An attractive makeup application must begin with a foundation that blends smoothly and evenly, merging with your skin. Even if you feel that you need a foundation that provides good coverage, obvious coverage is a mistake and can negatively affect your entire makeup application. The primary goal when shopping for foundation is to be sure it matches your skin exactly. Avoid ever buying a foundation to alter skin color because in daylight or office lighting, it will appear completely unnatural.
For many people of a variety of ethnicities, skin is almost always some shade of neutral ivory, beige, tan, dark brown, bronze brown or ebony, with a very slight yellow undertone (but without any orange or pink). Some Native North American or South American women, a small percentage of African-American women, and some Polynesian women have a red cast to their skin and some East Indian women may have an ashy undertone. Foundation should follow these tones exactly, avoiding any unnatural looking skin colors.
The following is a rundown of the major types of foundations you will find at the drugstore and at department stores. Which one to use depends on your skin type (oily vs. dry) and personal preferences including how much coverage you desire, what type of finish you prefer, and other factors.
Oil-free and matte liquid foundations
A well-formulated oil-free or matte finish liquid foundation should have a smooth finish with no shine or dewy appearance. Ideally, this appearance should last for at least a few hours, but in the long run, this depends almost entirely on how oily your skin is. Most oil-free and matte liquid foundations provide sheer to medium coverage.
Pros: These foundations are the best choice for women who want balanced coverage with minimal to no shine, and who like a smooth, matte look. They last much longer on oily skin or over oily areas than most other foundation types.
Cons: All in all, there aren't many disadvantages to using this kind of foundation but some of them can make the skin look or feel dry.
Products Worth Trying: Clinique Stay-True Makeup Oil-Free Formula ($16.50), Estee Lauder Equalizer Smart Makeup for Combination Skin SPF 10 ($32.50) and Paula's Choice Best Face Forward Foundation SPF 15 ($12.95).
These are an amazing group of medium to full coverage products that truly stay put. Most have a very liquid consistency but dry quickly on the skin. The good news is that today's ultra-matte foundations are noticeably easier to blend and more forgiving of mistakes.
Pros: These foundations are a superior option if you have seriously oily skin, have trouble with makeup slipping or disappearing as the day goes by, live in a humid climate, exercise but still like having your makeup stay put, or like a completely matte finish. Ultra-matte foundations will outlast any other foundation, with no slippage or movement. If you have very oily skin, these are an absolute must to try.
Cons: The disadvantages to using ultra-matte foundations are that many of them go on rather heavily and look masklike, leaving the skin feeling very dry and taut. In order to get this makeup on evenly, you must blend quickly or it will dry in place before you know it, and then it can be difficult to blend further. Ultra-matte foundations have less movement than more emollient foundations, which means eyeshadow and blush have a tendency to stick to them; that can make blending and correcting mistakes a bit irksome. Women of color should be careful when choosing ultra-matte foundation. Even if it is the right color, these foundations can tend to look gray and ashen after being applied to darker skin tones.
Ultra-matte foundations are also the most difficult type to remove. The number of ultra-matte foundations is dwindling, as women have undoubtedly had problems with them. This is unfortunate, as these ingenious formulations can work so well for truly oily skins.
Products Worth Trying: Estee Lauder Double Wear Stay in Place Makeup SPF 10 ($32), Maybelline EverFresh Makeup SPF 14 ($7.49), and Revlon Colorstay Stay Natural Makeup SPF 15 ($10.99).
Water-based and standard liquid foundations
These foundations look like a somewhat thick liquid and pour slowly but easily out of the bottle. They are perfect for women with normal to dry skin and the number of foundations fitting this description and performance abound.
Pros: Most water-based foundations provide light to medium coverage and are best for those with normal to dry skin. The oil or emollient part of these foundations gives them good movement, which allows blushes and eyeshadows to blend on effortlessly and evenly over the face. Mistakes are easily buffed away with the sponge.
Cons: If you have oily or combination skin, this is not the foundation type for you. Even the little bit of emollients in a water-based foundation can show shine almost immediately if you have oily skin. For the right skin type, there aren't any disadvantages to using a water-based foundation. This type of foundation is also a great option for women of color. If you are concerned with the small amount of shine that water-based foundations leave behind on the skin, try adding a light dusting of loose powder after you've blended the foundation in place.
