Introduction to Foundation

Foundation goes over your whole face and is intended to even out your complexion so it’s all the same color, rather than having darker or redder spots here and there. It also serves as a base that helps other products such as blush adhere better. Foundation is not really intended to cover up blemishes (though full-coverage foundation can do that to an extent) – that’s what concealer is for.

There are numerous different kinds of foundation:

  • Liquid foundation – Most liquid foundations are water-based (these are typically good for warm weather, as they are water-resistant) or silicone-based (these glide on the skin very smoothly). There are liquid foundation formulas and coverage levels to suit any skin type.
  • Powder foundation – Powder foundation may be loose or pressed in a compact; it is typically quick and easy to apply, but is not great for dry skin.
  • Cream foundation – These tend to be full coverage and feel heavy/thick, but you can sheer them out with a sponge. They are generally better for normal to dry skin.
  • Stick foundation – These tend to be fuller-coverage, are convenient, portable, and good for spot coverage, so they can double as concealer.

There are also lighter-coverage alternatives to foundation:

  • Tinted moisturizer – Moisturizer that has light pigmentation to provide sheer skin coverage; best for normal to dry skin not in need of heavy coverage. You can also take liquid foundation and mix it with a little moisturizer to create your own tinted moisturizer.
  • BB cream (“beauty balm” or “blemish balm”) – Originally a Korean product, BB creams are multi-functional – a combination between a light foundation/tinted moisturizer, sunscreen, and skincare such as whitening for hyperpigmentation. American BB creams tend to just be like tinted moisturizer, with no additional skincare benefits. BB creams tend to come in a very limited shade range and are meant to oxidize after application to match your skin tone. They are best for people who aren’t very pale or very dark, who are looking for light to medium coverage.
  • CC cream (“color correcting” cream) – This was an attempt to jump on the wave of BB cream’s popularity; CC creams are meant to do the same things as BB creams, with additional lessening of discoloration (redness, hyperpigmentation). In actuality, there’s not a huge difference between the two products. There’s also DD cream (“dynamic do-all”/”daily defense”) which is basically the same thing with a new name.

Choosing the right foundation is highly dependent on your individual needs — what your skin type is (normal, dry, oily, combination), what level of coverage you want (light, medium, full), what finish you want (matte, satin, dewy), and of course you need a match to your skintone – not just lightness/darkness but also matching undertones.

If you have oily or combination skin…

Using a primer and setting powder (and possibly a setting spray) will be important. You can also blot your face during the day, using blotting sheets, Starbucks napkins, or toilet seat covers — just press against your face, section by section, without rubbing/wiping.

For combination skin, you can combine different primers as necessary – a regular or moisturizing one for the cheeks, a mattifying one for the t-zone. Look for foundations that are satin or matte, not dewy. Try:

Foundation Coverage Finish SPF Number of shades
Revlon Colorstay for Oily/Combination Skin Full Matte SPF 15 20
CoverGirl Outlast Stay Fabulous 3 in 1 Medium-full Matte SPF 20 14
CoverGirl Queen All Day Flawless Medium-full Matte 14
L’Oreal Infallible Pro-Matte Medium Demi-matte 12
Maybelline Fit Me Matte + Poreless Light-medium Matte 16
Make Up For Ever Mat Velvet+ Medium-full Matte 16
Estee Lauder Double Wear Full Matte 31
Estee Lauder Double Wear Light Light-medium Semi-matte 10
Tarte Amazonian Clay 12-Hour Full Coverage Foundation Full Matte SPF 15 16
Lancome Teint Idole Ultra 24H Full Matte SPF 15 28
Hourglass Immaculate Liquid Powder Foundation Medium Matte 16

If you have dry skin…

Exfoliating and moisturizing before applying foundation will be important, and using a damp sponge for application will work better than a regular brush. This is because bouncing a sponge off your face doesn’t accentuate dry flakes the way buffing with a brush does. Avoid matte foundations, and look for dewy ones. Try:

Foundation Coverage Finish SPF Number of shades
Wet n Wild Coverall Cream Foundation Medium Natural SPF 15 7
Bourjois Healthy Mix Serum Medium Dewy 6
L’Oreal Lumi Magique Medium Dewy SPF 18 9
L’Oreal True Match Lumi Light-medium Dewy 15
Neutrogena Healthy Skin Light Dewy SPF 20 12
MAC Face & Body Light Natural 13
MAC Studio Waterweight Light-medium Dewy SPF 30 23
Make Up For Ever Water Blend Face & Body Light Natural 20
NARS tinted moisturizer Light Dewy SPF 30 11
Laura Mercier Silk Creme Full Semi-matte 10
Chanel Vitalumiere Light-medium Satin SPF 15 8

If you have normal skin…

You can pretty much pick the finishes you prefer from the lists above. You can also try:

Foundation Coverage Finish SPF # of shades
NARS Sheer Glow Light-medium Satin 16
Armani Luminous Silk Medium Dewy 24

FYI, if your skin is either very light or dark, you will probably not find a match in any foundation line that has less than about 15 shades – and obviously, more is better.

