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The Sephora Shoppers’ Handbook

By Amalah

Hey Amy!
I’m going to Vegas baby! Which – more importantly – means, I’m going to Sephora baby! Now you may think, yeah, and? Perhaps you don’t realize the good life you live being in the vicinity of actual stores that sell useful, beloved – nay, coveted – products. See, I’m from a smallish town in the middle of the Canadian prairies. We have a Wal Mart, and … well, we have a Wal Mart. The nearest Sephora is all the way on the other side of the country in Ontario, so suffice it to say, all I’ve done so far is drool over the website (I’m not a very brave online shopper). I’m particularly interested in cosmetics and skin care (especially the Philosophy line you speak so highly of). My question is: how do I make the most of my shopping trip? I would like to talk to someone about the skincare products (I have some problems with acne), and also I would just love for someone to show me how to use makeup. The only lesson I ever got was from my non-makeup-wearing mom who gave me some clear lip gloss and compact powder when I was 13. I haven’t really changed my makeup routine since I started wearing makeup, and every attempt I’ve made at following the tips I’ve gleaned from What Not To Wear has gone wonky. What’s the best counter to visit for makeup application help and good, reasonably priced products? Help guide me oh wise one, in the ways of the Sephora shopping experience. I’m going at the end of the month, and I realize you’re away right now, and also, busy, so I’m not holding my breath on this one. But thanks anyway for all the great answers you’ve given to all the great questions that I didn’t even realize I’d wondered about!

You know, I totally take Sephora for granted. There are like, seventeen dozen Sephoras within driving distance from my house, and yet I get so many questions from women who have nothing but the website and a dream of actually walking those hallowed aisles.
It’s sort of like how every online friend I had kept talking about Lush. Lush Lush Lush Lush Lush. OMG, Lush. I’ll come visit you in DC, and we’ll go to Lush! And I had no freaking clue what they were talking about, but yes! Come to DC, and we’ll go to Lush! After I look it up in the phone book.
And it turned out to be right down the street from me, and I could not believe I’d lived so long without Lush, and I realized why people were making special trips to crash on my couch just so they could go to Lush and stock up on soap.And then I bought a gift set for my Manhattanite sister and niece, and surprise! They also did not know about Lush and why NYC tourists were flocking there in droves.
storesHdr-1.jpgSo this one’s for all the Sephoraless readers out there, for I know that deer-in-the-headlights feeling you can get the first time you visit.
First of all, Sephora does not have “counters.” It’s just a big old free-for-all of aisles, divided up by brand. Expect to see two entire walls of fragrance (one for women, one for men), and then cosmetics in one part of the store and skincare and hair products in another. (I’ve never been to the Vegas Sephora so I don’t know the exact layout, but they’re all fairly similar.) While most stores carry the same brands, bigger stores carry more and there are some differences in the brand line-up at smaller stores.
First, wander around on your own and get your bearings. You’ll get asked if you want help by employees quite a bit, and if you want a makeup application lesson you can get that from pretty much any of them. Beware of employees who are only pushing one brand — you want someone who recommend their favorite products store-wide. (The Bare Escentuals line ALWAYS has a dedicated rep at my local Sephora, so watch out and don’t get suckered in.)
storesHdr-2.jpg There’s no pressure — just because they put something on you doesn’t mean you have to drop it in your basket. If you don’t like the eye makeup they use, just say something and they’ll whip it off and try again. If your person seems rushed or impatient, say you’d like to look around by yourself for a little while and then try someone else. (I’ve always gotten great help at Sephora, though. Am just trying to be annoyingly thorough.)
Also, be sure to give them some guidance on what you’re willing to spend. And that right there is why I have to be careful about my Sephora visits. I have the luxury of spacing them out, because stuff is not generally very cheap there. You put two tiny little things in your basket and they ring you up, charge you $90 and put your purchases in a bag the size of a postage stamp and you wonder what the hell just happened. For several items of makeup and say, a Philosophy gift set, it’s gonna be hard to stay under a couple hundred bucks. Sephora’s own line of makeup will be your cheapest option there, and the stuff is good, but strikingly similar to the store-brand line at Ulta, another huge cosmetics-and-skincare store that focuses more on the drugstore and mid-range brands instead of the high-end stuff Sephora sells. (There’s also an Ulta in Vegas, I believe, but not on the strip. It’s also worth a stop for the budget-conscious girl who doesn’t have one in her hometown.) (I used to go to the Ulta by my parents house every time I visited, but now we have one in Maryland. Yay!)
Anyway. Just have FUN at Sephora. You can test anything and everything out, and they provide clean tester brushes and sponges and makeup remover to let you play as long as you want. Get some good guidance and then buy what you believe you cannot live without, then write other things you try and love down for purchasing later from the web site. Check out the low-priced impulse buy stands near the registers for smaller sizes of things you might like and some Rosebud Salve. Ask if they have any free samples to include with your purchase.
And if you get there and decide that it’s not really all that, please don’t judge me for typing this many paragraphs about a damn store.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • dcfullest

