If you’ve spent even a few seconds watching beauty tutorials on YouTube or TikTok, you’ve felt the influence of Michelle Phan. Back in the early 2000s, the creator was one of the pioneers of the format, deftly combining personal storytelling with step-by-step instructions for how to apply the perfect swipe of red lipstick, the most natural-looking highlight, or the subtlest of smokey eyes. Since her early days as a YouTuber, Phan, now 34, has evolved into a multihyphenate businesswoman: Among various other ventures, she is now the full owner of EM Cosmetics, the makeup line she originally co-launched with L’Oréal in 2013. As she prepared for her latest launch, an art-inspired collection of neutrals, we spoke with Phan about how her approach to makeup has evolved over the years, the chemical exfoliants she found through a “Reddit black hole,” and the sleep-inducing gadget she can’t live without.
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Your latest EM Cosmetics launch, the Masterpiece Collection, is made up of blush, eyeshadow palettes, and tinted balms—all of which have names that refer to artists, art movements or paintings: Rodin, Rococo, Mona Lisa, Van Gogh. What made you decide to draw that connection?
I was watching a bunch of these YouTube videos about Flemish painters and their techniques— how they have layers upon layers, starting with a sketch and then an underpainting. And it was actually the underpainting that piqued my interest, because they used a lot of earth tones like clay, umber, and burnt sienna. When you see a lot of these paintings today, they stand the test of time because of this technique—it preserves the warmth, colors, and richness. My team and I have been wanting to do a neutrals palette for a very long time, but we wanted to put something out that was different, because, I mean, even the name neutrals is not so exciting. So how do we bring a fresh take to neutrals? As we were developing the products, we thought about the layering process. A lot of the neutral palettes that I grew up using, oftentimes they were very opaque, which is great for people who want that higher coverage, but it just looks very chalky on me. So in the year it took to develop these two palettes, we incorporated satins and sheer finishes that make it easier to build a no-makeup makeup look.
What were your first experiences with makeup like?
The first time I started getting into beauty, I was using my mom’s makeup, because I didn’t have access to my own money or makeup and I just used what she used. Back then, in the ‘90s, makeup was very one note. I was using ugly blue eyeshadow because that’s all I had. Looking back, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, my makeup looks so cringe and bad,” because I didn’t understand color stories. I didn’t understand tones. In a way, going on YouTube and teaching my audience what looks good on me, I evolved too. Now that I have my own brand, I can get very specific and nuanced with what I want in a product, how I want the finish to look, how I want the payoff to be. In a way, it’s a gift to my younger self.
Did you have a beauty icon or someone whose approach to beauty you really admired when you were younger?
I actually didn’t have a beauty icon. Growing up, being Asian American, I didn’t see someone who looked like me on TV screens. I’ve mentioned this before and people are like, “Well, there was Lucy Liu.” But Lucy Liu doesn’t actually look like me! I had to, in a weird way, become my own beauty icon. I had to experiment: My videos were a place for me to express what I wish I saw and how I saw myself. Nowadays we see beauty as so much more diverse. It’s not this one-size-fits-all look. Beauty transcends age, ethnicities, genders. It’s whatever pleases your aesthetic eye, is what I tell people. There are people whom I admire for their beauty, like Monica Bellucci, for example—I believe she has the most perfect beauty proportions—but I live in the world of social media. Every day there’s a new beauty icon, there’s someone representing a new point of view on beauty that I didn’t see before that I want to emulate myself.
If you had to narrow down to one beauty product that you couldn’t live without, what would it be?
Eye cream. Skinceuticals Eye Complex in particular. I didn’t realize how much I undervalued eye cream. Now that I’m older, the skin is starting to feel thinner in that area. People used to tell me, “Don’t use eye cream, it’s a waste of money. Just use moisturizer.” But the more I’ve learned about eye cream, the more I realized, no, they’re specifically formulated: They’re pH balanced because the skin under your eye is completely different from the skin around your face. So that was something I wish I was incorporating into my routine growing up. But now I am, and it just makes the biggest difference with my skin prep. If I don’t have eye cream, my makeup does not look as good.
