. Too Faced is dry, Benefit is wet. Benefit They’re Real also doesn’t come off very well. Get the mascara sampler at holiday time and try as many as you can to figure out your preferences. And to be honest, there are some GREAT drugstore mascaras! (CoverGirl is under-hyped.)


What lipstick is worth a splurge?

NARS Audacious!

How do I get Kat VonD’s “Poe” to cover the inner part of my bottom lip?

I don’t know about KVD Poe, because that whole range of lipsticks is troublesome. If you read Temptalia, she gave most of them very low ratings.

Help help! I need a good lip stain for under $100—one that actually stains for more than two hours.

Aren’t they all under $100? Try Sephora Collection.


What is the BEST BB/CC/Foundation? Something not too thick, but creamy with a glowy finish? I already have clear skin, I just want that silky finish.

Dr. Jart makes some decent ones. The Waterfuse (blue tube) is good for anyone with dry skin. The down side is that there is no shade range. I personally love the Diorskin Nude BB cream (pink tube) but again, only four shades and a bit pricey. NARS pure radiant tinted moisturizer offers decent coverage, glowy, but not too glowy, and a much larger shade range. I’ve even been selling Sephora Collection CC cream lately. Fairly decent shade range, good price point.

Is Make Up For Ever foundation actually worth it? I used to use it because soooo many people loved it, but I ran out, got a BB cream in the interim, and have ended up liking the BB cream + cheap Maybelline powder better. Is there a better full coverage foundation that won’t rub off by the end of the day I should know about?

You know, I really like it. I like the HD for a more natural finish but some decent coverage (I use a beauty blender to sheer it out a bit). I can’t use it in the summer because I get too oily. Mat Velvet + is a pretty big seller as well, so yeah, I like MUFE pretty well. Most foundations are going to break down, that’s just how they work. However, I think I’ve heard Revlon Colorstay will last a long time. Worth a try?

What are your top recommendations for foundations for sensitive skin and for black women? I’ve often had to mix two different shades from my current foundation (Clinique) to get anything close to my skin tone, although as far as sensitivity goes, its been better on my skin than MAC.

Sensitive skin is always a hard question because everybody reacts differently to different ingredients. Smashbox, MUFE, and NARS have decent ranges of shades. But if Clinique is at least working for you in terms of sensitivity, you may stick with it.

My skin can just plain suck with foundations. I can’t find one that works. I have combo/normal skin but foundations tend to look cakey. I use a beauty blender and work in thin layers which I’ve heard is supposed to work. Any idea what foundation is worth the money but won’t make me look like plastic?

Same here. Combo/oily. I like UD Naked because it’s lightweight but covers decently. I also use a beauty blender. I think it’s the way to go. Try a setting spray for added hydration/remove powder finish.

Does primer actually work? I bought a Smashbox one that feels really nice but I have no clue if it actually does anything.

Smashbox primer – meh. I don’t think it’s great. The good thing is they do have like eight variations, and I like the hydrating one decently during the winter, but mostly their standard clear silicone-y one. I think it can smooth skin ever so slightly and make foundation blend nicely, but I don’t know if it “does” anything either. I tend to more mattifying ones in an attempt to control shine, myself. I will say, I have Urban Decay pore perfecting and I think that one’s useless.

What do you think of the new contouring trend? My sister works for a Sephora and she gets a lot of people looking for the full on Kim K look which doesn’t look that great when walking down the street. Which often leads to yelling. Also KVD vs Anastasia contour kit? I find the KVD too warm.

I actually find the Anastasia kit too warm. The Smashbox has been pretty universal, even on dark-medium skin tones that I didn’t think it would show up on, it has worked! I think contouring is over-hyped. The Kim K look only looks good on camera. But people can get away with lightly contouring, I think.

What are your favorite (top 3 maybe?) recommendations for long-wearing foundation for sensitive/oily skin?

Try MUFE Mat Velvet +. Some like Becca or NARS Sheer Glow.

What’s the best foundation that looks “light” but provides serious coverage? I always have redness peeking through.


Which highlighting products are best suited for very fair skin tones that aren’t just expensive glitter?

I’ve never messed with Benetint because I fear the same. (I’ve never sold any, either.) I like Becca’s Shimmering Skin Perfectors. The powders are more glittery, but the liquids are gorgeous and they are coming out with a cream that I can’t wait to get my hands on!

