Foundation basics
Photo: Alex Beauchesne
Too much and you look like a clown. Too little and you look unpolished. Very tricky stuff, foundation. Here, answers to all your questions about choosing it, using it—but never abusing it—and looking naturally flawless.
I couldn't help being a little jealous. My colleague had the most flawless skin I'd ever seen. Even under the unforgiving glare of the office's harsh fluorescent bulbs, she looked perfect. I wrote off her complexion as one of those inherited blessings, like a lightning-speed metabolism or a cushy trust fund. A chance encounter in the office bathroom revealed I was wrong. I walked in on her walloping a fully loaded powder puff against her cheek. Perched on the counter was a sloppily fingerprinted bottle of CoverGirl Clean Makeup in a dusty peach shade.

I was shocked. But I was also motivated. I wanted to find out how to use foundation without looking as if I'm wearing a mask—or the wrong shade or a layer of powder; I wanted to know how to get the kind of seemingly natural perfection my work pal had. So I interrogated a dermatologist, makeup artists, and a chemist to come up with the solutions to a bunch of pressing foundation problems.

Problem: Cream, stick, liquid, powder—what's the right formula for me?

Solution: Your skin type will tell you what to use.

  • If you're dry, choose a liquid, stick, or hydrating powder foundation. Liquids and sticks both have a creamy (moisturizing) consistency, and hydrating powders are blended with ingredients that deliver moisture to the skin and offer more coverage than regular pressed powders; look for clues like "compact makeup" or "foundation" on the product packaging. (Clinique Supermoisture Makeup, $23, is a good one.)

  • If your skin is oily, use oil-free liquid or powder foundation. They contain powders that absorb oil, leaving you with a matte, smooth finish, says Ni'Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist at Cosmetech Labs in Fairfield, New Jersey. (Try Clarins Truly Matte Foundation, $34.) Mineral makeup often works well on oily skin, because the dry particles absorb moisture, says Ranella Hirsch, MD, president elect of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology & Aesthetic Surgery. (Try Almay Pure Blends Mineral Makeup, $12.50.) If you're prone to breakouts, use a foundation that contains salicylic acid. "It dries up the oil-producing glands that cause pimples," Hirsch says. (Try Neutrogena SkinClearing Oil-Free Makeup, $11.50.)

  • If you have combination skin, strategically apply a powder foundation, which allows you to distribute more of the oil-absorbing makeup where you need it and less where you don't, without leaving visible lines (as a liquid or stick foundation would).

  • If you're a novice, try a powder foundation that's right for your skin type. "It's the easiest to apply, and it disappears into the skin more easily than liquid formulas," says New York City makeup artist Mally Roncal. Next easiest is a cream foundation in a compact (which is great for dry complexions). It melts into the skin like a liquid, but because it's a solid and applied with a sponge, it's easy to control. (Try Estée Lauder Resilience Lift Extreme Ultra Firming Crème Compact Makeup SPF 15, $34.)

Problem: After a hug, it looks as if my face has come off on my husband's suit jacket.

Solution: Press a naked velvet puff to your face after applying foundation.

It will help absorb any excess and push the foundation into the skin. Or you can use a puff or brush to apply a light veil of translucent powder, which will set the foundation.

I'm completely confused by makeup-speak. What the heck is a "finish," and how do I figure out which one I want?

Solution: A finish is the kind of sheen (or lack of it) a foundation leaves on your skin. There are three types: semimatte, matte, and luminizing.

  • Most foundations are semimatte, and they work on almost anyone. "It looks the most natural," says New York City makeup artist Paul Innis. (If the packaging doesn't say that it's matte or luminizing, assume it's semimatte.)

  • Matte foundations absorb oil, leaving your skin with an even, powdery finish. Look for "poreless" and "shine-free" on the label. If you have dry or mature skin, choose a matte formula enriched with moisturizers.

  • If your skin lacks luster (whether it's dry, mature, or sallow), consider a foundation with a luminizing finish. Infused with finely ground light-reflective particles (such as mica and crushed pearls), it diffuses the look of fine lines and wrinkles. (Try Giorgio Armani Luminous Silk Powder, $44, or Guerlain Parure Compact Foundation with Crystal Pearls SPF 20, $58.)

Problem: By the time I leave the house in the morning, my foundation has settled into my lines and wrinkles, making me look as if I just emerged from an Egyptian tomb.

Solution: Don't try to fill in those areas with makeup.

Apply less makeup on crow's-feet and marionette lines, and keep those areas well moisturized, says Laura Mercier, a New York City makeup artist.

