Sorry, not sorry to all the other seasons, but fall—aka Pumpkin Spice Latte season— is the best season of the year. It has everything: Fall jackets are the most stylish jackets, are the most fun season-related activities, and, most importantly, fall holidays are actually enjoyable to celebrate, like Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead. Día de los Muertos begins on Nov. 1 and goes into the early morning of Nov. 2, during which time celebrants honor dead loved ones with altars and intricate makeup looks that can take weeks of planning. In other words: you’ve gotta get planning if you want your Day of the Dead makeup to look perfect.
You probably (ahem, absolutely should) already know this, but remember that Día de los Muertos is not synonymous with Halloween and should never be used in any costumes, so if you’re here for that, please click away right now. If, however, you want to incorporate makeup into your Día de los Muertos celebration this year, read on to check out the 23 best Day of the Dead makeup looks and get advice from Judith Bautista, aka Kahlovera, a Mexican-American artist who specializes in Day of the Dead, and LA-based designer Lily Martinez, who creates Día de los Muertos-inspired looks year-round.
Before we dive into the makeup, it’s important to keep the spirit of the holiday front and center. “Día de los Muertos is a day to honor your ancestors and your deceased loved ones and to welcome them back with altars of their favorite things, pictures, candles, and marigolds,” says Bautista. “You display their favorite foods and tell stories of memories that were tied to that person that passed away.”
What is the Day of the Dead makeup called?
Day of the Dead makeup has many names, reflecting the three main themes of Día de los Muertos makeup looks. And there are key distinctions between each of these terms and their different origins. Bautista breaks it down:
- Calavera: a skull
- Sugar skull: a skull made from compressed sugar, usually decorated, and used to adorn the altars
- La Catrina: technically the correct term to use when referring to the elaborate, opulent skull makeup look for Día de Muertos that commonly features flowers and other rich embellishments
La Catrina is an iconic figure that comes from a piece of work called La Calavera Catrina by artist José Guadalupe Posada, which features a skeleton woman wearing a dressy hat adorned with flowers. (Catrina was also later included in a mural by Diego Rivera.)
“It was a mockery of people who were trying to look sophisticated,” Bautista explains. “They would dress up and try to look like they were high-class, and his point was even in death, we’re all just skeletons.” (Again, none of these are Halloween costumes, so if you’re here lookin’ for Oct. 31 inspo, you’ve made a wrong turn.)
Can I wear Day of the Dead makeup?
As a basic rule of thumb, if you have to ask, then you should probably sit this one out. That said, both Bautista and Martinez say they love to see other cultures celebrating the tradition when done respectfully and with knowledge of the meaning and historical background of the holiday. “I feel so strongly that everybody can participate,” Martinez says. “As long as you know the meaning behind it—in honor of the people that you love—it’s such a powerful thing to participate in.”
As Bautista explains, “If you think about the roots of what it really means, it’s a day to honor your deceased loved ones, and there’s nobody who’s impartial to that—anybody can relate to that,” she says. “The big thing is when people don’t respect the culture itself, or they’re interested in tying it into Halloween, and that one is sensitive to me, too. I do Halloween makeup all the time, but I’m very careful not to label one as the other. As a Mexican-American artist, that’s been my biggest mission: to celebrate our culture without letting the roots of it be taken away.”
Bottom line: Be respectful and try to keep the meaning of Día de los Muertos, not cosplay, at the forefront when coming up with your designs.
What do you need for Day of the Dead makeup?
Día de los Muertos makeup looks can be simple or extravagant depending on your style (and, let’s face it, your skill level). But you really only need a few quality products to do a calavera. Martinez’s trick for creating a base for your skull that’ll stay put throughout photoshoots or festivals is to use a long-lasting foundation in the lightest shade you can find.
If you’re fair, she suggests adding a bit of white face paint to the foundation—buuut not just any face paint. Bautista says to skip the cheap costume store stuff that can crack and melt, and to instead pick up some water-based face paint.
As for the black detailing, Martinez uses eyeliner and a Mehron water-activated palette to keep the lines sharp and clean. If you want to glam it up and make the black pop, Martinez likes to use glitter eyeshadows and apply gems (or any other small embellishment) with eyelash glue.