I don’t wear concealer or usually anything heavier than tinted moisturizer but sometimes I really want that flawless, even-toned look. Previous attempts have been too heavy and unnatural looking. Also, I’m pretty self conscious about it rubbing off if I blow my nose or change my shirt. What product, or combo of products, would you recommend? I have fairly clear skin so I don’t need a lot of coverage.

I find Laura Mercier’s tinted moisturizer to bee too greasy on myself. Probably good if you have dry skin. She makes an oil free line that I think works a little better. I also like NARS Pure Radiant tinted moisturizer. Of all the ones I’ve tried, I like Diorskin Nude BB Cream (pink tube) the best. Not too shiny. But it’s a small color range. Just four shades. Also, set with a translucent powder. Not talc based. I find that silica based powders “set” better than talc based.

What are the best tinted moisturizers for dark black women? I tried a sample of one of them from NARS a long time ago but forgot the color name, and I’m just generally wondering what other brands are good out there.

I was also going to recommend NARS for the shade range.

I’m a pale girl with serious dark circle issues. I’m also starting to get wrinkly. Wrinkles plus under eye concealer always seems to end up looking crustified. Any solutions you can suggest? Would be eternally grateful to not look like a zombie/have people ask me if I’m feeling okay all the time.

So I would suggestion SOME sort of hydration under the concealer. I was working on a much older woman last week and when I used concealer under her eye, I was like, uh oh, this doesn’t look so good. Then I used Tarte’s Maracuja eye cream (because it was close by) under her other eye and then did the concealer and it blended and looked so much better. I’m getting lines too, so if you ever find something that doesn’t crease, send it my way!

For someone who’s terrified of putting any face makeup on besides a teeny bit of bronzer, what’s a good gateway tinted moisturizer? (I have combo-dry skin that’s currently SUPER dry due to some topical acne prescriptions, and it’s light-medium in tone.)

Yup, I like NARS too. I mentioned the Diorskin Nude BB Cream. Pricey, but good if you can find a shade. Laura Mercier Oil Free tinted moisturizer is also good.


Do you have any recommendations for moisturizing SPF with high (30+) broad spectrum physical sunscreen that is good for sensitive skin? The other stuff literally burns my face, and it would be lovely to cut two steps down to one.

Not specifically for sensitive skin. Maybe Shiseido? Their SPFs are the bomb. Expensive, so I’d only use them on the face. But you should check ingredient lists for irritants.

I’ve been wondering about the Glamglow mask because my skin is very “congested” at the moment, but also kind of sensitive. I hear raves, but I worry that it’s too harsh?

If you’re sensitive, stay away. Or get a sample to test.

If you were going to splurge on a skin product, what would it be?

The new Peter Thomas Roth Irish Moor mask. It’s like a less drying version of Glamglow, like 5X the product, and less than the cost of Glamglow. His pumpkin enzyme mask is also great. Stay away from his 24k gold mask. Can’t be worth it.

So, I just started buying Sephora stuff this year (and now I’m on my way to being addicted!), and I was wondering about skincare stuff. There are a lot of creams that are like $70-100/oz, and I am nowhere near being in the position to drop money like that on one thing unless it lasts a really long time. I’m 27, and I’ve never really had much of a skincare regimen since I have fair skin that’s prone to breakouts and I never really wore foundation or anything else that needed washing off. But, getting older and all that, so I want to do a little more now. I have pretty normal skin, I think? It’s definitely not oily, and I wouldn’t say it’s very dry either. Any recommendations for good serums, day creams, and night creams that aren’t too crazy expensive? Maybe cleansers and exfoliating stuff too (although I’m not sure if that’s a necessity as I’m super new to all this!)?

Yeah, FAB (First Aid Beauty) and Clinique. Clinique has some duds. (Their 3 step system is… interesting). But you’re young enough that I think you don’t need anything over the top right now anyway. Cleansers just get washed down the drain, so you don’t need to spend much on them. Treatments/serums are where I’d spend my money, targeting specific concerns. Then moisturizers. Masks are fun, but a lot of them are just clay based and drying.

Is the Tsubaki Beauty Oil worth the hype?