Products Worth Trying: L'Oreal Visible Lift Line-Minimizing Makeup SPF 12 ($12.69), Paula's Choice All Bases Covered Foundation SPF 15 ($12.95), and Stila Illuminating Liquid Foundation ($35).
Oil-based foundations have oil as their first ingredient and water usually as their second or third ingredient. Oil-based foundations feel greasy and thick, look and go on greasy, yet can blend out quite sheer.
Pros: Oil-based foundations can be very good for women with extremely dry or wrinkled skin. The emollient ingredients help the skin look very dewy and moist, which can minimize the appearance of wrinkles.
Cons: Oil-based foundations tend to be very greasy and/or thick and can look that way on the skin unless you are very adept at blending. They typically provide medium to full coverage and also have a tendency to turn orange on the skin after wearing them for awhile. This is because the extra oil in them affects the pigments in the foundation, causing them to oxidize. Additionally, if you wear face powder over this type of foundation, the oil grabs the talc and the face can appear coated and heavily made up. The same is true for blushes and eyeshadows—they will go on more heavily and will also become darker once applied. Traditional cream blushes tend to work best over this type of foundation.
Products Worth Trying: Alexandra de Markoff Countess Isserlyn Cream Makeup ($47.50) and NARS Balanced Foundation ($38).
Pressed powder–based foundation
These foundations come in a compact and perform much like any pressed powder, which is what they really are, only with a bit more coverage and ability to stay put. Almost all of them have a wonderfully creamy, silky feel, but when applied to the skin they blend on as easily as any pressed powder. Most pressed powder foundations provide light to medium coverage.
Pros: Powder-based foundations are great for women with normal to oily or combination skin. They’re convenient, blend on easily, last all day, generally don't change color, and feel light on the skin. They are best for those who want a minimal feel and polished appearance from their foundation. They also work very well over sunscreens, and can help take down the shine some sunscreen ingredients can leave on the skin.
Cons: This is not a good option if you have any amount of flaky skin. The powder content makes this type too drying for someone with dry skin. Also, women with very oily skin might want to be cautious, because powder-based foundations can appear thickened and pooled as oil resurfaces on the face during the day.
Products Worth Trying: Chanel Double Perfection Makeup SPF 8 ($45), Laura Mercier Foundation Powder ($38), and M.A.C. Studiofix Powder Plus Foundation ($23.50).
These foundations are an interesting cross between a pressed powder and a creamy liquid foundation. They come in a compact and have a very creamy, almost greasy, appearance. When you blend them, the creamy aspect disappears and you are left with a slightly matte, powdery finish. Cream-to-powder foundations provide a much broader range of coverage than pressed powder–based foundations.
Pros: Cream-to-powder foundations blend on quickly and easily and provide a semi-matte or powdery finish. They work well for someone with normal to slightly dry or slightly combination skin. This type of foundation doesn't require powdering after you apply it. If you wish to use powder, make sure you apply it as lightly as possible to avoid a caked, heavy look.
Cons: Cream-to-powder foundations can blend on slightly thick, producing a made-up look. They don't work well for someone with oily skin because the cream components can make skin look more oily, and they don't work well for dry skin because the powder element can be too powdery looking and cause more dryness. They are best for normal skin types.
Products Worth Trying: Clarins Soft Touch Rich Compact Foundation ($35), Clinique City Base Compact Foundation SPF 15 ($21), and M.A.C. Studio Tech Foundation ($26).
These liquidy powders with a gel-like wet feel, apply easily and dry to a satiny-smooth, slightly matte finish. They typically contain water as the first ingredient, along with a slip agent such as glycerin. In contrast to cream-to-powder foundations, liquid-to-powder foundations feel lighter on the skin. They also tend to last longer over combination or oily skins since the creamy, waxy ingredients are either decreased or absent.
Pros: Liquid-to-powder foundations blend on quickly and relatively easily and provide a semi-matte to matte finish with sheer to medium coverage. They work great for someone with normal to oily or slightly combination skin. The consistency doesn't require powdering after you apply it.
Cons: Liquid-to-powder foundations dry quickly and can blend on choppy. This type of foundation does not work well over dry skin, because the water portion tends to cling to dry areas, leaving a powder finish that is not easily moved. The product itself must be kept tightly closed, as the water component will evaporate if it is left exposed to air. Some of the compact liquid-to-powder makeups can break apart if you are not careful.