Foundation Matching:

If you’re just starting out with makeup, I strongly recommend against trying to pick your foundation shade yourself. If I had done that, I would’ve chosen something about five shades too dark. Just go to Sephora or a department store counter, tell them what you’re looking for (ex. light-to-medium coverage with a dewy finish, for dry skin), and get matched.

Make sure they match it to your neck so you don’t wind up with a “mask” effect where your face is a different color from your neck. Keep in mind that often the skintone on your neck will be different (usually lighter) than the skintone on your face, which often has more tanning/sun damage – so your best foundation match may be lighter than you would expect.

In addition to being the right lightness/darkness, your foundation also needs to match your skin undertone. There is a wide variety of undertones — neutral, beige, peach, pink, yellow, olive, etc. This often gets simplified down to “warm” (usually typified as yellow undertones, though it is possible to have a cool yellow undertone; see here) vs. “cool” (typified as pink undertones).

There are some foundation lines, like CoverFX, L’Oreal True Match, and Estee Lauder Double Wear, which label all their shades warm/cool/neutral. If you’re trying to figure out your undertones, you can try swatching the warm, cool, and neutral shades that look like they’re the right depth for you along your neck to see which is closest to your skintone. If none looks right, you might have olive undertones (a post on this is in the works).

If you get matched and feel like the foundation color doesn’t look right on you, then trust your judgment over the sales assistant’s! Make sure to check how the foundation looks in natural light (bring along a little compact mirror), and ask for a second opinion from a friend if you can. You can also take a Q-tip and wipe off a little line of foundation (in an area of your face without redness/discoloration, perhaps on the edge of your face towards your ear/jaw) and see if there’s a clear line of demarcation, in which case it’s not a good match for you.

You can ask for a foundation match and sample without buying, so always ask the sales assistant to provide you with a sample so you can try it out at home, check it again in natural light, and make sure your skin doesn’t react poorly to the ingredients. Some foundations also may oxidize, or react with your skin to turn a darker color than the original shade. This usually happens within about thirty minutes after application.

If you would rather get a drugstore foundation due to price, I would still recommend getting matched at Sephora or a department store. Then once you have a good match, there are several ways to figure out your drugstore foundation match:

  • Input your match(es) into Findation.
  • Look up bloggers who wear the same foundation shade as you, and see what other foundation matches they have. (I have a list of beauty bloggers sorted by skintone that you can use to do this.)
  • Look up swatches of the foundation range (or the shades you think may be your closest match) online and compare how those look to your existing foundation match. Make sure to look at multiple swatch photos in different lighting conditions.
  • If you know your MAC shade, Google the name of the foundation range + your MAC shade (ex. “Revlon Colorstay Whipped NC30”).
  • Remember that if you buy from CVS, you can return used makeup – so hold on to your receipt!

Keep in mind that it’s common for your skin to be darker in the summer and lighter in the winter, in which case you’ll need different shades of foundation for the different seasons.

Foundation Match Troubleshooting:

A face that is darker or lighter than your neck: If there’s only a difference of one shade, go with the color that matches your neck. If there is a bigger difference, you can try a color that is in between, especially if it’s relatively light-coverage. Or you can match your face and blend the foundation down your neck, but if the skin on your chest is also visible and different in color from your face, that still may not look very natural.

A face that is darker around the perimeter and lighter in the center: This is common with dark skin. It’s a bit of a pain, but try using two foundation shades, a darker one for the perimeter and a lighter one for the center, and blend well.

Difficult-to-match undertones: If you have a really hard time finding a foundation that matches your undertones, I recommend buying a foundation adjuster/mixer. To adjust the undertone of a foundation, first you’ll need to neutralize the original undertone by mixing in a color that is opposite from the original on the color wheel. It’s tempting to go straight to adding a mixer that’s the color you want. But to take an example, if you take a pink-toned foundation and just add yellow, it won’t actually look more yellow; it will turn an unnatural shade of orange. (This is because red + yellow = orange, and pink is just a lighter version of red.)

