The Ultimate Guide To Makeup Primers and Setting Sprays

Of all the things that can upgrade your makeup game, primers and setting sprays are among the top contenders. They help your makeup last longer, create a stunning base for foundation, and can even give your skin a coveted matte or dewy finish. But with hundreds of primers, and just as many setting sprays, on the market today — how do you know which ones reign supreme?

I decided to put a few to the test. I tried five primers and five setting sprays that either claim to hydrate, mattify, improve makeup longevity, refine pores, or add luminosity to the skin. In some cases, primers were the way to go; in other cases, it was setting sprays — and sometimes using both together proved most fruitful. Wondering how it all panned out? I've detailed my experience in the slides, ahead.

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The Challenge: Pore Perfection
Throughout the entire experiment, I wore Make Up For Ever's Ultra HD Foundation on my combination skin because it has a natural, skin-like finish that didn't compete with any primers or sprays I wore with it. The first primer on my list was Tarte's Clean Slate Poreless — a silicone-based primer that claims to refine the appearance of pores.

I squeezed a pea-sized amount of the pasty primer onto my finger and smeared it in a downward motion over my T-zone (where my pores are the most visible). The primer immediately made my skin smooth and acted almost like a spackling paste, gliding over my pores to blur them.

I'm normally very wary of products high in silicone because they tend to break me out, but this one didn't. I wore this for an entire workday and to drinks with friends, and my makeup didn't move an inch. However, despite the avocado oil and vitamins in this primer, I did get visibly dry around my nose and mouth.

Tarte Clean Slate Poreless 12-Hr Perfecting Primer, $31, available at Sephora.
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On day two, I tried a silica-infused setting spray that also claims to "smooth" the appearance of skin. When I misted this onto my freshly moisturized face, I noticed a slight tingling sensation, which subsided in a few seconds. Although this initially worried me, I proceeded with my day as usual and noticed no irritations or allergies to the product throughout the day.

The mist did a good job of setting my makeup, but I didn't see any notable "smoothing" after applying it. This didn't come as a huge surprise — as setting sprays aren't normally designed to mask large pores the way that traditional primers can.

The best thing about this spray was actually the high SPF. It was a very handy addition to my travel makeup bag when I spent a week in Hawaii last month.

Supergoop Defense Refresh Setting Mist With Rosemary, $28, available at Nordstrom.
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The Challenge: Major Hydration
The next batch of products on my list were hydrating ones. I decided to give Too Faced's new Hangover primer a shot because it contains moisturizing coconut water and bacteria-fighting probiotics. Not only does this silicone-free primer smell like coconut milk, but it absorbs in seconds and feels just like moisturizer.

At first, I was worried that the hydrating primer would break down my makeup and make my face oily, but I'm happy to report that I was wrong. Although this cream doesn't claim to improve the wear of your makeup, it seemed to hold everything together for a few extra hours. I normally blot my face with shine sheets around 1 p.m., but with this primer under my makeup, I didn't have to blot until later that afternoon.

But what I really love most about this primer is the way it makes my skin feel. It has a slightly brightening effect and creates a plump canvas for foundation, making it a great option for everyday wear.

Too Faced Hangover Replenishing Face Primer, $32, available at Too Faced.
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This setting spray contains aloe vera, green tea, cucumber, and vitamins A, C, and E, which work together to soothe and hydrate the skin. I sprayed this on right after applying my foundation, blush, and bronzer (in lieu of setting powder) and loved the result.

The first time I used this spray, I went out to dinner and drinks on a very cold night in New York City. When I came home, I was surprised to see my makeup mostly intact with zero dry patches or flakes. I would recommend layering a dedicated primer under this for extra longevity, though.

E.L.F. Makeup Mist & Set, $3, available at E.L.F. Cosmetics.
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The Challenge: All-Day Wear
This fella claims to last 15 hours on the skin, and it delivers. I decided to wear this stick primer throughout work and well into a Black Sabbath concert that same night. I smoothed the stick over the bridge of my nose, T-zone, chin, and forehead, then blended it in before buffing on my foundation with a brush. It created a silky base for makeup and kept my face looking fresh from 8:30 a.m. to midnight.

Benefit Stay Flawless 15-Hour Primer, $32, available at Ulta.
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I've heard dozens of YouTubers rave about Urban Decay's All Nighter Setting Spray, so I decided to test it on a day that I'd be making a beeline from work to happy hour.

This setting mist feels more like a refreshing toner, and it's so fine that it won't disrupt all your hard contouring work.

The product kept oil at bay throughout the day, although I did need to give my T-zone a light blotting before heading out to meet my friends that evening. I sprayed another round of it over my face before drinks, and I was surprised that my makeup was still on my face when I got home. If extending the wear of your makeup is your end game, I'd reach for this spray over any silicone-based primer — simply because I prefer the way it feels on my skin.

Urban Decay All Nighter Makeup Setting Spray, $30, available at Sephora.
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The Challenge: Glow Getter
With my combination-oily skin, I've always been wary of applying radiance-boosting products all over my face, lest they accentuate the oily pools on my nose and forehead. But for the love of makeup, I pushed on and gave Laura Mercier's cult radiance primer a try.

Although this primer has little bits of pearly shimmer, it doesn't show up like a disco ball on the skin. Instead, the creamy gel gives a lit-from-within effect, which is absolutely gorgeous layered under a light coat of foundation.

Like Too Faced's Hangover primer, this is a great one to wear every day because it absorbs quickly and feels weightless on the skin. And, as a bonus, it managed to keep my makeup intact for an entire workday.

Laura Mercier
Foundation Primer Radiance, $36, available at Sephora.
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This spray also provides a boost of radiance that isn't too over-the-top. I misted it over my face post-foundation and loved the glowy (not greasy) effect it gave my skin.

Although this is a great option for touching up throughout the day, I did have to give my face a thorough blot in the afternoon. I actually like coupling Laura Mercier's Radiance Primer with this mist to help my makeup last longer and add an extra kick of radiance during that midday slump.

Nyx Dewy Finish Make-Up Setting Spray, $8, available at Nyx Cosmetics.
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The Challenge: Matte Maker
If it's major oil control you're after, you will love this primer. But be warned: Going overboard on this product will accentuate dry patches on your skin. The tube itself has an itty-bitty nozzle, which should have indicated to me that a little bit goes a long way.

The dime-sized amount I applied was clearly too much, because my nose and chin began to look noticeably dry. To counteract the flakes, I sprayed a generous dose of Tatcha's Luminous Dewy Skin Mist (I like to call it moisturizer in a spray bottle) all over my face. Once I was done with my makeup, I went to my coworker's birthday party and returned home with completely matte skin nearly four hours later.

I tried the primer again the next day and used a little less than a pea-sized amount, and I found it worked perfectly — my face was shine- and flake-free all day long.

Make Up For Ever Step 1 Mattifying Primer, $37, available at Sephora.
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I've used Ben Nye products since my high school theater days, so I was excited to give the brand's Final Seal Matte Makeup Sealer a try on the last day of this experiment. When I misted the product over my face, I immediately noticed a slight tingling sensation and peppermint-like scent. I'm not a huge fan of heavily scented products, so this irked me some, but not enough to discourage me from using it.

The spray itself mattifies on contact and can be drying if you use too much. (I mist on three spritzes, max.) When using this makeup sealer, I didn't need to blot my face at all throughout my nine-hour workday. It's a great setting option for those of you who don't want to mess around with powders or silicone-based primers — but it's no joke.

Ben Nye Final Seal Matte Makeup Sealer, $9.99, available at Ricky's NYC.
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