Problem: My foundation always looks fake. I'm sure it's because I can't find the right shade!

Solution: Go straight to a department store for professional help.

The foundation will cost more than at a drugstore, but the initial investment is worth it. You can use your purchase as a guide for buying a less expensive foundation in the future. (For the most precise match, try Prescriptives Custom Blend service, $62. A professional blender hand-mixes several pigments to create your custom foundation in 20 minutes. The formula is saved in the company's database.)

For women of color, many foundations are unsuitable and often leave an ashy finish, says Ashunta, a celebrity makeup artist for Dior, because of the wide range of undertones in dark skin. (She recommends DiorSkin Fluide Mocha #800, $41; it works with many different African-American complexions. The new CoverGirl Queen Collection Natural Hue Compact Foundation, $8, is specially formulated with low levels of titanium dioxide, the ingredient that causes ashiness.)

Problem: My face looks as powdered as a sugared doughnut.

Solution: Once you've dipped your brush or sponge into powder foundation, immediately tap it to get rid of excess particles that give that overly dusted look.

Also, if you have peach fuzz (as many women do), sweep the powder in the direction that the hair grows, not against it. Going against the follicles inadvertently fluffs up those hairs, creating a little cushion for the powder to settle on.

Problem: Suddenly, my face is one color, my neck another—not a great look.

Solution: Check your foundation shade against your jawline, says New York City makeup artist Paula Dorf, and adjust the color. Your skin color may change with the seasons, especially during the summer (even if you use sunscreen).

I've got a moisturizing formula in the right shade, but my foundation still looks splotchy and caked.

Solution: Prepare your skin before you apply foundation.

  • First, slough off dead skin cells once or twice a week so makeup goes on evenly. Second, use a moisturizer with SPF—even if your foundation has one. "To get adequate sun protection, you'd have to use too much of the makeup," says Hirsch. Third, slip on a primer. A light gel or lotion, primer makes foundation go on more evenly and last longer by creating a smooth base for the pigment to adhere to. Massage a pea-size amount onto your face. Let it absorb before you apply foundation. New York City makeup artist Mathew Nigara specifically looks for primers made with silicone, which fills in pores and lines and illuminates the skin, giving you an airbrushed look. (Too Faced's Wrinkle Injection, $27, a silicone-based primer, feels especially silky.)

  • If you use concealer, apply it after the primer but before foundation. To hide dark circles or hyperpigmentation, dot a bit of concealer on those areas, then blend. Step back and take a look: How much foundation do you really need now? You'll probably find you need less than you thought you did, says Nigara.

Problem: I'm trying to conceal rosacea, and it isn't working.

Solution: For the heaviest coverage, look for brands like Cover Fx and Dermablend.

They're packed with pigment (containing 40 and 25 percent, respectively), are water resistant, and last for 12 to 16 hours (so a little goes a long way). Many earlier incarnations had a texture like bathtub caulking, but new formulations are remarkably light.

Problem: Should I use my fingers to apply it? A sponge? A brush?

Solution: Each method has its pros and cons.

  • Use your fingers to apply liquid and cream foundations, because the heat generated helps to warm up the pigment, making it easy to blend.

  • Use a sponge if you want a sheer look; it absorbs a lot of the foundation, taking down its intensity. But since you'll go through your foundation much quicker, apply with a sponge only on days you want minimal coverage. Lightly press it into the skin in a blotting motion. (Sweeping the sponge across your face will create streaking.) If you want a dewier look, dampen the sponge with water before dipping it into the foundation.

  • Use a brush for depositing the pigment most evenly. For liquid foundation, choose a tapered synthetic brush with a tip about one and a half inches long. (The tapered tip allows you to get into the areas around your nose and under your eyes, and the synthetic bristles don't absorb too much product.) Tap the end of the brush into the foundation and "paint" it across your forehead, down your nose, across your cheekbones, and on your chin. In sweeping motions, blend the pigment into the skin until it's invisible. For powder foundations, use a thick, fluffy brush—it imparts a soft, seamless finish, Mercier says. Choose one made of natural bristles; they're porous, so they grip the powder, preventing you from depositing too much. In a circular, buffing motion, swirl the brush against your face, starting from the center.

Problem: When I use a foundation brush, I wind up with brushstrokes all over my face.

Solution: "Eliminate brushstrokes by pressing your palm gently into your skin as if you were using a puff," says Dorf.

And next time, go easy: If you have brushstrokes or swirl marks, you're using too much.


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