The Surprising Difference Between Foundation & Tinted Moisturizer

Illustration: Anna Sudit
Concealer goes before foundation, and BB cream goes before powder, and powder goes after everything — or wait, is it the other way around? Only Subway has more possible combinations when it comes to layering your base, so some confusion is bound to happen; after all, one brand's "full-coverage foundation" is another brand's "lightweight, stay-all-day makeup." Sadly, there's no rubric to consult when it comes to makeup jargon, but that doesn't mean you're doomed to stay lost in the complexion-perfecting product maze. In fact, there's a simple exit strategy: Just consider all of it — cream concealer, powder foundation, tinted moisturizer, full-coverage BB cream, skin tint, tinted powder, all of it — foundation.
On that note, I’d like to direct you to a 2016 tweet by Mindy Kaling, which remains every bit as true today as it was then:
You can pretty much 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 is only Champagne if it was made in the right region of France, there's no law that says any given BB or CC cream has to have all of those properties to bear the acronymic name.
A lot of the uncertainty around bases comes from a kind of moralizing, in my experience. It’s like a lot of women draw a line in the sand at foundation. When I worked at a beauty counter, I had countless women say they wouldn’t dream of wearing foundation, only to buy a thick tinted moisturizer, full-coverage concealer, and a powder compact to top it all off. For some reason it’s seen as the peak of cool-girl beauty to eschew foundation, but in reality, other bases are much the same. The biggest difference between them all is that... there really isn't one.
"The purpose of foundation is not to cover everything up. It’s just to even out your skin tone a little," says Debbie Finnegan, a senior artist at MAC Cosmetics. "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." The idea is to make your skin look the best it can be, without concealing every little thing.
Finnegan says that, for the most part, starting with foundation, adding concealer where needed, and setting with powder is the best — and most straightforward — routine to follow. But if you want to take it a step further without sacrificing a fresh-faced, natural look, she says, "Try contouring and highlighting using something like MAC's Cream Colour Base on bare skin, then add foundation around that and buff it all in. You might find that with structure already added to your face, you'll need less in the way of coverage. It sounds backwards, but it's a really good tip."
All the different terms are meant to be a rough guide to understanding 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, add in a quality concealer, and consider buying a slightly fuller-coverage foundation for nights out when you want more photo-perfect skin.
At the end of the day, Finnegan says that the best way to get great skin is to prep properly, with a good serum, eye cream and lip balm. Take the time to massage in something hydrating first, then get to work. Your skin — and your skin-like makeup — will be all the better for it.

More from Makeup

R29 Original Series