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The Globe and Mail

Pretty pastels make a progressive beauty comeback this spring

Gracia Lam for The Globe and Mail/gracia lam The Globe and Mail

The first makeup product I ever owned was a soft pink lipstick of indeterminate brand origin passed on to me by my best friend, who was, as far as I knew, the only 12-year-old with her own fully stocked beauty bag. I wasn't allowed to wear makeup, an ironic fact that I still choke on today. And even though the barely-there kiss of colour the lipstick deposited on my mouth meant I could break the rules right under my mother's nose, I relished the empowerment that came with taking control of my own aesthetic – and with harbouring a secret. Soft-pink lipstick was my enabler.

Not surprisingly, the spring 2012 catwalks that were awash in delicate pastel shades − baby blue, lavender, mint and, yes, pink – filled me with nostalgic glee. The pale pink pouts at Chanel and Valentino, the sweet yellow eyes at Derek Lam and Diane von Furstenberg and the soft-mint and dove-grey manicures at Rebecca Taylor and Narciso Rodriguez brought me back to my rebel days as a closeted makeup maven.

But as I pondered the runways, it dawned on me that pastel makeup is more than the dominion of the very young on one end and the very current on the other. It is, and always has been, makeup for the 100 per cent.

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Pastels have an uncanny ability to illuminate all complexions and skin tones with a delicate radiance, thus rendering heavy foundations (or any kind of bronzer) unnecessary − a real beauty coup. "The secret is in the subtlety of the colour, which highlights skin's natural flush, creating an all-over glow," says Greg Wencel, a CoverGirl makeup pro. "It's the ultimate feminine palette, denoting innocence and instant youth." It's certainly an easy way to turn back the clock this season: Try a dab of YSL Voile de Blush in Pink Veil, a sweep of CoverGirl Eye Enhancers in Mauveberry or a slick of the hotly anticipated Chanel Le Vernis Nail Colour in May, an ultra-soft shade of rose.

In addition to being almost universally flattering, this season's pastel standouts have democratic appeal because you don't have to be an expert to apply them. There isn't as much pressure to colour within the lip lines when you're swiping on the delicate pink of Dolce & Gabbana's Ultra- Shine Lipgloss in Baby or Shu Uemura's Gloss Unlimited in Corona Orange, a sweet tangerine that leaves a veil of glassy colour. The same can be said for Giorgio Armani's Spring Collection 2012 Eye Palette 1 and Lancôme's La Roseraie Illuminating Smooth Powder. It takes concerted effort to get these forgiving shades wrong.

And you don't have to focus on a single feature: Unlike brights or neutrals, which call to mind a circus clown and a corpse, respectively, when worn all over the face, a full-on pastel look as seen at Carolina Herrera and Louis Vuitton imparts a natural, Botticellian flush.

Timing-wise, the pastel renaissance makes perfect sense: During a period of economic turbulence, radiance trumps the bronzed Housewives look of seasons past and has become key to our collective quest for transparency. As Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, puts it, high-contrast glamour looks may arouse "a lowering of trust" in the eyes of the beholder.

Let's not kid ourselves, though: The dewy pastels that graced the faces on the catwalks and red carpets this year − think Emma Stone's pink eye shadow at the Oscars or Charlize Theron's peachy skin at the Golden Globes − are especially appealing because the camera loves them. A smear of St. Tropez Rose Skin Illuminator or NARS Illuminator in Orgasm can mask minor imperfections while imparting definition without any kind of harshness. That lit-from-within glow will help you sustain a low-maintenance insouciance should you get caught by a Facebook cineaste.

And yet, pastels can tell a rebellious tale, too – perhaps not in the same way as a smudge of smoky shadow, which only spells sex, but as featured on the Alexander McQueen catwalk, where pale pink was used to rim lower lids on models and looked positively alien. The outré dye jobs during presentations by Thakoon and Narciso Rodriguez echoed this otherworldly effect; at these shows, models sported romantic and sophisticated tresses in light pink, green and blue. Soon enough, girl-next-door celebrities such as Kate Bosworth and January Jones stepped out in pastel-hued tips. Though it doesn't quite translate in the real world − can you picture your CFO coming in on a casual Friday with lavender highlights? − it's a clear message that sweetly coloured makeup, like the revolutionary lipstick of my youth, isn't always saccharine.

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