So if your foundation is too pink or red, mix in green. If your foundation is too yellow, mix in purple. This will neutralize the original undertone, turning your foundation a greyish beige or neutral brown. You can then add some of whatever color your own undertones are — yellow, for instance, or red for pink/red undertones. One note: if you’re starting out with a yellow foundation that you’d like to be more olive, then you can just add blue, since yellow + blue = green.

If you want to experiment before buying an adjuster, you can get some food dye at the grocery store and use that to figure out which color(s) to use. You can also experiment digitally with the Try Colors website, which allows you to build your own custom palette of colors (click “Customize” on the left-hand menu), then mix colors together. So you can use the eyedropper tool on a foundation swatch photo in Photoshop or Pixlr, copy the hex color code, then build a palette of yellow, blue, red, or whatever other adjuster colors you want, and test mixing them together.

Here’s a list of some foundation adjuster options:

Very light or dark skin: If your skin is either very light or dark, it may be hard to find a match, especially in drugstore foundations. Even if your skin is just on the darker side of medium, often brands leave out this end of the spectrum.

Here are two guides to foundations for pale skin:

You’ll need to be a registered user on Makeup Alley to access them.

You can also buy a white foundation to mix with a darker one, such as:

Here is a guide to foundations for medium to dark skin that are available in the UK. Some additional brands available in the US are Black Radiance, Black Opal, and CoverGirl Queen.

In addition, if you want to darken a foundation, you can use a brown mixer (if the foundation isn’t really deep already; in that case, a brown mixer would have no effect) or a tiny amount of a black mixer (if the foundation is already pretty deep). See the list of foundation adjusters above for options that come in brown/black.

Foundation Application:

Even if you have acne problems, I would advise against using a full-coverage foundation. Since some parts of your face are probably relatively clear, there’s no need to cover up those parts with heavy foundation. Try using a light-to-medium coverage foundation, keeping it light in areas where your skin is fairly even, adding coverage where you need it, and using concealer on blemishes. This will create a more natural effect. Or if you find that a full-coverage foundation meets your needs in terms of wear time, color match, etc. you can use a sponge to blend/sheer it out. Another option, as mentioned above, is mixing your foundation with some moisturizer to essentially create your own tinted moisturizer.

Before applying foundation, make sure to apply your sunscreen, moisturize your face (this will help foundation go on more smoothly), and apply primer if you feel you need it, waiting a few minutes between each step so that the products can sink in. Note that chemical sunscreen should be applied first, to bare skin, so that it can absorb; physical sunscreen can be applied either before or after moisturizer.

A quick note – some moisturizers and foundations have sunscreen in them, so you might think that layering SPF 20 sunscreen with an SPF 15 foundation might increase your protection to SPF 35, but it won’t actually do that; your total protection will still be SPF 20. Also, avobenzone degrades octinoxate – so combining a sunscreen that has avobenzone with a foundation or moisturizer that has titanium dioxide/zinc oxide will actually decrease your sun protection, not increase it. See here.

If you use liquid foundation, pump a little onto the back of your (clean) hand, and use your fingers or a brush to dot it onto your face and blend. Concentrate more of the foundation in the center of your face, where discoloration tends to be. This sounds obvious, but don’t use too much foundation; just pump out a little, apply, then pump a little more if you need it. You probably need less than you think you do!

Here’s a rundown of different kinds of foundation brushes/tools:

  • Flat/paddle brush – You would use this to “paint” your face with liquid foundation in downward strokes. This can make it harder to blend your foundation and can produce a streaky finish. But you can use these to put your foundation on, then use a sponge or another brush to blend.
  • Buffing brush – These are used with liquid foundation; just dot your foundation on sections of your face and use the brush in circular motions to blend it all together, or bounce it off your face in dry areas.
  • Kabuki brush – These can be used for liquid or powder foundation, and are also used in buffing motions.
  • Stippling brush – These can be used to pick up a tiny amount of foundation (liquid or powder) on the very tips of the fibers, then dot the foundation over your skin and blend together for a light, airbrushed finish. They can also be used to apply and blend powder or cream blush.
  • Sponge – For these, you’d soak the sponge in water, then squeeze it out till it’s damp, apply liquid foundation to your face, and bounce the sponge off your face to blend. A sponge will create a very natural finish and will also sheer out your foundation for lighter coverage (this can be good for thicker, full-coverage foundations). They do soak up foundation a bit and need to be cleaned after every use, then kept out to dry. Dr. Bronner’s bar soap is good for cleaning sponges.

