Rhiannon Harries: Not to put too fine a gloss on it

To view the ONS selection of lip gloss as a fashion trend would be wrong

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So, women of Britain, how did you prepare to face the world this morning? By applying a full-face of make-up? Or did you eschew the artillery of primers, powders and pencils and go au naturel for National No Make-Up Day (in the unlikely event that you were aware such a thing existed)?

According to the Office of National Statistics, your beauty routine may well have included a slick of lip gloss, since the little tubes of sticky stuff this week made it into the theoretical shopping basket used to calculate the cost of living. Until now, lipstick was the favoured item representing the cosmetics market, but, in the same way that the hairdryer has been usurped by straighteners, it has been ditched due to higher sales of gloss.

To interpret the ONS' selection as a picture of emerging, or even current, trends would be wrong; it's precisely because these are the things that the majority of us buy that they make useful economic indicators. Most have long since peaked as the height of fashion.

Lip gloss had its last "moment" a decade ago. In fashion terms, lipstick still has the edge. Chanel is re-launching its entire lipstick range. And it's hard to imagine celebrities distinguished by their strong personal style, such as avant-garde popstrel Lady Gaga or vintage queen Dita Von Teese, in anything so anodyne as clear lip gloss. Nevertheless, that gloss should have overtaken lipstick in the average woman's make-up bag flags up a shift in our collective attitudes to beauty.

Last month, on Radio 4's Woman's Hour, Jane Garvey posed the old question, "Can you wear lipstick and be a feminist?" Many women now scoff at the idea that the two could be mutually exclusive, but I wonder if the answer might be slightly different if you substituted – as many of us clearly have – the lipstick for lip gloss?

On one hand, gloss seems a product better suited to the demands of the average woman's life – quick and virtually idiot-proof to apply, with no need for pesky mirror checks throughout the day. More crucial to its popularity, however, is that it is more forgiving to older skin. No surprises that it's our default choice, then, given the fixation with youth.

There's also something a little depressing about the way in which women of all ages have embraced a product that was once the rather Lolita-ish preserve of teenage girls. Red lipstick may have traditionally been considered vampish, but really it's anything but "come hither" – the last thing you want to do with perfectly-painted scarlet lips is ruin all your hard work by actually kissing someone.

Lip gloss, though, is self-consciously unthreatening, belonging to that perverse category of cosmetic aimed at creating a "natural" look. Ask any Hollywood actress what her off-duty make-up consists of and the chances are she will cannily purr, "Oh nothing much, a little lip gloss maybe".

Most women are well aware that men generally cite obvious make-up as a turn-off, so a woman sporting bold lipstick is unlikely to be pandering to a received image of what men consider attractive. I'm not sure whether you can say the same of one wearing baby pink gloss.

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