A deep dive into everything you need to know about foundation

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I can totally understand how foundation can be a daunting makeup product to explore, especially if you aren’t into experimenting. And today I have good news and bad news for you: the good news is that I’m going to break it all down to help you understand how to best choose a foundation for you, and the bad news is you’ll have to be willing to experiment.

Foundation is one of those make-or-break makeup products that is totally worth doing the leg work for. Mascara can be one of those products as well, but there’s a little bit more forgiveness with mascara than foundation. For example, if someone’s mascara doesn’t look right, it may have just been the end of the tube or a humid day that caused a bit of clumping. But if someone’s foundation is wrong? It just looks wrong. There’s no getting around it.

While there are a lot of factors that play into the right foundation for you, it certainly doesn’t need to be an overwhelming task. I’m here to help! First we’ll talk about primers, then foundations, next up is application methods, and finally finishing powders.

You do not need to use a primer or finishing powder or spray but both of those components will help your foundation look and act the best!

Primer is a product you apply to your skin after any daily/morning skincare products you regularly apply but before foundation. You’ll have the best results if you give a primer at least a few minutes to settle onto the skin, but in a pinch it’s okay to apply primer and then add foundation right on top of it. Primer acts like double stick tape for foundation, helps the foundation apply seamlessly and look smooth on the skin, and can also control other skin issues that your foundation may not be able to control. Smashbox makes a huge range of foundation primers, from hydrating options for dry skin to oil control primers for oily skin. Generally, a primer should feel silky, soft, and be transparent. Primer will help your foundation last longer and generally wear better on the skin.

Primers can also be created with shimmer or a touch of bronze within them if you prefer to add a little bit of glow under your makeup. In this case, applying a full coverage foundation on top of an illuminating primer sort of defeats the purpose, in my mind, so a sheer or lighter coverage foundation would be a better choice to let that primer show throw a bit.

Primer can be applied with a brush or your finger tips, the method is really up to you! I prefer to apply my primer with my fingertips.

Some of my favorite primers are Bare Minerals Prime Time, Arbonne Makeup Primer, or Benefit POREfessional Face Primer. If you are looking for a budget option, I would try this one from Maybelline!

When you are choosing your foundation, you need to focus on what formula you prefer to work with and what level of coverage you’re looking for. Foundation ranges from liquid to loose powder, with creams, sticks, and pressed powder in between. To some extent, the coverage you’ll achieve will be affected by the type of formula, but not in every single case. For example, you can find a lot of sheer/light coverage liquid foundations as well as full coverage ones. Tarte makes a great full coverage loose powder foundation, but typically I’ve found loose powder foundations to live in the buildable medium to full coverage range.

If you do not like the feeling of foundation on your face, try a loose or pressed powder applied with a fluffy brush. This will even out your skin but shouldn’t feel heavy or look caked on. If you like medium coverage that will blend away flaws but still allow your freckles, for example, to show through, you’ll find liquid, cream or powder formulas that work great for that level of coverage. For full coverage, you’ll likely have the best results with a liquid foundation but you can achieve full coverage with a loose powder!

In my experience, the hardest foundation to work with was cream or stick. It can feel heavy and took a pretty good amount of effort to blend it all in around my face and neck. The easiest is loose powder as it’s the most forgiving, but my favorite coverage and final look has come with liquid foundation.

One you’ve honed in on which formula you want to try, the next step is getting color matched. Sephora and Ulta have samples available in every shade from their prestige cosmetics line. It’s best to head on into the store and ask for an employee to help color match you. Essentially, that involves applying a bit of the foundation along your jawbone to see how it matches the rest of your skin. If you are in between shades, I’d recommend going a touch lighter and compensating with a bit of bronzer instead of choosing a foundation shade that is too dark. I wish it was easier to test out drugstore foundations but it’s very hard to ever find samples available! You can check into the store’s return policy, of course, and simply do your best from the color you can see from the package.

Some of my favorite full coverage foundations are Tarte’s amazonian Clay 12-Hour Full Coverage Foundation, Charlotte Tilbury Magic Foundation, and Estee Lauder Double Wear Foundation. For medium coverage, I like Bare Minerals Original Foundation, NARS Sheer Glow, and Naked Skin Ultra Definition Powder Foundation.

The way you apply foundation can drastically affect the coverage and longevity. Best practice, both for the cleanliness of your face and the “purity” of the foundation, is to use a clean tool, like a brush, instead of your fingers. I know a lot of women use their fingers to apply foundation, and honestly I did that for many years as well! But when you use your fingers, you are adding oil from your hands and rubbing it into your face. For some people, this won’t cause any issues at all, but for others you may notice that the foundation doesn’t last as long or look as smooth.

Generally, a foundation brush or beauty blender are the easiest tools to work with when it comes to liquid or cream foundation. Both blend the product in well and shouldn’t absorb too much of it either.