Most oils are versatile, so just mess around with it. If you need the hydration in your foundation, go for it. Otherwise just use it like a serum at night. Is that one any good? I don’t know, I bought a deluxe size myself and still haven’t used it! (But I’m more combo/oily. I don’t like most oils.)

What are the top skincare products you think are really worth their salt?

I like FAB (First Aid Beauty) because they seem to be gentle yet effective. I can safely recommend them to most skin types. Same with Ole Henriksen. I think Peter Thomas Roth is over priced but decent (love his Pumpkin enzyme mask and the new Irish Moor mask).


I’m interested in the last of these three categories; what do you consider to be some of your worst products?

Ooh, good question! Some of it is just preference, of course. Smashbox is always very “meh” to me, but they do have some workhorses. NARS also makes some hit and miss products. (Their eyeshadows are often chalky). Strivectin and Peter Thomas Roth can be SO over priced. Origins has never inspired me. I think a lot of luxury brands struggle to justify their costs (Dior, YSL, Guerlain, etc)

What is the most overrated beauty brand that the store carries, in your opinion?

That’s hard. Benefit can HYPE a product like nobody’s business, but they’re not a bad brand. I think a lot of luxury brands are hit or miss at the prices they ask you to pay (YSL, Dior, Guerlain, even Marc Jacobs). You know, now that I think about it, people think Bare Minerals is God’s gift to skin, and it’s just not. But people are LOYAL to that brand. It amazes me how much we sell. Josie Maran may be slightly overrated too, but she doesn’t have a huge line.


What line do you find is the most “bang for your buck”? Just in general, for basics like eye shadows/lipsticks/concealed etc.

YSL Touché Eclat may cost all the monies, but is totally worth it.

I was actually going to recommend the Sephora Collection for bang for your buck. Some of their basic skincare is pretty decent (moisturizers) and the color products as well. We’ve noticed that their eyeliners are basically the same as UD. I haven’t noticed them breaking. Make Up For Ever, however, is a fantastic line, but pricier.

Do you have a favorite “little-known secretly awesome product”? One that you’re like “THIS IS SO AMAZING, WHY ISN’T EVERYONE BUYING IT?”

I feel like people side eye the $19 price tag of the Beauty Blender, but I won’t give mine up. Oh, but related – the solid Sephora Collection brush cleaner – SO good!

Do you have some favorite and least favorite trends that you’ve tried on yourself for work? I love experimenting with makeup, but I have a very low-key workplace, and don’t always have the opportunity to actually take things out in public!

I loved the Marsala (color of the year) colors. Contouring is a big trend right now, but ugh, most of the contour palettes aren’t good. You’re better off finding “a” contour color (I like Kevyn Aucoin The Sculpting Powder) than buying a kit. Unless you are a MUA, you’re not going to use all those shades.


What is the best way to get free samples in the store? I make a habit of buying online because I usually get a better offering of free samples but sometimes I can’t really avoid it. I have been rebuffed by a few Sephora employees that I have asked samples from. Any tips?

Really? Even as a customer they were always nice about making samples. I think it’s best to ask the person working in that “world” instead of the cashier. And before I was an employee, if they were all too busy, I would just make my own. Haha. Though don’t ask for samples of blush or eyeshadow. I hate those people. They are dumb.

What are the rules of samples? Are there samples of everything or just limited products? Can I just walk up to the counter and say “Give me a sample of everything,” or am I limited in quantity that I can request? Do I need to (pretend to) browse through products first like I’m actually shopping, to be polite?

I love giving samples when it’s not busy. We more or less have a rule of three per client. But when the place is hopping and you walk up without buying anything and just hand me three perfume bottles and demand samples, I am going to side eye you so hard. 🙂

Are the sales people trained to ask me 666 times whether I want advice?

You know what I think the real problem is? Because I hate being the 666th person to ask you, and I also hate it when I’m shopping. But sometimes I can’t see you from behind the displays and I don’t realize that someone else has already approached you! I imagine it’s only worse in the bigger stores. I know. It’s annoying. I’m sorry. We do just want to be helpful. Some people are too shy and won’t ask for help if we don’t approach them.

I have over 3,000 bonus points. Am I ever going to be able to cash them in on a car or something really good?

The past two years in August they have run some insane point promos. Like a trip to San Francisco to go to Sephora HQ – 10,000 points. 🙂 But yeah, I wish the perks were better.

