9 Jan 2012

How to: Select Foundation for your Skin Tone

A lot of people get quite confused when selecting a foundation, and it's the one area of makeup (along with concealer selection, more on that in this post) that many find daunting.  Approaching a makeup counter can be intimidating, if you don't know what you're looking for.  If you can figure, however, simply (a) what it is you want and (b) what it is the SA is talking about, the confusion disappears and you will never again waste money on purchasing a foundation that you wind up not using!

When shopping for a foundation, you need, most basically, to select the correct:
  • shade
  • tone
  • finish
  • coverage
  • type
Many struggle with finding the "perfect foundation" because while they successfully pick out the correct shade, the foundation looks wrong, somehow, and they're not sure why.  This is nearly always because the undertone to the foundation is wrong.


This one is easy.  Most of us can figure out what shade of foundation to wear - we can swatch a few of them to see which is the right colour and the right amount of dark/light for our own skin.  There's usually no problem here.

To match your skin colour and tone, check to see does the foundation match the colour of your neck and and chest?  If so, then you've picked the right one.  It's not uncommon for people's faces, necks, and chests to be all slightly different colours (eg faces and chests are often a little darker, necks a little lighter, and faces may also have high colouring or pigmentation).  If this is the case, then it's better pick the shade and tone of either your neck or chest;  you may need to use a bronzer to slightly darken your neck (if you've chosen to match to your chest), or you may need to bring your foundation down to your chest area (if you've matched to your neck).

SWATCHING & MATCHING FOUNDATION To ascertain your correct foundation match, swatch it on your face.  Not on your wrist, or the back your hand, or the underneath of your thumb, or the crook of your elbow.  You're not going to be wearing it in any of those places!  If you're already wearing makeup, wipe away an area at your jawline.  Apply some of the foundation you're swatching to this area to see if it's the right shade/tone.


To determine your own skin's undertone, you may be able to simply look at your face to figure it - but if you have blemishes, spots, high colouring, pigmentation, freckles, sun burn, sun tan, or other skin conditions, or if you have more mature skin, for example, it may be harder to determine this accurately.  In addition, figuring if your tone can be difficult for people who are either very very pale or with much darker skin.

MYTH ALERT!A lot of people will try to tell you that if you're green eyed and blonde haired and your veins look green at your wrist and you have freckles, and your appear blue under a full moon with Venus in ascendance, then you've categorically got a "certain" tone.  Or to be a little less ridiculous about it, that "all" Irish are pink-toned, and "all" Italians are sallow (yellow toned).

That's not how it works, those are all frankly myths!  Of course it just might happen to hold true for some people, but like the saying goes, "All Generalisations are False"!

The best way to figure this is to look at the skin tone on your chest and neck, and see if it looks a bit pink (pink/grey-beige/ashy), or yellow (yellow/golden).  Try to look critically (don't look at it "wanting to see sallow skin", because then your brain will decide you're sallow, and therefore have yellow undertones.  You may or may not be right!).  If you still can't determine your undertone, then there's a few ways to try to figure it.

The first, and most obvious way, is to check your current foundation.  If you know that it is a perfect match and undertone for your skin, but you're not sure what the undertone of the foundation actually is, then hold something very obviously yellow, and then something very obviously pink, next to it.  You should see immediately that the foundation either has a yellow or a pink undertone.  If you know that this undertone suits you, then it's likely that this is your skin's undertone.  The opposite is also true - if you know the foundation is not correct for your skin, then you know that the undertone of the foundation is not your skin's tone.

If you have the correct shade foundation, but the wrong tone to it, your face will just look wrong.  For example, if you have a yellow undertone to your skin and are wearing a pink undertone to your foundation, your face will look a bit ashy and washed out.  If you have a pink undertone to your skin but are wearing a yellow undertone foundation, you will appear a bit yellow and sickly.

If you don't have a foundation to check against, you can apply the same test to your skin:  hold something very obviously yellow next to your skin, and something very obviously pink (must be a blue-based pink, not a peachy pink) next to your skin.  One of the two colours will appear to complement your skin best in terms of undertone;  that is then the undertone of your skin.

If you're pink (or even slightly), then you're "cool" toned (bear with me a minute on the descriptions, I'll explain more in the box below).  If you're golden/yellow, then you're "warm" toned.  If you're neither, then you are neutral (and can use either cool or warm toned foundation and concealers, or perhaps a mix of both).

MORE ON WARM/COOL TONE DESCRIPTIONSIt's best to try ignore cool- and warm- toned descriptions.  That can just get complicated as different makeup companies use Warm and Cool to mean different things.

In cosmetics, it's accepted that Warm means yellow/golden toned, and Cool means blue or pink toned.

But in MAC terms, this is flipped and (for example) NC and NW mean Neutral Cool (ie with a yellow undertone) and Neutral Warm (ie with a pink undertone).
Hence there really can be a lot of confusion about undertones, cool, warm, pink, yellow.