For powder foundation, a short bristled brush, like this, will give you the best results! The longer the bristles on a brush, the more spread out/airy the product will apply.

My favorite foundation brush is this one from Real Techniques, and I also like to use a stippling brush when I need a totally flawless finish. Otherwise I love a beauty blender!

You should clean your brushes regularly but in a pinch you can try this hack!

Finishing powders are certainly not necessary but they will be a game changer when it comes to how long your foundation will last. If you need seriously long lasting foundation with full coverage I would finish with a powder foundation. Using a fluffy brush will disperse the product nicely and it won’t look TOO heavy on the skin. In general, though, a translucent setting powder (either pressed or loose powder) will do the trick! This won’t add any other color to your face but will simply set the foundation, take away any shine while combating future shine, and make sure nothing smudges or smears on your face as well. Setting powder is also great to use on top of under-eye concealer as well as to prevent mascara from smudging underneath!

My favorite translucent setting powder at the moment is IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores. It’s light as a feather and takes away all the shine or tacky feeling from liquid foundation. I love Laura Mercier’s Secret Brightening Powder for setting my concealer.

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While there is so much more to talk about when it comes to foundation, I hope these explanations and suggestions at least point you in the right direction! I’d highly recommend popping in to Sephora or a department store and asking for a color match or sample of a foundation you are interested in. It’s worth trying a few different brands before you take the plunge and make a purchase! Also, check the return policy of the store you are purchasing from!

p.s. pajama set I’ve been eyeing, and a video on a simple, everyday contour!

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Leave a Comment

Comments (38)

  1. Posted November 28, 2017

    As a foundation noob, this post was a lifesaver. 🙂

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
    http://charmainenyw.com

  2. Tess Felber says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    I just started using a brush to apply my liquid foundation rather than my fingers and its a total game changer!!
    xx Tess | Sequins are the New Black

    • Kate says
      Posted November 28, 2017

      It really is!

  3. Tricia says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    Thanks for the info, Kate! Could you do a tutorial on DIY wedding makeup? I’d love to get your thoughts on what products to buy / tips for success! Thanks!

    • Hannah says
      Posted November 28, 2017

      Yes yes yes! Would love a tutorial like this!

  4. Allie says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    Thank you for such a thorough and detailed post! There’s so many aspects to picking the right foundation it’s great to get a refresher! Recently I’ve been kicking it old school with the original bare minerals and I highly recommend it! xAllie http://www.theallthatglittersblog.com

  5. Kim says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    I’ve never been able to use powder foundation! I think I need more practice!

    Kim

    http://trendkeeper.me .. EXTENDED black friday!

  6. Jaclyn says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    Question. I like a full coverage foundation for events or going out but I like a tinted moisturizer or lighter foundation for day-to-day or when I’m at work. Just curious on your thoughts on the iT cosmetics CC cream as I see it in the picture for this post. Thanks!

    • Kate says
      Posted November 28, 2017

      The It Cosmetics CC+ is a fairly full coverage foundation, it may be more than what you are looking for!

    • Danielle says
      Posted November 29, 2017

      Try Almay Smart Shade CC cream! It’s a tinted moisturizer but I feel it evens out my skin tone without feeling like I’m wearing makeup! Has SPF 30 too!

  7. Laura says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    I tried Maybelline’s Baby Skin. It really did help blur my large pores, but it was soo greasy and got worse through the day! I hate the thought of spending much on anything, but my pores are so bad that I’m willing to try anything! Of the other primers you mentioned, how are they on the”greasy scale”? Also, any other products to help with large pores? I’ve actually heard of a silicon pore “filler” that sounds intriguing! ;-P

  8. Hayley says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    As a foundation newbie, this is extremely helpful. I’ve added almost everything to my Amazon wish list. Thank you!

  9. Kathleen says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    Awesome post!! I just wanted to add that I love primer but would always break out after using it a few days in a row. I learned that the silicone was causing this issue for me and I purchased Lorac’s “I’m So Sensitive” soothing face primer. It’s oil-free, silicone-free, paraben-free and fragrance-free. Hooray! I haven’t had any breakouts with it and I highly rector for anyone with sensitive skin.

    • Ashley H. says
      Posted November 29, 2017

      I’ve always run into the same problem. Thanks for the recommendation…it’s now on my list of things to try!

  10. Kristin says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    If I use a primer, should I also use a bb cream? And what about a cc cream? I’m really confused what the difference is between these 3!

  11. Laura says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    I love love love the finish on both of the tarte foundations in the photo, but they both cause me to breakout! I’ve had to stick with Kat Von D liquid lock-it foundation. It’s great full coverage without being too heavy, and it is fairly buildable as well.

  12. Erinn says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    I actually don’t use foundation..I find it way too heavy and I don’t like feeling like I’m wearing makeup!
    Primer is a lifesaver though!

