Makeup Basics: Foundation

Guides, How to Makeup

Makeup Basics: Foundation

This is part one of the Makeup Basics series. Let’s just dive right in, shall we?

There are a very, very few people in the world have naturally flawless, even-toned skin. For the rest of us, there’s foundation (or base makeup, if you prefer). Now, I’ve met a lot of people who think that you must wear foundation if you’re planning to wear makeup. False. Just like everything else in your makeup arsenal, it’s a tool that you can use to accomplish a specific purpose. Bare skin is gorgeous, flaunt that business if you want to.


What is it?

Foundation is a skin-colored product that’s made to put all over your face. It comes in a dizzying array of different formulas and shades, and finding the right one can be a little tricky. More on that in a minute.

Why might I want to use this stuff?

The two main reasons you might want to wear a primer and foundation are to even out skintone and texture, and to give your other makeup (blush, bronzer, etc) something to cling to. I think evening skintone is far and away the most popular reason that folks get hooked on foundation. Maybe you’ve got some blemishes or hyperpigmentation you want to cover up, or have some redness you want to tone down.

How do I choose the right one for me?

This is where that tricky part comes in. The main factors that you want to consider are formula, coverage, finish and color.


The main options here are powder, cream and liquid, which are all basically exactly what they sound like. Each has its own little set of characteristics.

  • Powder – comes in either loose (in a sifter jar) or pressed (compact) versions. The coverage tends to be a bit lighter, and powder foundation can be great for oily skin since it drinks up oils. For the same reason, people with dry skin often find it too drying to wear frequently, and it can have a tendency to cling to flakes or dry patches. It’s usually applied with a sponge or buffed in with a dense flat-top brush.
  • Cream – generally comes in a compact, or sometimes in a pot. In general, they’re very moisturizing and have fuller coverage. The thicker consistency means it can take a little more effort to spread over the skin. I find that I have the best luck with these formulas by using a dense buffing brush to apply it to well-moisturized, exfoliated skin.
  • Liquid – comes in a bottle or tube. In my opinion liquids are the easiest to use, since they come in all types of coverage and finish, and can be applied with finger, sponges, buffing brush, stippling brush, etc. It’s also possible to find a liquid foundation that will work for nearly any skin type.


To be a graphic design nerd for a minute, coverage = opacity. This determines how much of your natural skin features are still visible. Some foundations are “buildable,” meaning that you can apply additional thin layers for more coverage without it looking thick or cakey. Coverage is a sort of subjective term, but most foundations are described as light, medium or full coverage. Here are my opinions on what those terms mean. By the way, I’m using the term “color irregularities” below; by that, I definitely don’t mean that it’s anything bad or ugly, just that it’s not uniform in color compared to the rest of the skin. No skin-shaming here.

  • Light – doesn’t obscure color irregularities in the skin very much. It helps ease the transitions between the natural differences in colors on different areas of the face. 20% opacity, if you will.
  • Medium – partially obscures color irregularities. Some things will show through, like freckles, blemishes or hyperpigmentation, but the difference between them and the rest of the skin will be less obvious. Call it 50% opacity.
  • Full – obscures color irregularities heavily or completely. Up in the 80-100% opacity range – you’d be unlikely to need an additional concealer with this.


Finish is where the foundation falls on the matte-to-shiny scale.

  • Matte – doesn’t reflect much light. Sometimes this is referred to as a “velvet” finish. This is often the finish of choice for folks with especially oily skin, since it often contains oil-absorbing ingredients.
  • Natural – reflects a little more light than matte finishes, but isn’t shiny either. As you might suspect from the name, it’s intended to look like actual skin. This is a decent finish for most skin types.
  • Dewy – also known as radiant, luminous, glowy, etc. It reflects quite a bit of light and can be a great choice for dry or mature skin.