How to apply Día de los Muertos makeup:
If you want to keep your look simple and easy, stick with the fundamental elements of Day of the Dead makeup. According to Bautista, those include a skull with added flowers, plus a mix of colors, patterns, or shapes based on the person you’re honoring.
While there is room for creative interpretation, keep in mind that these are traditions and celebrations that are rooted in cultural history. Since it is a celebration of life, Bautista also advises against adding any elements to your look that could lean towards horror or gore and blur the lines between Day of the Dead and Halloween. “It’s not about fear or anything scary,” Martinez adds. “It’s about life, but they just happen to be in another space.”
With that in mind, here are some show-stopping examples of Day of the Dead makeup to get you inspired.
1. Sunflower Day of the Dead Makeup
If you want a look that’s still totally pretty but don’t want to paint your entire face or body, go with something like this sunflower Día de los Muertos makeup look.
2. Vibrant Day of the Dead Makeup
This is an incredible Día de los Muertos makeup look filled with (lots) of artistic detail and gorgeous embellishments. (Think: face jewels, beautiful eyelashes, and lots of shimmery blue eyeshadow.) If you have the skill to create this, this is a next-level Day of the Dead idea.
3. Butterfly Day of the Dead Makeup
This gorgeous Día de los Muertos makeup uses a blue butterfly theme to put a vibrant twist on the classic Catrina makeup. Tailor the color to your preference, or see below for some vibrant blue face paint options that’ll help you recreate this look.
4. Embellished Day of the Dead Makeup
The gorgeous decals and embellishments in this Catrina makeup really make it stand out (I mean, the placement around the eyes and along the ridge of the nose are kinda perfect). Down to try it out yourself? Don’t sleep on the pink eyeshadow—it’ll bring your Day of the Dead look to the next level.
5. Hot Pink Day of the Dead Makeup
If you typically go for looks that don’t require a full face of paint—I got you. This look keeps it low-key, but the hot-pink accents (think: pink lips, cheeks, and the details under the eyes) still make for beautiful Day of the Dead makeup.
6. Warm-Toned Day of the Dead Makeup
For this Day of the Dead makeup look, pick two warm-toned colors (like the pink and orange you see here) and use them as the theme for your look. The gold embellishments in this pic are so freaking pretty, too.
7. Simple Day of the Dead Makeup
This subtle Day of the Dead makeup is so sweet and pretty for November 1. It doesn’t require a ton of color, and you can recreate just using a white eyeliner pencil and some magenta lipstick.
8. Half-Skull Day of the Dead Makeup
If you’d rather take a softer approach to your Day of the Dead makeup, go for this half-face creation. It’ll give you the option to wear something simple on one side of your face (like this winged eyeliner and red lipstick) while still wearing all the makings of a Catrina look on the other side.
9. Elaborate Day of the Dead Makeup
Heads up that this look isn’t for makeup newbs, but if you have the skill (and patience!), this Day of the Dead makeup has an incredible payoff. Don’t forget to invest in a face paint palette—and a few detailing brushes—before giving this Catrina makeup look a try.
10. Soft Day of the Dead Makeup
The shades of pink and red in this Day of the Dead look are too pretty not to recreate. Don’t you just love that subtle pink highlight on the cheekbones, too? Finish off your makeup with a touch of glitter on the eyelids.
11. Floral Day of the Dead Makeup
The flower detailing—both on the face and in the hair—is key to recreating this Day of the Dead makeup look. Don’t forget to complete your creation with a set of wispy eyelashes and a pastel smokey eye.
12. Colorful Day of the Dead Makeup
What do you get when you combine varying shades of orange, green, blue, and yellow? This incredible makeup look for Day of the Dead. The glittery details (thanks to face and body glitter) on the nose and around the eyes are key to creating your own version of this one.
13. Chic Day of the Dead Makeup
For this look, you don’t need a ton of supplies—you just need a steady hand. This minimal, modern look only requires a few makeup products, like liquid eyeliner, red lipstick, a little bit of eyeshadow, and of course, the floral crown on top in corresponding colors.
14. Regal Day of the Dead Makeup
“For me, it has so many meanings, but primarily it’s the crossroads of my creativity and what I love to do and my culture,” Martinez explains about her Catrina creations. In each look, she incorporates something related to her Mexican culture, like a crown of corn husks. “I still want it to be authentic to who I am and still be in touch with the tradition, but modernize it.”