  13. Emily says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    Thanks!! Such a helpful post and you may have finally convinced me to bust out some primer.

    Also, have you tried the silisponge?

  14. Kathleen says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    Hello!
    Thank you for All the information! I’ve bought several items you’ve recommended (hair products and lipsticks) and love them all! Wondering, what do you use for under eyes (dark circles/bags to cover). I’m in my early 30s but with two little ones makeup is much needed these days. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks Kate!

    Kathleen

    • Kate says
      Posted November 29, 2017

      I love Urban Decay all nighter concealer!

  15. Jny says
    Posted November 28, 2017

    Has anyone tried Beauty Counters hydrating Foundation? Thinking of trying but hate the guessing when it comes to ordering make up.

    • Kate says
      Posted November 29, 2017

      No, Anna at Inhonorofdesign.com sells beauty counter so I would head over to her site and ask her!

  16. Lia says
    Posted November 29, 2017

    Awesome post Kate! I wish I had something like this as a teenager. Question about setting powder. Do you know how it compares to a setting spray like Up All Night (or whatever the witty name is, Urban Decay I think)? I have insanely oily skin and so I need a finisher or my foundation will melt off by 2 pm. I’ve only heard of the spray for whatever reason.

    • Kate says
      Posted November 29, 2017

      I think a setting powder would be more effective at controlling oil than a setting spray, but I believe ulta sells sample sizes of that spray if you want to give it a try!

  17. Sarah says
    Posted November 29, 2017

    Thank you for this article. I have not really cared much about my makeup – ever – but do need to step up the game a bit. This is just the information I needed before going in to a make up counter.

  18. Joy says
    Posted November 29, 2017

    I think of us as having similar skin types… fair/light coloring and typically dry, especially in the winter! Which is why I’m surprised you love the Tarte Amazonian Clay liquid foundation… it turns into chalk on my skin and looks terrible! Since it seems to work for you, this tip may not be helpful, but for the winter I’ve switched to Tarte’s new Double Duty Hybrid Gel Foundation and it’s amazing! Flawless, beautiful hydrating coverage. Worth a try if you’re wanting to experiment with something new for the colder months.

  19. Sarah says
    Posted November 29, 2017

    I have been eyeing the ITCosmetics CC cream, but I can’t find a true account of the coverage. I have acne scars/ uneven skin and I want decent/ full coverage. I won’t achieve that with a CC, correct?

    • Kate says
      Posted November 29, 2017

      I would say it is pretty full coverage!

    • Kim says
      Posted November 29, 2017

      I am 30 and struggle with adult/hormonal acne + melasma, and am in love with the It CC cream. I actually wore it on my wedding day, and every day before and since, from the time I discovered it. Don’t get the illuminating version – just the original. Full coverage, buildable, and looks amazing when applied with a beauty blender. It’s the only foundation I’ve purchased multiple times in a row! Good luck!

  20. Christy Eatmon says
    Posted November 29, 2017

    Thank you so much for this!!! I’m leery of foundation “masks” and feels like it makes me look older (I’m 35) by settling into lines. I typically use concealer and mineral powder foundation. Who knew I was using the wrong brush!! This morning I switched—I’d had the correct brush all along—and it was a nice improvement. Love your blog and the Instastories!!

    • Kate says
      Posted November 29, 2017

      great!

  21. Posted November 29, 2017

    I do use the IT Cosmetics Bye Bye No More Pores and like it alot. In fact,
    I’ve started using alot of the IT cosmetics and are very impressed with them.
    Thanks for your suggestions – I often check them out.

  22. Kim says
    Posted November 29, 2017

    So no setting spray? Do you ever use it? Why or why not? Would love your thoughts!

  23. isabelle says
    Posted November 30, 2017

    MAC Face & Body, still IMO after trying probably over 50+ foundations, still my HG foundation. One rule with it make sure you wear it with a water based moisturizer underneath or a water based primer because it a water based foundation. It truly looks like your skin.

  24. Lola says
    Posted December 1, 2017

    Love this post!! Huge fan of your blog (:

  25. Michelle says
    Posted December 1, 2017

    I love your posts, this is so helpful! I had an esthetician recommend the Glo Minerals pressed powder for me years ago. I have rosacea so I need full coverage. What are your thoughts on foundation vs pressed powder.

  26. Kaitlyn Boesl says
    Posted December 11, 2017

    Have you ever tried the youniques foundation? I’m starting to have more breakout around the mouth area and want them to just be cover but the foundation I use isn’t cutting it anymore!

  27. Kayla says
    Posted December 12, 2017

    This may be a silly question , but I’m new to the full face makeup . I have always been a tinted moisturizer and go with a little mascara . Older I get , seems I can’t do that as much . So my question being, if I choose to go powered foundation route will I still need a primer ?