    March 23, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Get the Philosophy Acne Gift set. You will love it. It has done AMAZING things for my skin.
    Amalah- I am going broke reading this column! I never knew of the wonders of Coach (bought my first one last month!- the black leather soho!) and Philosophy until you opened my eyes to their fabulousness.

  • queenann

    March 23, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    Oh, and for fun (affordable) color, can’t go wrong with a few sephora brand color products!

  • glittergirley

    March 23, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    omg i just went to sephora last night – i went to the one in san francisco and mmm i bought SO much stuff. I HIGHLY recommend the new “oglow” gel blush by smashbox (only available at sephora).
    I also tried philosophy for the first time and HOLY COW BUTTS ITS AWESOME!!!! my skin looks super healthy this morning. omg i just went to sephora last night – i went to the one in san francisco and mmm i bought SO much stuff. I HIGHLY recommend the new “oglow” gel blush by smashbox (only available at sephora).
    I also tried philosophy for the first time and HOLY COW BUTTS ITS AWESOME!!!! my skin looks super healthy this morning. <3 <3 <3
    keep the good product recommendations a’comin!

  • mary

    March 23, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Hee! I’m from Canada too and recently went to Vegas. I’m piping up because that’s where I got my first ever tin of Rosebud Salve and I love it – buy some Mindy, you won’t be disappointed! I actually got mine at the Anthropologie store in the Ceasar’s Palace mall – another store we can only ogle online in Canada!!

  • suziwon

    March 23, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    I live in Vegas. There are actually two Sephora stores on the strip. One is in the Venetian, and the other is in the Aladdin, which will probably be officially known as the Planet Hollywood by the time you get here.
    Having been to both of them, I would recommend that you hit the one at the Venetian, as unless something has changed, it’s the larger of the two stores. The store can be accessed from the side walk if you happen to be walking down that way, or if you have to park at the Venetian, expect a decent walk from the parking garage to the front of the shopping mall area.
    As for Ulta, there are three of those here, and not only are none of the three on the strip, but they aren’t even close. The nearest one is 8 miles from the strip, which doesn’t sound like much, but it involves taking a freeway to get there. It’s on Eastern and Silverado Ranch. If you are taking a cab, make sure that you go late morning (around 10 am) or early afternoon (before 3pm) if it’s a weekday, otherwise, the cab fare is likely to eat your lunch.
    Feel free to e-mail me if you want more details!

  • Krisbell

    March 23, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Just two pieces of wisdom. I was at Sephora 2 weeks ago (blessed with 3 within about 15 miles in the Boston area) and inquired about the Philosphy line, thanks to Amy. I have problem skin that tends to break out and she said it probably isn’t strong enough. I’ve been using Murad for about 2 years (don’t get the little thing of direct pimple killing stuff- it will turn into a huge gross scab) and like it, but wanted to try something else, because, well, status quo gets boring. She suggested DDR, which I’m using and liking.
    Also, if you find a foundation that you think you like, they’ll hook you up with a sample that can last a few weeks so you can decide. Then you can order online (go ahead, it’s really not dangerous). I’m a grease-face and my makeup disappears after 30 seconds, but Makeup Forever is my heaven. Except that they stopped selling my particular color which caused me to be a complete bitch to the sales girl, but really, why would they do that?
    In summary, definitely ask for some help in the skin care section. That way you won’t leave w/ something not right for you. And, ask for a sample. Since you’re so far away, you won’t be able to return it, so the sample could save you $30-40 (yup, good foundation is that expensive!) Good luck and have fun.