What’s the worst part of the job for you?

Worst part of the job is when you’re talking to someone or ringing someone up and they REFUSE to look at you. You might as well be a robot, they want nothing to do with you. Also the people who come in EVERY week and buy nothing but demand samples.

Probably irrational but: I don’t wear a lot of makeup in general, and feel pretty inept at it. Nevertheless I find it fascinating and wish I were better at it. Are the fancy Sephora ladies judging me when I go in there and but my one little rollerball of perfume or a lipgloss? If I ask them really basic questions (ie: how do you ‘makeup’?) am I being a drain on their day or is that just part of the job?

NO! First, I love it when you come in looking for products and are wearing no products because it makes my life easier to find your foundation shade. Same, if you want to try a brow product, why come in with your brows done? We have to remove it! Its different if you’re coming in after work and have had it on all day, but if it’s a Saturday morning, come in bare faced! We seriously do not judge bare faces. Like I said, I prefer it! And I don’t mind simple questions. They are easiest to answer.

Do they keep deluxe promo samples behind the counter aside from those that are displayed for VIBs? Do you love the VIB Rouges, hate us, or make fun of us?

Ha. I’m a VIB Rouge and I hate myself a little for that. No, VIB Rouges that we get are great. Nobody’s a jerk about it. Usually just a common makeup love. Occasionaly there are deluxe samples for VIB/VIB Rouge but you usually get an email promotion. One thing I do like about Sephora inside JCP is we have a lot of mailers that go out and offer free deluxe samples, so we do have a lot hanging around. (Lot of Bare Minerals, though.)

What do people steal the most from Sephora?

Fragrances. But also the testers of anything, which I think is disgusting.

What’s loss prevention like at Sephora? I know when I go to beauty stores, I see samples missing, broken, blatantly removed from displays, etc. How do you combat that? Does sample theft amount to a large annual loss for the store?

Yeah, it happens. Just like every store. I seriously don’t know why people steal testers when hundreds of hands or faces have been on them. We watch as well as we can. I only had one pretty blatant shoplifter when I was busy and alone and closing, so I just called a leader into the store and she more or less scared him off.

Is it safe to try the lipstick and how often do you see people shoplift??

Honestly, I don’t SEE that many people shoplift. When it’s busy, it’s busy. Mostly we find empty boxes. Or stolen testers, which I think is gross. Is it safe to try lipsticks? Well, we do. I mean, I sanitize the hell out of them with alcohol. As long as you are doing the same, I think it’s ok. Lip glosses though – people swatch them on their hands, kids get into them — I tend to stay away.

How do you go about asking for a particular Sephora makeup artist, i.e. I just really want the flawless looking black women that work there to hook me up, but am really shy in general. Is it rude to just say, “Hey, do you mind if I work with this person instead of you?” or something along those lines when you want someone else giving you a makeover, or is there a less awkward way to go about this?

I wouldn’t be offended if a WoC asked to work with a artist who was also a WoC. I get it. A little tricky as our small staff is mostly white and Hispanic, but I know the problems that companies have in having enough shades and I’m not going to try to force you into something that doesn’t work just to make a sale. I don’t care about our bottom line, I’d rather have happy customers.

Is there a particular response you are supposed to give when people ask about MAC products? Are you discouraged from wearing Mac products while working in case someone asks what you’re wearing?

Nope, no party line about Mac. We have MAC lovers on staff as well. I think we try not to wear it while working because that would be hard to answer if someone asks what you are wearing!

Do you have to have makeup experience to start working in a Sephora? I mean, I don’t wear hardly any makeup at all, and it’d be nerve-racking the first couple of months, but it would be an interesting career switch and I really do love the artistry in makeup and beauty.

You can have little to no experience. Honestly a helpful and pleasant attitude is far preferable, but you should at least enjoy makeup and skincare, I think. Sure makes it easier! That and there’s training!

What was the reason y’all stop carrying Lime Crime? I didn’t even know it was offered at Sephora at all, and before I know it, it was gone, so fess up!

Lime Crime – I don’t know the official reason. I do know Lime Crime has had problems since its inception.