Most of the Bobbi Brown foundations are quite yellow toned.  Laura Mercier also has both yellow and pink toned foundations, as does Chanel.  Traditionally, a lot of cheaper or drugstore cosmetics are quite pink/beige toned, but this is changing.  MAC divides their huge range of foundations up into N, NC, C, NW, W; N is neutral, anything with a C has a yellow base, anything with a W has a pink base (to mention just a few brands).

MISCONCEPTION: USING THE OPPOSITE TONE TO YOUR SKIN TONEA common misconception is that you should use a foundation the opposite of your skin type to "neutralise" the tones there - that's not right in general.

It's better instead to correct these areas where you have, maybe, high colouring, or obvious pigmentation.  You can do this with a corrector used under your foundation.  Yellow or green for example will neutralise the red in high colouring, whereas a more salmon/peach or pink toned corrector can help out for ashy-toned pigmentation.

Finish, Coverage, Formulation, Skin Type

The remaining two criteria, Finish and Coverage, must take into consideration your skin type.

A younger or a clear and normal skin type can get away with using sheer coverage up to heavy coverage and any finish of their choosing.  A more mature skin or a dryer skin, a heavily lined or wrinkled skin will probably need to steer away from very heavy coverage and matte finishes.  Similarly, for oily skin types, dewy or luminous foundations are usually not a good idea, as you will wind up looking greasy. 


This relates to how the foundation looks on your skin;  does it give a matte, or satin (semi-matte) finish to your skin?  Is it dewy?  Luminous?  Determining what kind of finish you want will help to guide you.  You need to bear in mind, however, your own skin type.  Know what finish works for you first, then ask the SA what finish the foundation of interest is supposed to have, and you can work from there.


This one is often confused with Finish, but it just relates to how "heavy" a coverage you have; in other words, how much of your own skin can you see through the foundation.  For example, coverage starts at Sheer with a tinted moisturiser, and works its way up through Light, Medium, Heavy and Full coverage.  It's rare enough you'll need a full-coverage foundation.  Even if you have a lot of spots/blemishes or acne scarring, you're better off using a lighter coverage foundation and judiciously applied concealer, rather than caking your face in foundation.


There are so many different types!  Foundation can be water-based.  It can contain silicone or alcohol.  It can be gel- or cream- based.  It can contain powder, talc, titanium dioxide, silica.  It can contain minerals, or be entirely mineral-based.  You need to know what does and doesn't work for your skin.  The only way to know this is through research, trial and error, and advice of SAs and reviews.  It's really one you need to take responsibility for yourself; if you know a particular foundation doesn't work for you (causes breakouts or sensitivities for example), then ascertain (from the packaging) what the ingredients are - read up on them, and figure what might be causing the problem. Then avoid foundations with these ingredients.

Other than that, use what you like depending on coverage, finish and your skin type.  As a rule of thumb, water-based foundations tend to be lighter coverage.  Cream-based foundations tend to be heavier coverage.  It also depends, however, on your method of application - for example, you'll always get a lighter coverage, irrespective of foundation type, with a damp sponge or a skunk (dual fibre) brush, and a heavier coverage using fingers.

  1. Try to avoid judging a foundation by looking at magazine ads.  Even if the models are not are airbrused within an inch of their life, and even if the post-production (eg Photoshop) is kept to a minimal, lighting is used in the photography to determine the look of the final image (lighting alone and very minimal Photoshopping can make skin look absolutely flawless and is in no way indicative of what the foundation will look like on your face).  I have used MAC Face & Body (traditionally considered a light coverage foundation) in photoshoots and the final images have looked like the models were wearing a much heavier coverage foundation, as I've layered it and powdered it quite heavily.  So - if you hear good things about a foundation, look at blog sites and peer review sites to see what people are saying.
  2. Get a sample from the counter to see if it wears well on your face.  If someone won't give you a sample, then don't purchase!  Most SAs understand that you need to see how a foundation wears on your skin, and you will generally be given enough for a couple of days' wear.
  3. Know what works for your skin in terms of finish
  4. Know what coverage you want for the occasion at hand or your skin type.  For example, a lot of people just want foundation for going out.  Or for a wedding.  Or for all-day light coverage wear in work...
  5. Know your own skin's undertone (pink or yellow)
  6. Get the advice of counter SAs if you're not sure what your undertone is.  But get a few opinions - not all SAs are trained makeup artists, and even if they are, not all of them have perfect colour definition either!  
  7. If you really are confused, then don't purchase anything; get a trial - have an SA apply a foundation for you, and see what you look like.  In fact, get them to apply one side with a pink tone and the other with a yellow tone foundation, so you can see what it looks like, if you really need convincing.  You should see straight away with one just looks plain wrong for you.


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