Dear Daniela: What's The Difference Between BB Cream, Foundation & Tinted Moisturiser?

Illustration: Anna Sudit
Dear Daniela,
The main thing I want when I put my makeup on is really fresh, healthy-looking skin. But it’s so much harder than it sounds: If I just want something light, do I need BB cream? Or can I apply foundation but thin it out? Do I need different base products for different events? Do I then need to add concealer, or powder? Help!
Francesca, 26
Foundation, concealer, powder. Concealer, BB cream, powder. Concealer, powder, tinted moisturiser. Only Subway has more possible combinations when it comes to layering your base, so I’m not surprised you’re confused. After all, one brand’s ‘full coverage foundation’ is another brand’s ‘lightweight stay-all-day makeup’. Sadly, there’s no rubric to hand when it comes to makeup – but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to stay lost in this maze. In fact, there’s a simple way out: just consider all bases foundation.
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In fact, I’d like to direct you to a 2016 tweet by Mindy Kaling, which is every bit as true today:
I’d say the same for BB cream and CC cream, too. They might have different histories and origin stories (BB cream, for example, was originally developed to aid skin healing after surgery), but unlike how champagne can only be thus called if made in the right region, there’s nothing to say any given BB/CC cream has to have all of those properties to bear the name. It might just mean ‘lightweight’!
A lot of the uncertainty around bases comes from peculiar moralising, in my experience. It’s like a lot of women draw a line in the sand at foundation; when I worked as a beauty counter girl, I had countless women say they wouldn’t dream of wearing foundation, only to buy a thick tinted moisturiser, heavyweight concealer and a compact to top it all off. There’s nothing about wearing foundation that means you’ve ‘lost’ or ‘failed’ – it’s what you make of it. It’s seen as the peak of cool-girl beauty to eschew foundation but in reality, other bases are much the same.
"The purpose of foundation is not to cover everything up. It’s just to even out your skin tone a little," confirmed Debbie Finnegan, senior artist at MAC. "Most people want to create something that looks like beautiful skin, with emphasis on skin. They don’t want it to look like a mask. Make your skin look the best it can be, but don’t conceal everything."
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Debbie name-checked MAC Waterweight Foundation, £27.50, as her go-to for the daytime and said she’d gone back to their classic Studio Fix Fluid, £24.50, for events or days when she wanted something fuller. "I’m feeling a little oily right now, so the matteness of Studio Fix is appealing," she explained. Right now, I like bareMinerals BarePro Performance Wear Foundation, £29; NARS All Day Weightless Foundation, £34; and Make Up For Ever Ultra HD Foundation, £29. All of those are foundations. I wear foundation every day. None of them ever looks cakey or heavy. I would say they are all more lightweight than a handful of ‘tinted moisturisers’ I’ve tried.
"Don’t sweat what’s on the tin," added Debbie. "Just find something you like, and go from there." Debbie agreed with me that base, concealer where needed, and set with powder is the best routine to follow, but also said: "If you want a really skin-like look, try contouring and highlighting using something like a MAC Cream Colour, £19, on bare skin, then add foundation around that and buff it in. You’ll probably find that with structure already added to your face, you’ll need less in the way of coverage. It sounds back-to-front but it’s a really good tip."
I think all the different names are meant to be a rough guide to ascertaining coverage level, but even the heaviest of foundations can be blended with a dollop of serum or highlighter and made much lighter. Invest in one base that you feel you can apply quickly and get a good level of coverage with for daytime, add in a quality concealer, and consider buying a slightly fuller-coverage base for nights out when you want more photo-perfect skin. Glossier’s ‘Skin first, makeup second’ tagline springs to mind, as Debbie said the best way to get great skin is to prep properly, with a good serum, eye cream and lip balm – which I’ll second. Take the time to massage in something hydrating first (I like The Ordinary’s Buffet Serum, £12.70, or La Roche Posay Hyalu B5 Serum, £37, and a slick of By Terry Baume de Rose, £39), then get to work.
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Good luck!
Daniela
Got a question for our resident beauty columnist Daniela Morosini? No problem, qualm or dilemma is too big, small or niche. Email deardaniela@refinery29.uk, including your name and age for a chance to have your question answered. All letters to ‘Dear Daniela’ become the property of Refinery29 and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.
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