  • suziwon

    March 23, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    Sorry for the double post, but I just realized I forgot to include my e-mail address in my first comment…it’s

  • Amber

    March 23, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    I must share my life changing news! I have no idea where you live in Canada, but I too have sworn up and down at Sephora for only having freakin’ stores in Toronto (I mean really, there are beatiful women all over the damn country that NEED your wares!). I have just found out that – wait for it – Sephora is opening their first store in Western Canada in Calgary – very soon! Don’t worry, if you don’t live there, you can coem sleep on my couch and we can enjoy the bliss that is Sephora together.

  • anony_miss

    March 23, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Yes – do try to get samples and take them back and try them out. You won’t get judged for being afraid to drop $300 at once. I usually go, pick up a few samples, decide what I want to actually spend money on, and then either go back to the store or buy online (totally safe and you get free samples when you buy online and free shipping when you spend $75, whee! Or you can buy through Sephora via which seems less scary to people like my mom). I don’t think you’ll be able to do this for the Philosophy sets or color, but some of the sets contain products that are sold individually, and you could probably get samples that way. I’m currently working my way through eye cream samples and it makes all the difference in the world. Turns out I actually hate the one I thought I wanted. If you do end up making a bad choice, Sephora has a pretty generous return policy. Check about it when you’re in the store though, since I don’t know how that will work if you’re not near one.

  • Isabel

    March 23, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    What is wrong with me that I never get the samples. Never ever.
    Well, except for when I’m at the flagship Sephora in Paris. They always fill me up when I’m there.
    (I totally had to work it in that I’ve been to the glorious mothership of Sephora’s in Paris multiple times. It is huge. And also, the prices are cheaper?! Go figure.)

  • ikate

    March 23, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    I live the the super-hip TOLEDO OHIO and I just found out we are getting a Sephora very soon – halleluiah!!! I’m luck to frequently visit regional cities with Sephora’s (Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland) and always drop a LOAD of money on stuff (oddly much like IKEA). Anyway, ditto on the samples, don’t feel bad asking for them. And buying on-line is totally safe.
    I remember my mom asking me what’s the big deal about Sephora and me telling her it’s like a toy store for women – you get to play with everything!

  • Mindy

    March 24, 2007 at 1:05 am

    SHUT UP!!! Ok, seriously, you ANSWERED MY QUESTION. And now I’m all giddy and geeked out and… well, I suppose that’s really enough of an embarassing internet confession. Anyway, I really did not expect to be answered (but secretly imagined you answering my question, and then we’d go to Sephora together and we’d dress in cute little outfits and be BFF! and… again, that’s really more than enough), but you did answer, and I don’t leave until Wednesday so thanks for the tips! And thanks commenters for the additional tips and help – a Sephora coming to Calgary YIPPEEEEE! You guys already have the Ikea, now you’re getting a Sephora, and also an H&M, which I discovered in the UK, but sadly there are only stores in Eastern Canada. And now I’m rambling (again, which I do well as you can see in my question which I totally thought would get edited and made to look prettier since my writing leaves something to be desired). So thanks.

  • phenotypic

    March 24, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    We don’t have Sephora here in the UK. This sucks. We can buy Philosophy stuff through hqhair dot com but I don’t like paying 30 pounds for a 30 dollar product. BUT I just discovered strawberrynet dot com, which doesn’t stock entire ranges, but damn, it offers pretty good deals on what it does have…

  • The Muse

    March 25, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    There are actually 3 Sephoras on the Strip (there’s also one in the Fashion Show Mall, almost directly across the street from the Wynn Hotel/Casino), but I have to agree, the one just outside the Venetian is both the largest and easiest to get to.
    I’m lucky enough to have 2 Sephoras within about 10 minutes of me in Atlanta, and have made friends with the women (and two really adorable gay guys) that work there. They’re always willing to answer questions, give suggestions in ALL price ranges, and returns are especially easy.
    Although my need for Murad is their Redness Calming Line for Rosacea, I’ve also heard rave reviews about their acne line. But for a spot-treatment, check out the Bliss acne stuff (I think its called “Change Your Spots”), as it is non-irritating and strong.
    Okay, massive comment over.

  • jen

    March 26, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    am echoing the “get lots of samples” advice… I went to sephora this past weekend and if you ask nicely (or even if you don’t, I suspect), they will LOAD YOU UP with lots of lovely samples. they have empty little containers that they can fill up with whatever skin care product your little heart desires.
    happy sephora-ing!