Products Worth Trying: Borghese Molto Bella Liquid Powder Makeup ($35.50), Cover Girl AquaSmooth Makeup SPF 15 ($8.50), and Vincent Longo Water Canvas Crème-To-Powder Foundation ($52.50).
These foundations are essentially cream-to-powder foundations in stick form, and the application, pros, and cons mentioned in that section apply here. The main difference between stick and cream-to-powder foundations is that stick foundations come in formulas that range from full to sheer coverage with either matte or creamy coverage. Many stick foundations also feature effective sunscreens, making them great all-in-one options. In addition, they can do double duty as concealer, and most product lines offer a wide selection of shades.
Pros and Cons: Refer to the section for cream-to-powder foundations.
Products Worth Trying: Bobbi Brown Foundation Stick ($36), L'Oreal Quick Stick Long Wearing Foundation SPF 14 ($10.99); and Shiseido The Makeup Stick Foundation SPF 15 ($32).
Sheer Foundations and Tinted Moisturizers
Quite a few of the newest foundations provide coverage that's so sheer, it is barely perceptible on skin. Of course, tinted moisturizers have been around for years, and remain an excellent choice for a touch of color along with moisture and, more often than not, excellent sun protection. For casual weekend makeup, sheer foundation or tinted moisturizers are excellent options for normal to dry or slightly oily skin that does not need significant coverage.
Pros: Sheer foundations and tinted moisturizers are extremely easy to choose and use. The shades are so sheer (some bordering on transparent) that getting the color exactly right is not essential. These are a great way to add a touch of color to pale or sallow skin, and the sheerness prevents a slightly dark or tan-toned shade from looking wrong. For those with normal to slightly dry skin, a tinted moisturizer with sunscreen can serve as their sole morning skin-care product once the cleansing step is done.
Cons: The coverage can be too sheer for those whose flaws are more apparent, including skin discolorations, broken capillaries, dark circles, or birthmarks. Although some sheer foundations have a matte finish, most of them (and most tinted moisturizers) are not for those with oily or breakout-prone skin. If you have a tricky skin tone to match, a sheer foundation or tinted moisturizer may still present problems, and there will be fewer shade options than with standard foundations.
Products Worth Trying: Chanel Voile Universel Ultra-Sheer Makeup SPF 15 ($38.50), Paula's Choice Barely There Sheer Matte Tint SPF 20 ($12.95), and Stila Sheer Color Tinted Moisturizer SPF 15 ($28).
Foundations with shine
A definite trend in the world of makeup is having your entire face shine, either with a makeup primer, a foundation or a powder that shines. In real life, full-face shine tends to look sparkly or extremely artificial, and if you have normal to oily skin, it looks like the oil you were trying to do away with. The concept works better as an evening look than for a classic daytime look.
Pros: For dull or dry skin, foundations with shine can indeed add a subtle glow to the face.
Cons: Too much shine can accentuate wrinkles or less-than-perfect skin and can make oily skin look greasy, not glowing. There's a lot of variation when it comes to how much shine you'll get from these products, so choose based on whether you want a subtle glow or high-wattage shimmer.
Products Worth Trying: Giorgio Armani Fluid Sheer ($42), NARS Face Glow ($30), and Revlon Skinlights Diffusing Tint SPF 15 ($11.99).
These foundations supposedly stop or claim to control oil production and also prevent moisture loss. I have yet to see one perform as promised, but it would be great if someone ever came up with one that could!
If a foundation is made for you and you only, will that be your best shade? The premise is that there are only so many ready-made shades so you might be better off having one custom-blended. Unfortunately, the idea sounds better than the reality. The major problem with custom-blended cosmetics is that the success of the match depends on the expertise of the salesperson—and there are huge variations in skill.
As nice as custom-blended foundations sound, the formulations are not necessarily superior to (or sometimes even as good as) standard products. The foundation may be too greasy or too dry and it might turn too rose or peach as you wear it. With so many off-the-shelf foundation products available in many excellent colors, custom blending turns out to be more an expensive gimmick than anything else.
When should you try a custom-blended product, particularly foundation? When you have tested many standard foundations and colors and are still frustrated with the choices. In this instance, bring the foundations you have tried that came close to matching your skin to the counter (such as Prescriptives) where custom-blend foundations are available. Having samples of what didn't work and what came close to matching your skin is a great visual example for the salesperson to work from, thus increasing the odds that you will be happy with the result.