Your No-BS Guide To Primers

Decoding primers is tricky business. There are formulas for our hair, faces, lashes, lips, and eyelids — plus, options that illuminate, condition, hydrate, and more. They promise to provide smoother canvases for pretty much anything you put on your hair or face. But, do they actually help create more finished looks or are they a gimmicky extra dreamed up by marketers?
Admittedly, we had our suspicions. But, according to the professionals who create red carpet and editorial perfection, this beauty pre-game step can do everything from make eyeshadow stay put to help engineer that elusive #WokeUpLikeThis visage.
Once we learned that primers passed our experts' litmus test, we had a lot more questions: What type is best for each skin problem? Should we layer lashes with white primer or glossy black? What type of hair prepper should we use to achieve certain styles? We enlisted the pros to unlock these secrets and help pave the way for flawless DIY looks.
Read on to get the full lowdown on primers, and find out which one is right for you.
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Makeup Primers

The first rule of primer application: Using too much can backfire, causing foundation to clump, or skin to appear chalky or overly shiny. Using a dime-sized amount, start in the middle of the face and blend out. “That way, the primer will work with any foundation,” notes makeup artist Sarah Tanno, who works with celebs like Lady Gaga. “Sometimes, makeup can oxidize and start to look orange after hours of wear. Setting the skin with a primer can help maintain your makeup's true shade throughout the day.”

With all these benefits for the taking, employing a foundation pre-game seems like a no-brainer. That is, until you’re hit with the sheer selection of primer types: illuminating, lightweight, mattifying, pore-reducing, color-correcting. It’s enough to make the makeup booster seem like more trouble than it's worth. But, according to Tanno, choosing a formula shouldn’t be so complicated. Just like with picking skin-care products, she advises to simply “evaluate your skin and the finish you desire.” For example, those with dry skin should look for gel-based or illuminating primers, and oily types should try mattifying formulas.

Benefit The Porefessional, $30, available at Benefit.
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There's a reason why this baby has over 50,000 loves on Sephora's site and that reason is because it creates a base so smooth and airbrushed, you might just be inspired to skip the foundation you were planning to layer on top.

Too Faced Primed & Poreless Smoothing Face Primer, $30, available at Sephora.
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Pore-Reducing Primers
If your T-zone resembles an orange peel, apply a dime-sized amount of this product to damp, moisturized skin. Be sure to pick a formula with a matte finish, since adding shine will only magnify pores. This one dispenses as a cream, but feels like a powder when applied, thanks to micro-fine minerals that diffuse light to make your pores look smaller.
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Illuminating Primers
“Whenever I am trying to achieve a flawless finish, I always use a radiant primer and follow with finishing spray for longevity,” Tanno says. Primers spiked with pearlescent ingredients help blur imperfections and create the illusion of radiance from the inside out. This formula contains pearl powders, SPF 30 protection, and skin-firming peptides for a velvety finish.

To get the most out of illuminating primers, Emily Kate Warren, a bicoastal makeup artist who preps models to walk for Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs, and Michael Kors, suggests exfoliating the night before and applying moisturizer before use. “This will prevent the primer from clinging to flaky skin,” she says.
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This year, Marc Jacobs Beauty debuted an entire summer collection dedicated to radiant skin. The first step? This coconut primer. The illuminating formula leaves you with a hydrated finish and soothes dry patches all day long thanks to five different coconut extracts. Most highlighting primers can contribute to the oil that builds up underneath makeup throughout the day, but not this one. Instead, it acts as a foundation for holding down the rest of your makeup while also reflecting a natural glow from underneath.

Marc Jacobs Beauty Undercover Perfecting Coconut Face Primer, $44, available at Sephora.
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Soft-Focus Primers

If you want to look like a Kardashian in one of their famous black & white photo booth shots, it's time to invest in a blurring primer that delivers an insane glow and an HD finish while keeping your makeup in place.

Urban Decay Optical Illusion, $34, available at Urban Decay.
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Color-Correcting Primers If you're looking to dial down redness, a color-correcting primer can help even out your tone while smoothing skin and extending makeup's wear. “Using a primer with green undertones before foundation will help adjust tone and achieve a flawless finish,” Tanno says. To balance hyperpigmentation, look for a peach primer. Try a lavender hue to help out yellowish skin.
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Lightweight Primers
Heavier primers are more likely to react negatively with foundation and cause little beads of makeup to form on the skin’s surface, Warren notes. This silicone-free, water-based formula is light in texture. It also includes a bevy of hydrators, including hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and shea butter — which makes it a good fit for drier skin types looking to add moisture while achieving a matte, but non-chalky, finish.
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Mattifying Primers
Those with normal or oily skin looking for a basic primer to create an even canvas should reach for a mattifying gel. These formulas work best on skin during summertime months, when weather can raise the shine factor to unbearably greasy proportions. When we applied an ultra-thin veil of this clear gel, it smoothed our skin and cut the amount of foundation we needed to achieve full coverage.
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This silicone-free primer melts into the skin like serum and keeps oil-prone complexions matte for hours.

