Friday, September 25, 2009

Foundation 101:
Finding Your Best Shade

I'm decidedly a cosmo-anarchist. In my makeup land, there are no rules, no laws- anything goes. However, if there were one, it would have something to do with the abolition of what we makeup artists know as "lines of demarcation." We've all seen them, the horrid mask lines on the jaw that appear when someone has applied a shade of foundation that is appallingly wrong. Lines that leave you asking yourself: "Can't she see it? Who does she think she's fooling?" As obvious as this condition is to the rest of us, it is rarely the choice of the afflicted. Choosing the correct foundation shade can be a daunting task; with an ever widening span of shades and tones available, how's a girl to tell what's the best for her? Believe it or not, a little 4th grade math can help. Confused? Read on.

The first step is to decide what depth your skin is: are you light, medium or dark? This is most likely something you're already aware of. If you're lighter or darker than most, then it's probably pretty obvious where you'll fall. If you're not sure, then you're most likely in the medium range. For now, don't worry about your undertones, just the depth of your skin.

When you get to the store, look at the entire range of foundation you're considering, and divide it into 3 equal parts- for light, medium, dark. If a line has 15 shades, you'll end up with 5 light, 5 medium and 5 dark shades. Realistically, most lines have more shades that will fall into the medium category than the light and deep, so if you can't divide the range into equal parts, lump the extras into this middle category. Ergo: If a line has 17 shades, consider 5 light, 5 dark and the other 7 medium.

Next it's swatch time. You're always going to swatch 3 shades to begin with. Say it with me- 3 shades! Even if you're positive where you fit in the spectrum, testing a few shades will ensure that you get the best match not only to the depth, but also the tone of your skin. So, going back to our example- say you've decided you're light. That means one of the first five shades should be your match. How do you decide which one without swatching all five? Simple- just decide where you fall in the spectrum of "light"; are you the lightest of the light, or more light/medium?If you decide you're definitely among the lightest, then the first 3 shades in your light group will be your test shades. If you're fair, but not super pale, go with the last 3 in that group. The same goes for medium and deep tones, just evaluate where you fall in that individual category.

When you're ready to swatch, make sure you're doing it on bare skin along your jaw line, since the goal is finding a match that blends seamlessly from your face to your neck. Testing on the back of your hand or the inside of your wrist won't cut it, the shades of skin from body part to body part can vary widely. Take a clean Q-tip for each test, and draw a vertical line with the makeup along your jaw, spacing the shades about an inch apart.

Chances are, at least one of the 3 you've tested will jump right out and scream WRONG!!! If the shade looks chalky or dry, it's probably too light. If the shade looks orange or muddy, it may be too dark or the wrong undertone for your skin. Obviously, this one is out of the running. Keep in mind, any foundation striped on is probably going to be visible, so you may want to lightly smudge the bottom half of each line to see how the shades blend. If you're still not sure, step away from the mirror, squint your eyes, and see which shade disappears.

It's not uncommon to find you may be able to wear more than one shade, especially with sheer formulas. Of course, some skin tones are harder to match than others, and some lines may not work for some people, so if you're having a hard time finding a match in one line, try another formula, or another brand all together. Luckily, most major brands have associates that are trained to help you find your best shade. Take advantage of color matching services when they're offered, and if you're unsure, there's nothing wrong with asking for a sample to take home (as long as your planning to buy when you find the right shade!)

Hopefully this makes sense to you all, when I was a manager, this was the technique that always seemed to click with my associates; I think it translates just as well to the home shopper. Nest time you're out, give it a try & let me know how it worked for you!


Phyrra said...

I had the WORST time trying to find a light enough foundation for years. I wore NW15 in MAC, but it was really too dark for me. I then moved to mineral foundation, which runs a lot lighter, but still shades seemed to be either too ashy or too orange or too pink. I finally had my undertones professionally done, and that helped me a ton! I have a bit of peach, bit of yellow, some cream and beige, with a pink overtone. This makes it so some brands will just not work on me. I finally found some matches with Meow in Inquisitive Siamese, which is their lightest neutral shade. I found I could also work with Inquisitive Sphynx, which is for beige/peach/pink undertones. I wear 1CL + Alabaster in Aromaleigh, which is their lightest shade of beige/peach/pink and Alabaster is a shade used to lighten.

You give GREAT advice about trying the foundation out along your jaw line. I had no clue about that for the longest time.

Thank you so much for sharing all of this information ;)

Phyrra said...

I'm fairly dry as well. I would be willing to bet that you would be ok with Meow's Pampered Puss formula, ( and Aromaleigh's Glissade formula ( . Neither one make me dryer.

