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5 Tips for Buying Single Pan Eyeshadows


Want to build your own custom eyeshadow palette? Here are my tips for getting started.

I know I’m in the minority, but eyeshadow palettes don’t really do it for me. I have an extreme minimalist aesthetic when it comes to eyes, and most palettes contain too many shades that I know I won’t use. I once spent my Shoppers Optimum points on the Urban Decay Naked 2 palette, and gave it away six months later because I just never, ever used it.

My custom matte (mostly) neutral palette. Contains primarily Makeup Geek shadows, but also some MAC and an Anastasia Beverly Hills pan.

I resisted buying single pan shadows for a long time. For whatever reason, I didn’t like the look of cardboard Z-Palettes, and building a custom palette seemed like a lot more effort than it was worth. Most days, I am happy swiping my bronzer or contour powder through the crease. The end.

Despite my resistance, I couldn’t stop lusting over images like these and had a wishlist saved on Makeup Geek for months. Finally, when a free shipping promo popped up over the holidays, I went for it.

Since then, I’ve done a 180 on single pan shadows—but I made some mistakes along the way. Below, I share 5 tips for building your custom palette.

1. Have your palette ready

If you don’t have a proper place to store your single shadows, you won’t use them. To enjoy your shadows as soon as you get them, make sure you have a customizable palette ready. As soon as I finished checking out on Makeup Geek, I hopped over to Nail Polish Canada and ordered a Large Z-Palette. Later on, I ordered a Baby Z-Palette from Sephora so that I could use it for travel.

There are loads of handmade and DIY alternatives as well.

Pro tip: Z-Palettes and other magnetic palettes have a magnetized base, which means any shadow in a metal pan will stick to it. MAC shadows are the opposite: the magnet is on the pans, and their palettes are metal. If you want to put your MAC shadows in a magnetic palette, you need to remove the magnet and apply a metal sticker onto the bottom of the pan. I personally like the Z-Palette because it comes with metal stickers that you can apply to the bottom of shadows that don’t otherwise stick.

MAC singles have a labeled magnet so that they stick into MAC palettes. They need a little work before they will stick into your magnetic palette.
Here I removed the label from the magnet, and then removed the magnet from the pan. I used one of the metal stickers that came with my Z-Palette, stuck the label onto that, and then stuck that onto the pan. Now it fits perfectly into my Z-Palette.


2. Swatch shadows in person

Pan colours don’t always look like the swatches, and online swatches don’t always look like IRL swatches. No amount of online research will make up for actually hauling yourself to a store and swatching the shadows yourself—not just for colour, but for variations in formula, finishes, and textures as well.

My goal for my MUG order was making sure I had a good range, from light, all-over base and transition shades, to mid-tone cool and warm shades, to deeper shades. Yet when I started using my shadows, I felt I was missing a bunch from the transition category. It turned out that the shadows I chose appeared lighter on my monitor than they were in real life. There will always be a disparity between the pan, the swatch, your monitor, your skin tone. Getting to a store and swatch the shadows yourself ensures you make the best possible selections.

Where can you find single shadows in person? MAC has an extensive line of single shadows, which also just dropped in price from $12 CAD per pan to $8 CAD per pan. Anastasia Beverly Hills singles ($16 CAD + volume discount) are now being sold at Sephora in select stores. Sephora also carries MAKE UP FOR EVER’s Artist Shadows ($25 CAD + volume discount), which are much larger than the standard 26mm pans that MAC, MUG, and ABH use. Inglot’s Freedom System shadows cost $12 CAD and are available at their Dundas Square store in Toronto.

3. Compare swatches

If you insist on ordering online, be open to unexpected results. I tirelessly researched swatches of every shade I ordered and still came out with a few duds.

Do a Google Image search for the shades you’re interested in, and search for swatches on a skin tone similar to yours. You’ll get a better idea of how the shade might look on your skin tone, but you’ll also learn just how wildly the representation of shades can be.