15. Rosy Day of the Dead Makeup
If you go with a half-face Day of the Dead makeup look, streamline it by choosing one color to base your look around, like, say, the red of a rose as shown here by Bautista.
16. Heart-Eyes Day of the Dead Makeup
This Catrina makeup look by Martinez features pink, hearts, and all themes of love.”When I’m putting on this, I think of the people that are gone,” Martinez says. “It makes me think of them because that’s what it’s for. It’s not just a costume.”
17. Full-Body Day of the Dead Makeup
When working with white and black paints, things can get muddy quickly without the right techniques. Bautista recommends first contouring with shadows, like powder contour makeup, before defining any heavy lines. “It’s hard to erase and start all over when you use water-based makeup, so I would suggest they do their sockets and cheekbones with powder and later come in with the lines, so they feel more confident with their placement,” Bautista explains.
18. Eye-Catching Day of the Dead Makeup
Don’t be afraid to change it up from the typical skull design. This makeup look starts with a white base, but instead of blacking out the eye area, the artist used bright, colorful shades to create a stunning eye makeup look that still resembles a skull.
19. Rhinestone Day of the Dead Makeup
This interpretation features rows and rows of roses and rhinestones, and don’t be afraid to carry the theme down into your outfit and accessories too. “A Catrina means you’re supposed to be all decked out, so jewelry would be another thing to dress up your Catrina,” Martinez adds.
20. Marigold Day of the Dead Makeup
For a look like this, swap the light face base makeup with orange face paint and gold tones to create a look that resembles the classic marigold flowers.
21. Flower Petal Day of the Dead Makeup
Jewels aren’t the only option for embellishing your Day of the Dead makeup look. Martinez says eyelash glue also works great for applying little pieces of paper cut in the shape of flower petals. Or you can skip the glue altogether and paint the flower petal shapes around your eyes with a damp makeup brush and gold shimmer pigment, like the look shown here.
22. Bejeweled Day of the Dead Makeup
As Bautista explains it, the makeup is a reflection of your own life or an interpretation of someone that you’re honoring, so what colors you use is up to you as the artist. Feel free to incorporate your loved one’s favorite flower or colors in your design.
Why trust Cosmo?
Olivia Truffaut-Wong is an editor at Cosmopolitan with 10 years of experience writing about culture, news, fashion, and beauty. She loves to dive into beauty products and reviews, learning everything about tinted sunscreens and magnetic eyelashes to find the best for Cosmo readers.
Siena Gagliano is an associate editor at Cosmopolitan and has three years of experience writing about beauty, fashion, and lifestyle news. She’s an expert at writing makeup stories that range from witch makeup tutorials to the best gel eyeliners. She’s an authority in all makeup categories, but after speaking to—and learning from—Mexican-American artists and designers regarding Día de los Muertos, she feels knowledgable on the topic. Her Day of the Dead makeup looks include all Mexican-American artists.
Sami Roberts was previously the beauty assistant at Cosmopolitan with four years of experience researching, writing, and editing health, social media, and beauty-related stories, including the best 2022 makeup trends and the coolest Halloween hairstyles. Her Day of the Dead makeup look picks highlight all Mexican-American artists, and were chosen with information from experts in mind.
Olivia Truffaut-Wong is an entertainment and culture writer and editor who will never turn down a romance or superhero movie. Her work has been featured in The Cut, Refinery29, Teen Vogue, Polygon, Bustle, and more.
Siena Gagliano is the associate editor at Cosmopolitan, where she primarily covers beauty in the makeup, skin, and hair spaces, as well as some fashion and lifestyle. Wanna know how to get the best brows of your life? Gotchu. What about how to achieve ridiculously glowing skin, a super bouncy blowout, or exactly how to use that viral face mask? Check, check, and check. Before joining Cosmopolitan, Siena was a writer at Bustle and several other media outlets. As NYC’s newest resident, she has vowed to find the best (extra) dirty martini this city has to offer—and yes, that means ~attempting~ to try every cute cocktail spot in the city (hit her up with some recs, pls). Follow Siena on Instagram where you’ll see that her account is mostly dedicated to pics of her cute dog and that magazine life.