You can also apply foundation with your fingers. This often works quite well, and some foundations (like MAC Face & Body) look best applied with fingers.

If your foundation is too matte/dull-looking for you, you can mix it with an illuminator before applying. These are sheer liquids that can give your skin a pretty, all-over “glow” when combined with foundation.

  • Revlon PhotoReady Skinlights
  • L’Oreal Magic Lumi primer (this is a face primer but can be mixed in with foundation)
  • MAC Strobe Cream
  • Becca Shimmering Skin Perfector

Keep in mind that foundation wipes out your face’s natural variance in color, so using blush will really help add life back into your face.

Foundation tutorials and information:

Products that are often used with foundation:

Face primers are used all over the face to increase wear time for your makeup and smooth out your skin so foundation goes on better. Mattifying primers will also help prevent shine. You would just take a small amount of primer (pea size is usually about right) and put on your face. If you want to fill in pores, then tapping the primer into your face, rather than rubbing/swiping it, will help do that. Some drugstore primer recommendations:

  • Black Radiance Complexion Perfection Shine Control primer (for oily skin)
  • Rimmel Fix & Perfect Primer 002
  • Maybelline Baby Skin (for normal to dry skin)

Note that for best results, your primer base (main ingredient) should match your foundation base. Foundations and primers are typically either water or silicone-based, and you can tell the base by checking the ingredient list. Any foundation will have water at the top of the list; without water, the foundation wouldn’t be spreadable. However, silicone-based foundations will have -cone and -siloxane ingredients right at the top of the list, while water-based foundations may have silicones, but they will be lower down in the ingredient list. But rather than combing through ingredient lists, I would recommend simply Googling the name of your foundation + “primer” to see what primers other people use successfully with that foundation.

More information:

Powder is used all over the face at the end of makeup application. It may be translucent or colored. It can be pressed in a compact or loose, in which case you’d knock a little out into the container lid, tap on the edge of the lid to diffuse it around, then apply with a powder brush or puff, pressing the powder into your skin. Loose powder is more finely milled (because it doesn’t have binding agents added in, as pressed powder does) and can look more natural than pressed powder, but it’s very travel-unfriendly and can create a huge mess. Pressed powder is more convenient and better for touch-ups during the day.

Powder can have different functions; a setting powder controls oil and sets makeup so it lasts longer.

  • Essence All About Matt
  • Ben Nye Neutral Set
  • Ben Nye Luxury Powder
  • NARS Light Reflecting Powder
  • Guerlain Les Voilettes

A finishing powder adds glow and “life” to your face; if you use a matte foundation, a finishing powder can help take away any “dead look” that the matte finish may create. Finishing powder is usually translucent and subtle-looking once applied; it can be hard to really see an effect.

  • ELF HD Powder
  • Make Up For Ever HD Powder
  • Guerlain Meteorites
  • Hourglass Ambient Lighting Powder

You can use neither, if you don’t feel you need them, or both or just one. If you have oily skin, typically a setting powder is useful; if you use a matte foundation, a finishing powder can provide a nice final touch. If you use both, the finishing powder goes over the setting powder.

More information:

Setting spray melds the layers of your makeup together to reduce cakiness and make it look more natural. It does not add longevity to your makeup, but if you feel that you look powdery after the end of your makeup routine, setting spray can help with that.

  • MAC Fix+
  • You can make a homemade setting spray quite easily; just scroll down here for ingredients and more info

Fixing spray increases wear time for your makeup. It would go at the very end of your makeup routine and be sprayed lightly all over your face. You can tilt your head back and spray it upwards so it falls down on your face, or you can spray it on a sponge and press it into your skin.

Note that a lot of fixing sprays have a high amount of alcohol, which is drying for most skin types; alcohol also may make oily skin over-produce oil in order to overcompensate from being dehydrated. So I would recommend saving alcohol-based fixing sprays for special occasions only.

  • Ben Nye Final Seal
  • Make Up For Ever Mist & Fix
  • Skindinavia Makeup Finishing Spray
  • Model in a Bottle

As a final note, none of these products are mandatory. You can absolutely wear foundation on its own if that works well for you, though I would still recommend moisturizing in advance. Primer, powder, and setting/fixing spray are all just options you can use if you feel they could be useful to you.

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