A No-BS Guide To Picking The Right Makeup Colors For You

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Sometimes, the concept of undertones feels a little Emperor’s New Clothes — everybody talks about them but, well, we can’t see them. Like, at all. We asked three makeup artists to explain them to us like we were total newbies, and then give us the scoop on when and why they matter.

“Undertones basically refer to the dominant colors that make up the shade of your skin,” says makeup artist Andre Sarmiento. In general, red, orange, and yellow are considered warm colors; green, blue, and violet are cool. Okay, fine. Now, considering your skin probably looks like some variation of white, tan, or brown, what exactly does that have to do with makeup?

An easy way to determine your undertones is by looking at any veins that are visible through your skin. If they look greenish-brown, you’re likely warm-complected. If they’re blueish-violet, cool tones dominate your complexion. Sarmiento likes Sephora’s free in-store Color IQ technology, a handheld digital device that scans the surface of your face and matches you with suitable makeup options.

Now, what to do with that intel? Read on to learn how to choose your best makeup matches depending on your undertones — and find out for which products you can ignore them.

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Foundation & Pressed Powder
“You’re going to want these to jibe with your skin tone exactly,” says makeup artist Fiona Stiles. You can tell if the formula is warm if it looks olive-beige, golden, or peachy when it’s in the tube or compact. Cooler shades appear pinkish or mauve-beige.

Nothing can replace actually trying on the product, of course. Sarmiento recommends applying a dense stripe of it with a Q-tip to your cheek. “The one that seems the least jarring likely contains your undertone,” he says. “Because you’re applying so thick, the other shades should project an obvious cast of gray/blue/green or pink/orange right away.”

Still overwhelmed? There are a few good places to start. Face Atelier Ultra Foundation Pro, Bobbi Brown Skin Foundation Stick, and Koh Gen Do Maifanshi Moisture Foundations 200 to 300 all carry great ranges of warm tones. Chanel, Suqqu, and Burberry Sheer Foundation are excellent for cool tones.
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Concealer & Highlighter
You’ll want to be pretty diligent about finding a shade that matches exactly. “Otherwise, it won’t conceal anything and will just make the area look dull, which is actually more obvious,” says makeup artist Marni Burton.

She recommends Color FX Cream Concealer, a range of 12 hues that are each marked as either "G" (golden, for warm undertones), "P" (pink, for cool undertones), or "N" (neutral, for those who fall somewhere in the middle). Likewise, “a highlighter that mimics your skin tone — peach for warm, pink for cool — can really lift the brow.”
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Blush & Bronzer
You’ve got a little leeway here. “Sometimes, contrasting undertones can have beautiful results,” says Sarmiento. However, a muted-orange blush on cool skin might just look muddy; a silvery blush on cool skin can be aging. So keep undertones in mind when selecting these, but don’t feel like you have to be rigid.
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If you’re looking for a great everyday shade that’s the same color as your lips — only better — or the Perfect Red Lipstick, absolutely keep your undertones in mind. If you just want to look hot and make a statement, throw them out the window.

“You’d think a flat bubblegum pink would look strange on warm skin tones, but Nicki Minaj pulls it off,” says Stiles. Sarmiento, who’s been using the blue-based Chanel Rouge Coco in Ina on warm, tan skin, adds, “It makes the lips pop and the skin seem even more golden.”

That being said, there are limits. “You still have to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, this might be too much of a contrast,’” says Sarmiento.
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Eyeshadow & Eyeliner
Let your freak flag fly! Or just feel free to experiment. “I tell my clients to follow their heart, gut, and spirit,” says Stiles. “You’ll know when something looks off.”

Sarmiento has a few guidelines for taking a walk on the wild side. Cool purples and pinks are great for giving warm-complected faces drama and smoke without the expected black or brown. And yellow-gold can underplay the blueish cast around eyes, making them appear brighter and whiter.
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