I tend to put on my vitamin c skin boost in the mornings and then my moisturizer with spf 28. After that sinks in I put on foundation :)

And yes, definitely, almost everything seems to be pink based! They need more neutrals and yellows out there.

My favorite foundation for the longest time was MAC's Moisturefix in NW15, but I finally had to accept that it was just too dark and the wrong shade for me :( Made me soooooooooooooo sad.

I'm notorious for having to choose the lightest foundation shade out there because I'm so pale. I embrace the pale, at least :)

Unknown said...

Sounds like you're one of the hard tones to match! I myself have issues because I'm so fair, most lines don't go light enough for me. I also have more yellow undertones, yet for some reason the fairest shades are pretty much always pink based. Currently, I blend a deeper, yellow based foundation with a white one. Since I'm dry, I don't care for mineral makeup. I find they can feel tight and emphasize flakiness.

Olive skin is also notoriously hard to match- my mother typically matches up to foundation about 5 shades deeper than she looks!

Foundation is definitely the bane of my makeup existence- it's been years since I've found one I love, and when I do, the company invariably ends up discontinuing it. Oh well, I suppose the search gives me something to do (I'm actually headed to the new Nordstrom today to check out their offerings!)

Unknown said...

I'm track backing to this. For serious. I might also add some information in regards to undertones, as well as what to be weary of when buying foundation.... Definitely also a pet peeve of mine.

I'm as well curious why everything pale has a pink undertone. I definitely have pink undertones, however, if I put on foundation with pink undertones.... I look PINK. I use more neutral based formulas that have a slight yellow undertone, as well as pink undertone to help neutralize the pink so I don't look ridiculous. Quite frankly, most people look better in warmer foundations than cooler.

Unknown said...

Molly Loretta-

Glad you liked the post. There's so much to be said about foundation- it's the one aspect of makeup that's closest to skin care, and choosing a formula is so important, I thought it would be too much to cram into one post, so I stuck to just shades here.

I didn't go into under tones because, like you mentioned, just because you have a pink undertone doesn't necessarily mean you'll want a pink based foundation. Also, very few lines separate their warms and cools- they're interspersed in the range and chances are, if you change a shade to get a different undertone, the depth will change too. That's why this method tends to work well, it forces you to try several shades regardless of undertone.

The only line I know of that completely separates it's warms and cools is MAC, and they actually do it backwards. In the MAC range, NW (Neutral Warm) shades are pink based, and NC (Neutral Cool) shades are yellow based. According to the company, this is because they base their definitions on the "artist's color wheel" but I've taken plenty of art classes & my fiance has a degree from art school- on every color wheel we've ever seen, warm tones are yellow based, cool are blue based. Sorry MAC.

Unknown said...

I love that you did this post and you put it perfectly. I've been trying to work on something like this but I don't have enough knowledge to get as detailed as you did but still keeping it simple. I <3 you :D

It took me until just recently to find my perfect shade. I have redness in my body but my face is more neutral/yellow. So using an NW25 like I have been ended up not working in natural light. It was great in my bathroom, then one day I was like "Eeeeew" when I saw myself out in the sun. Haha! So I went back in for an NC25 which is way too yellow for me. Frustrated, I tried mixing the NW and NC and voila! My foundation is a better match than it ever has been.

Suzanne C. said...

Isn't this common sense? I mean maybe not my mom gave me good advice as a tween but I pretty much figured out a similar method on my own. This is however excellent advice to young girls I have online friends that are freshman and i'd definately send them a link to this if they needed help. My biggest problem is that they usually don't make my shade(I'm VERY pale), or a brand might say it won't clog pores and be poison on my skin.

Unknown said...


I suppose to some it may be common sense, you'll have to stay tuned for Foundation 201 :)

I myself am fairer than most ranges go. Several companies make white foundations that you can mix into your existing shades in order to customize them. I love 0- from Face Atelier for this, but Illamasqua and MAC Pro also make versions. Also, check out; she did a great post a while back about how to lighten your foundations with Titanium Dioxide. Incidentally, Illamasqua & Nars both have a great range for those of us that are pigment deprived!

One more thing to keep in mind if you have issues with foundations irritating your skin- most major brands nowadays are non-comedogenic, meaning they don't clog pores. Look for this label but know that not all brands use it, even if their products are non-clogging. It's actually more likely that breakouts are a symptom of your skincare routine, or possibly even an allergic reaction.

organic lipstick said...

Thanks for the lovely definitely make a lot of sense to me.

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