What skincare investment has made the biggest difference for you?
The one thing that actually works is laser treatments. It’s expensive, but it works. I use PicoSure, which has practically no downtime, but within three months I saw the biggest difference. My skin texture was better. It was less dull. And my pores look much smaller. And then after that, I started to get more into acids. I never touched acids in my twenties because I was always told you don’t want to mess up your skin barrier. But as you enter your thirties, your hormones are changing, so you need a little more help to turn over the skin cells. In the past two years, I started to dabble more in glycolic and lactic acid.
Do you use prescription strength, or are there any brands you feel are particularly reputable?
At first I tried everything on Amazon, and I didn’t feel like anything was strong enough. Then I went down a Reddit black hole. A lot of people were recommending this one website that sells acids called Makeup Artist’s Choice. So I decided to try it and the products are really cheap and so effective. It’s not the most glamorous website, but it’s legit. Don’t focus on the packaging, it’s all about the formula.
What is the first thing you do in the morning, beauty-wise?
I wipe my face with a cotton pad soaked in water. Then I do an acidic toner, an essence, eye cream, moisturizer and, of course, sunscreen. I don’t leave the house without sunscreen. I’ve been wearing sunscreen since I was a teenager, and I know it works because I compared my skin to my mom’s skin when she was my age, and my skin looks a million times better. My favorite brand is a Korean brand called Saturday Skin—their hyaluronic acid sunscreen is one of the best sunscreens I’ve ever used It’s water based, and it’s cheap.
What is your favorite form of self-care? What do you do when you want to just wind down and do something for yourself?
My favorite form of self-care is actually having real good sleep—something that’s a luxury for most people, which it shouldn’t be. I’ve been reading this book called Why We Sleep, which a lot of my friends who are tech company founders recommended to me. I used to think sleep was so unproductive—you know that saying, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But actually I probably shaved off five years of my lifespan because I didn’t sleep a lot. Now, to wind down, I black out my curtains, I turn down the blue light on my phone, and I lie down and read all of the articles that I’ve saved throughout the day. Then I use this eye massager from Renpho. It looks like a VR headset, but you put this baby over your face and it uses air pressure and heat to massage your temples and your eye area, and it plays piano music. I fall asleep within 10 minutes of using it.
What’s your pre-wind-down skincare routine?
I take a long shower, because I read that you want to heat up your body temperature before bed, because as your body cools down afterwards, you feel sleepier. I use Shu Uemura haircare products, and I especially like her hair mask, which I leave on for the full 15 minutes because it makes a world of difference when you use it correctly. I’ll wash my body with AmorePacific cleanser, and then moisturize with Sisley Black Rose cream on my face, and Nécessaire body serum. For my skincare, I use a face and hair micro misting device from a French brand called Reduire—they sponsored me once, but I use it to this day and I really recommend it. It uses magnets to push skincare [which comes in compatible pods] further into my skin. When I first used it I thought, “Oh, this is so gimmicky.” But I noticed the next day my skin looked really amazing, and it’s now become part of my routine.
What would be your ideal spa day and where?
The best spa experience I’ve ever had was in Korea. It’s like the Disneyland of self care. It’s open 24 hours. There are three levels. One level is female-only, another is male-only, but then there’s an area where you wear your robe and you can be among everyone. There are igloos and heated pyramids and an area where everyone is just napping on the floor. A lot of young couples go there to spend time together, because young people traditionally live with their parents, so it’s a place where they can hang out and talk. A friend of mine even lived in one for three days.
How would you say your approach to makeup and beauty in general has evolved over the past couple of years?
I’m not trying to chase after trends. I’m just going with my natural beauty and enhancing it. I feel I’m more aware of who I am and how I look. I don’t live behind filters. I look back and I realize I was really insecure and I wanted to look like a certain person. As you age, you just care less about what people think. When you’re younger, you think people care, but people care about their own issues. They don’t care about your issues! Overcoming my insecurities has been so helpful for my mental health. Actually loving myself—not just saying I love myself.