Sephora has recently discontinued both my signature fragrance and my favorite under-eye concealer. I sent an email to customer service, but I am curious if there is another avenue for me to communicate my devastation so that they might reconsider and continue to carry at least the fragrance that I am completely addicted to and have been unable to find another reputable source for.

Ha. I doubt it. Not unless they get a volume of emails. If it doesn’t sell, they take it off the shelf.

What happened to KVD Saint perfume? Its only available on ebay for like triple the original price. It gives me the sads, my bottle is pretty much empty now and I just keep it to smell occasionally.

Discontinued, I believe. I just had someone in the store asking for it.

I like the products and the advice given by the people at Sephora, but I’ve noticed that (in the two Bay Area stores I frequent) all the sales associates tend to put the makeup on a bit heavy. Like really heavy. Like that is a lot of makeup.

What is the policy for modeling the product? Do the employees just go a little wild because they can and are having fun, or are they strongly encouraged to really wear a full face o’ slap all day?

We are required to wear a certain amount of products and a certain amount of colors. Some days I hate it, other days it’s an awesome excuse to try the crazy trends!

I tend to have a very light hand when applying makeup- mostly I just wear foundation, highlighter, and a bit of neutral eyeshadow. I have a coupon for a free makeover (part of my VIB welcome package). Should I use it even though my makeup style doesn’t seem to match those of the Sephora associates?

Yeah, we’re required to wear a certain amount of makeup every day, so our daily makeup may be more natural than you think. 🙂 I tend to keep things natural and neutral unless someone specifies bold lip, smokey eye, or intense contour.

Does Sephora provide you with a certain amount of free product each year, or are you expected to buy everything that you model (hopefully with a very generous discount)?

Yes, we get products for educational purposes. A lot of skincare, some makeup. It’s great, obviously, but it really is most helpful for getting a feel for the products and knowing what I’m recommending to people.

Do Sephora employees have sales incentives? If I feel like a salesperson is pushing a product super hard, is it because they get a special bonus for selling it to me? Also, are Sephora salespeople on commission? Do they hate each other a little bit? I’ve noticed microaggressions on the floor and often wonder this.

No, we don’t get commission. Some days we have events and goals for those events. So if it’s Benefit event day, I’m going to show you Benefit first. I’ve heard some people can be mean, but fortunately, I work with an awesome group of women. We’re a smaller store, so we actually like each other and support each other. Could be worse if we had like 20 employees?

Do you ever have somebody come in and you’re like, “Wow, this person is super ugly and their makeup is terrible. Totally judging right now. Oh my god, their questions are so stupid,”? Because I am just too terrified to go into a Sephora for fear of people making fun of me. Please tell me there are super nice people there that won’t judge my hideous eyebrows and lack of makeup application skills and can help me look pretty.

No. I mean, there are some people whose makeup is maybe over the top and totally not my taste, but you know what, I’m going to help them find whatever they want. One lady wanted a black ink eyeliner for her brows and I helped her find it. I also gently suggested she at least try a brown one too. 🙂 Most people who come in are not experts, we’re used to answering questions that may seem basic.

At what point should I just cash in my damn points?

Ugh, I know. I always keep 1,000 around because last year they did a 1000 point perk for two full size Marc Jacobs lip products and I keep waiting for them to do something that awesome again. But now if I see something I use on the regular (Marc Jacobs eyeliner was just a 100 pt perk) I grab it. I grabbed multiple Glamglows last year! That’s a tip: you can usually get multiples of a points perk.

What do you do with returned, used items? Throw them away? Use them as testers? Are the employees allowed to take any of them?

Yeah, used items are destroyed. Sometimes I wish we could take them. Like we had a lady return a kit of Ole Henriksen items but had only used one thing from the kit, the others were still sealed, but no, it all gets destroyed. If something really hasn’t been touched and is still sealed or whatever, it will go back on the floor. I’m really cautious though, and if I have even an inkling that it’s been used, I will mark it defective and have it destroyed.

What is the grossest thing someone has ever returned? Do you even accept gross returns?

Haha. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything too gross returned. The only thing I hate about returns is when people lie about having used things. We accept the return no matter what, so don’t lie and say you didn’t use it! It could end up back on the floor!

How “used” can a product be for a store to still accept a full refund return?

I think as long as there is still product in it, we’ll take it back. Just don’t try to return something 3/4 empty. I will talk about you when you leave.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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