This is where a lot of people get hung up choosing a foundation. Obviously you want your foundation to at least sort of match the rest of your skin, but people come in a lot of colors. The two main things you have to consider here are undertone and depth. A side note – the oils in your skin and the air around you can sometimes interact with your foundation and change the color as you wear it. This process is called oxidization, and sometimes ends up with a foundation looking darker or more yellow/orange than when you applied it. Since this depends largely on skin chemistry, this means it can happen to any foundation, but won’t necessarily happen for everyone who wears that particular product. The best way to avoid this is to wear a sample of your foundation for several hours before buying, or make sure to purchase your makeup from a store with a good return policy.


Depth is the darkness or lightness of your skin. The possible range is huge, all the way from almost-actually-Pantone-white to very dark, with every possible variation in between. Unfortunately the color availability for very fair and very dark tones can sometimes be a bit limited.


Undertone is the ‘base’ color of your skin, and is usually divided into warm, cool, olive or neutral. It’s important to find a foundation with a similar undertone as your skin; otherwise even though the depth might be right, there will still be an obvious difference in your skin and foundation color. So how do you know what your undertones are? Some quick things to check-


  • Undertones are yellow, orange or peach
  • The veins on the insides of your wrist appear to be mostly green under natural light
  • You look best in gold jewelry, warm colors and off-white or brown-toned neutrals


  • Undertones are pink, blue or violet
  • The veins on the insides of your wrist appear to be mostly blue under natural light
  • You look best in silver jewelry, cool colors and bright white or grey-toned neutrals


  • Undertones are slightly green
  • This undertone is most common in people of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage
  • The veins on the inside of your wrist appear greyish-green


  • A mixture of undertones, or no obvious color undertones
  • The veins on the inside of your wrist are a mixture of blue and green under natural light, or the color can’t be distinguished
  • Gold/silver and warm/cool colors are about equally flattering against your skin

Foundation by any other name

Ok, so now you have the basics of foundation. But what about tinted moisturizer, or BB-CC-DD creams? What are those?

  • Tinted moisturizer – a moisturizer that has just a bit of color built in. These can be used as a very light coverage foundation.
  • BB Cream – BB (aka Beauty Balms, Blemish Balms, etc) started out in Asia as a makeup-and-skincare-in-one product. In addition to coverage, they claim to offer extra benefits such as skin lightening, sun protection and moisture. Western cosmetics manufacturers got wind of BB creams’ popularity and began making their own versions of BB cream; a lot of them tend to be glorified tinted moisturizers.
  • CC/DD Cream – CC stands for “Color Corrector”, and DD is Julep’s “Dynamic Do-All” (though to me it sounds like something meant for the decollete). In my humble opinion, labeling products as CC or DD creams is really more a matter of cosmetic marketeers trying to ride the BB popularity train as long as they can keep it rolling.

My favorites

You can probably tell from the novel above that there are a ton of factors that go into finding your perfect foundation, so no single product is right for everyone. I did promise in the intro post to list my favorites though. For reference, my skin is oily but easily dehydrated (meaning it loses moisture easily and gets flaky in places). I have cool undertones and medium-depth skin; if you refer to MAC shades, I’m around NW25 in the winter and closer to NW30 in the summer. Right now my top foundations are-

  • Hourglass Immaculate Liquid Powder Foundation in Sand (which I reviewed here). Liquid, matte finish, medium coverage.
  • Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer in SX09; that color is too dark for me in the winter, so I keep a pot of SX02 around to mix in if I need it. Between liquid and cream, natural finish, full coverage.
  • Clinique Even Better Makeup in 05-Neutral. Liquid, natural finish, medium but buildable coverage.
  • Make Up For Ever Mat Velvet+ in #50-Sand. Liquid, matte finish, full coverage.


You made it to the end! Feel free to comment below if you still have any unanswered questions.

1 Comment

  1. ruma

    March 15, 2015 at 2:04 am

    Was such a hlpful article.thank you so much for it :)

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