Just look at the variation in colour between all of these photos of Makeup Geek’s warm reddish brown shade, Cocoa Bear:

Cocoa Bear - Pan Comparisons

Cocoa Bear is the middle swatch in the first image; the first two images are both from Makeup Geek’s website. My own Cocoa Bear doesn’t look like any of these pans or swatches!

Here’s another example. MUG’s High Tea looks pretty close to the first pan here, but nothing like the second or third image:

High Tea - Pan Comparisons

Why not one more? Here’s MUG’s Baby Face (the centre shade in the swatch image below):

Baby Face - Pan Comparisons

See what I mean? It’s impossible to know which photographs are wrong until you have the pans in hand. If you’re not up for the risk, ordering online might not be for you.

4. Avoid colour dupes

I’ve made this mistake twice now, and both times could have been avoided by a) following my own advice about swatching in person and b) having a little self control.

I wish I whittled down my selections further by deciding between two similar colours. Yes, I can see the difference between MUG’s Peach Smoothie and Beaches and Cream, but I don’t feel I need them both. Likewise, I’d have been happy selecting either Barcelona Beach or Latte.

L-R: Makeup Geek Peach Smoothie; Makeup Geek Beaches and Cream.
L-R: Makeup Geek Barcelona Beach; Makeup Geek Latte.

When the MAC single shadow prices dropped, I picked up four shades, two of which were Omega and Wedge. They’re both beautiful, but I don’t need both. And again—had I swatched these shades in person, I may not have chosen either of them because these warm and cool brown tones are already represented amongst my MUG shadows, when I had intended to fill in some blanks.

L-R: MAC Omega; MAC Wedge.

When shooting for this post, I also found two recently-purchased shadows that were utterly unnecessary: Anastasia Beverly Hills Stone and MAC Omega. Sigh.

Top – Anastasia Beverly Hills Stone; Bottom – MAC Omega

Having all of the colours is fun, but expensive, and barely practical for my own routine.

5. Start with a core collection

I went a little ham with my first purchase from MUG. If I could do it all over again, I would have chosen 6-9 shades and continued to round out my collection if I felt I was missing anything. Right now I simultaneously have too many shadows but am also missing core shades that I know I would get more use out of. Had I kept my first selections to a minimum, I could have been more thoughtful about how my custom palette was being built.

Top row, L-R: Makeup Geek Shimma Shimma; Makeup Geek Vanilla Bean; Makeup Geek Mocha; Mocha. Bottom row, L-R: Makeup Geek Beaches and Cream; Makeup Geek Barcelona Beach; Makeup Geek Corrupt.
My perfect, pared down palette. Top row, L-R: Makeup Geek Shimma Shimma; Makeup Geek Vanilla Bean; Makeup Geek Mocha. Bottom row, L-R: Makeup Geek Beaches and Cream; Makeup Geek Barcelona Beach; Makeup Geek Corrupt.

Do you have any other tips for building a custom palette of single shadows?


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  • Niina

    Very interesting post! I agree with many things you wrote and learned something new, too.

    I don’t have your minimalist aesthetic, and so I’ve gathered quite a collection of neutral but also colourful pans plus quite a few palettes. But I do feel stupid for having color dupes, although I don’t have too many. Mostly blacks, but that’s another story.

    I’m glad to see someone else has noticed that even MUG:s site doesn’t provide accurate swatches. And I’m sure in many cases the swatches don’t do justice to MUG shadows (and other products) and they should put more work to present them.

    Actually I have been so confused with all the MUG neutrals, that I’ve nearly only ordered colourful ones…. 😀 And the neutrals pans that I have are mostly from Inglot that I’ve been able to swatch in person.

  • Jaclyn

    This was sooo helpful. I found this through a google search and realized I know you from CBB. You’re posts are always awesome. I totally agree, MUG’s website swatches are annoyingly off. Glad to your newest post:)

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