Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.There’s a reason foundation rhymes with intimidation. Decoding all the various formulas and finishes can feel like an attempt to translate the Rosetta Stone. Try to score some “face” at a drugstore, and you could wind up with that dreaded line of demarcation at the neck — a hazard of not being able to try the shade on your skin. Even if you’re professionally matched with a hue, there are a host of other concerns — texture, formula, finish, and coverage.
So, to achieve for-real foundation elation, we talked to cosmetic chemists Perry Romanowski and Ni’Kita Wilson, dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz, and the makeup maestro herself, Bobbi Brown, to help you become the ace of base. Keep reading.
Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.Though it was all about cream foundation in the early years (starting with the ancient Greeks and Romans), today we enjoy liquid, mousse, spray, compact/stick, and powder options. But, there’s no one-size-fits-all texture. “Choose a formula based on the needs of your skin, the climate you live in, the time of year, and your lifestyle preferences,” says Bobbi Brown Cosmetics founder Bobbi Brown. “Just as you change your wardrobe with the seasons, you should change your foundation formula, as your skin will likely need more hydration and moisturization in the winter than in the summer.”
The most common foundation iteration is liquid. Schultz says liquid foundation is best for oily/acne-prone skin, provided it’s oil-free, and he recommends looking for water in the first position of the ingredient list. If a lighter feel is your thing, Perry Romanowski suggests seeking out a silicone (like cyclomethicone), which makes liquid foundations seem to float on skin.
Cosmetic chemist Wilson says that liquid foundations blend most easily, because they’re like “paint.” But, it comes down to user preference. “Foundations that provide light coverage are best for buildable coverage,” she says. “Creams provide heavier coverage to begin with, so adding additional layers will create an artificial complexion.”
If, in the sage words of Prince, cream is what you need to get on top, you’re in luck. “Cream foundations provide the heaviest coverage, as they are filled with waxes and fillers that help the foundation adhere to the skin,” Wilson explains. It sounds mildly unintuitive, but Schultz tells us that normal skin works best with cream foundations, because it’s water-based and has a small amount of oil.
Whipped, or mousse foundation, has a fluffy, light-as-air feel, making it an easy-to-use option. According to Schultz, it’s ideal for the acne-prone, as long as water is at the top of its ingredient list. Oil is really the ingredient to avoid, he says, and mousse foundation is really just a liquid with air whipped into it, giving it its lightweight texture that allows it to spread more easily and keep pores clear.
Spray foundation is the lightest texture on the market. “Spray foundations offer the most natural coverage, because it lays on the surface of the skin and is not rubbed, dabbed, or brushed on,” Wilson says. “These actions push the pigments into the skin, which causes the light to reflect differently.” The best candidate for this foundation vehicle? Like mousse’s target demographic, it’s ideal for those with oily or combination skin.
Taking TSA regulations into consideration, stick and compact foundations have become popular in the past few years, thanks to their portability and lack of mess. “The gel sticks with anti-shine technology open doors for some oily skin types to use stick foundations, which was previously a no-no,” says Wilson. Schultz adds that compact and stick foundations tend to be better for people with thicker, oilier, more sebaceous skin, because it’s easy to direct different amounts to different areas of the skin.
Powder foundations work well for those with oily skin, especially during warmer months. But, Brown says to use them with caution. “Powder formulas can dry out skin,” she explains. So, if your skin is already on the parched side, opt for another type of foundation.
Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
Chemically speaking, the biggest difference in formula pertains to the level of waxes. Cream foundations have the most wax, while sprays have the least. Powders have no waxes, water, or oils. And silicones? If you have acneic skin, you may have been advised to steer clear, but Wilson sets the record straight: “From a chemical standpoint, there is nothing wrong with silicones.” Avoiding them is a personal preference, she says. “There is no scientific basis for avoiding them in foundations or any other skin-care product. But, here’s the flip side. Romanowski notes that while silicones may make a formula lightweight, shiny, and easy to apply, they also attract more dirt and feel heavy...while not lasting as long. So, there’s that.