Benefit Porefessional Matte Rescue Invisible Finish Mattifying Gel, $28, available at Sephora.
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Nars' new primer, with African whitewood and oleanolic acid, is a must for those with oily T-zones — and layers like a dream underneath foundation.

Nars Pore & Shine Control Primer, $36, available at Nars.
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Lash Primers
We know we're doing something right when people ask whether our lashes are real. According to Tanno and Misha Shahzada, a makeup artist who creates editorial looks for Vogue and Elle, a surefire way to create full, are-they-or-aren’t-they lashes is to use a primer under mascara. “A primer helps magnify lashes by helping to lengthen each hair and making them look more full,” Tanno says. “It also helps adhere the mascara to the lash, to minimize flaking and running.”

Though instinct may trigger a more-is-more theory when gunning for major lashes, Tanno warns against layering on thick coats of primer — it causes lashes to clump, creating a spidery look. (Although, if that's exactly what you're going for, layer away.) To apply lightly, gently wipe away any excess product from the wand before applying to top lashes. Immediately follow application with thin coats of your favorite mascara. “Try to apply mascara right away, because once the primer dries, adding mascara can make your lashes look clumpy,” Tanno says.

Not sure whether to pick a black or white formula? Shahzada suggests black primers under black mascara only. White primers are more versatile and work with black, brown, and louder-colored mascaras. Some primer wands feature spindly brushes, but we like this one’s lush, full-sized brush, which helps grab every lash.
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Lip Primers
Unlike lash primers, which our experts consider absolute must-haves, lip primers aren't always at the top of their priority list. That's because lip exfoliators and balms can generally achieve the same conditioning, moisturizing, or flake-eradicating results.

But, if you're seeking to create stay-all-day statement lips, these primers get major play. They not only smooth lips, but help keep pigment in place while you're doing the good stuff in life — eating, drinking, and kissing.

Warren saves lip primers to use under bright, matte lipstick shades in order to keep color from feathering and fading. Shahzada exfoliates first. “It will not only make your lips smoother, but it will also allow your primer to better adhere to the lips — and lock color in place,” she says. We like this vegan balm-meets-primer hybrid — which, thanks to nourishing ingredients like organic hemp oil and vitamin E, you can use alone as a balm or to keep a Swiftian red lip rocking all day.
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Eyelid Primers
Whether preparing celebs for TV shoots, runways, or red carpet appearances, all three makeup artists we interviewed agree: Eyeshadow primers are a must. These clear, neutral-toned creams and pencils help prevent smoky eyes from sliding into raccoon territory, and help liners stay near the lashline. “It helps adhere the shadow to the lid and get brighter pigment and color payoff,” says Tanno.

The pros prefer matte formulas, since you can add shine with makeup itself. A light hand is key: When using cream formulas, Warren insists a speck is all you need to cover the lid from lashline to brow. Use a brush to ensure a thin and even coat, and then wait for it to dry before applying shadow.

Shahzada reaches for this multitasking pencil to prime lids. The long-lasting formula is easy to apply (thanks to its stick form), holds shadow well, helps correct any grayness, and is designed to work as a lipliner and concealer, to boot.
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Hair Primers Sometimes dubbed prep lotions, these play a big role in boosting hold and longevity. “I use hair primers in most styling situations and consider them an absolute must,” says stylist Arturo Swayze, owner of New York’s Arturo Salon. When applied to and fully absorbed by clean hair, these creams, oils, and sprays help achieve volume, provide anti-humidity protection, and protect from the heat of styling tools and the sun’s damaging rays.

According to Swayze, nearly all hair types can benefit from these, since they “lay a strong foundation [for styling products and] whatever look you’re trying to achieve.” Those with curly, thick, brittle, or dry hair benefit most from the de-frizzing and hydrating qualities of cream or oil-based formulations, while light sprays work best for straight or fine hair.

John Frieda Frizz Ease Beyond Smooth Frizz Immunity Primer, $10, available at Walgreens.
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To Volumize Fine Hair
Swayze suggests applying a spray primer to roots and ends, skipping the mid-shaft so as not to weigh down the hair. Next, apply mousse throughout. “The primer allows the mousse to fully adhere, giving hair maximum lift,” he says. Aloe leaf and prickly-pear fruit extracts work to moisturize hair, which helps keep it from turning crunchy from the mousse.
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To Smooth Thick Or Coarse Hair
Those with thick, coarse, or unruly hair can achieve a smooth, polished look by applying a quarter-sized dollop of cream or oil-based primer from the ends and through the shaft, stopping an inch or two from the roots. “Hair can begin to look dirty faster if you apply creams or oils too close to the roots,” he warns. “Plus, older hair requires more moisture than younger hair.” The result? Major control. “The primer will lock in moisture, soften the cuticles, and provide heat protection, resulting in a very clean blowout,” Swayze says.
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To Straighten Curly Hair
“Anti-humidity primers are an excellent tool for those with curly hair who love wearing it straight,” Swayze says. “By absorbing moisture and sealing strands, these primers create a barrier to protect the hair from frizz-inducing humidity. This can make your blowout last, no matter what the weather.”
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