When it comes to relying on makeup for SPF, Schultz reminds us to apply it evenly and always use enough to yield the full protection of the rated SPF. “An insufficient amount of sunscreen, especially traditional carbon-based sunscreen, causes the SPF to fall dramatically to the square root of the labeled SPF,” he says. “A 15 becomes a 4 and a 50 becomes a 7. You can't afford to let that happen.”
As for oil-free formulas, Wilson maintains that the “oil-free" designation in foundation is a marketing claim. All it means is that the formulas do not contain any ingredients with “oil” in the name, but that doesn’t mean there are no oily emollients. It can be just as heavy and greasy as a foundation that contains oils, so it shouldn’t make or break your decision to use a product. “The ingredients that help to control excess oil are mineral ingredients, talc, mica, powders, blotting papers, and toners with 5-15% alcohol,” says Wilson. As for oil-based formulas, Romanowski says, they last longer and resist changes throughout the day, but they can also feel heavy.
And finally, how does oxidation affect the color of foundation? Romanowski says it can make a color turn more yellowish/brown, while Wilson notes that it can cause color-streaking.
Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
We’re going to break down foundation finishes for you: A matte finish indicates a total absence of shimmer. Shine means there is “just a hint of shine, a step up from matte,” explains Wilson. A natural finish is in between. As for dewy, that means that you’ll be left with a glistening effect. Luminous is all about light-catching brightness for that lit-from-within look. “It indicates that light reflects off the skin, causing a glow,” says Wilson. The latest in luminosity? Bobbi Brown Luminous Moisturizing Treatment Foundation uses light-reflecting technology, not traditional pearls, to create an instantly radiant finish.
Does the inclusion of mica in a foundation formula result in luminosity? Not always, says Wilson. “Some forms of mica can be used to help the skin appear matte.” Mattifying mica — who knew?
Bobbi Brown Luminous Moisturizing Treatment Foundation, $52, available at Bobbi Brown.
Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
Once you’ve got your texture, formula, and finish down, it’s time to pick your coverage level and shade. “Sheer coverage is usually achieved when you use a very lightweight product, such as a tinted face balm or tinted moisturizer, on your face to even out skin tone, but still allow features like freckles to show through, says Brown. She recommends using a sheer product during the warmer months or when you want to wear minimal makeup.
Medium coverage is one step beyond sheer. “You’ll even out skin tone and balance skin, whether it is oily or dry, but natural features will still be visible,” explains Brown. “This is achieved with a stick foundation, whipped foundation, and some powder-foundation formulas.”
Full coverage is for those who want to camouflage everything from pores to redness. “It will achieve everything medium coverage does, and it will completely cover imperfections such as acne or dark spots,” notes Brown. “To get full coverage, I recommend liquid or cream compact foundations.” Ingredient-wise, says Romanowski, “A blend of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide provides the most coverage. Liquids and creams give the best overall coverage. But, someone properly skilled in application can get adequate coverage from any form.”
Finding your shade according to your undertones can be a daunting task. Brown advocates swiping it on your cheek first. “People often test foundations on their wrist or arm, but those areas are never the same shade as your face,” she says. “You should swatch several shades on your cheek in natural light — the correct match will disappear into the skin.” As for undertone shades, Brown recommends seeking out yellow-toned foundations. “They will color-correct redness and brighten the complexion all at the same time,” she says.
Self-adjusting foundations are becoming more popular, but lest you be seduced by them, Wilson has a warning for us. They start out white and blend into your skin, but they contain encapsulated pigments that break as you rub them in — releasing the color as you apply the foundation. “Calling them self-adjusting is a bit misleading,” she warns, “as the color develops the same on me as it would on you. There is no difference other than the color of our skin.”
No matter which foundation you choose, taking care of your skin remains key. Brown’s advice? Always moisturize and prep the skin, so it’s the “perfect canvas” for blending foundation and looks completely natural. As to whether or not to apply concealer under or over your foundation, Brown says it depends on the concealer. “The perfect under-eye concealer can be worn on its own, with foundation applied up to the area of the concealer.” She adds that concealer for blemishes should be applied where needed on top of foundation. Touch-up sticks are perfect for concealing blemishes, imperfections, and redness around the nose.
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