Ironically, my trajectory into foundation-free life began in an attempt to perfect my foundation technique. After observing it in action backstage at New York Fashion Week last year, I began to adopt a method favored by makeup artists everywhere: Diluting and customizing a foundation formula with moisturizers, serums, and the like. It's essentially a way to combine your priming and foundation step into one, and has the bonus of making your finish look more natural—and preventing any 4pm cakiness.
But as time went on, I began to realize that my skincare product-to-foundation ratio was significantly widening, until I whittled my way down to just a drop or two of color. Perhaps it's thanks to my little-by-little strategy, or the fact that I've nailed down my perfect arsenal of products—I'm guessing it's a little both. But either way, while I'm using less coverage than ever, I've never been satisfied with how my skin and makeup looks. Since that's essentially the point of foundation in the first place, I'd say I've achieved my goal.
Of course, my new preferences could just be a sign of the times. I've always found the terminology of "no makeup-makeup" to be highly problematic—especially since the look, while involving a neutral palette, has historically involved contoured, highlighted, airbrushed perfection. (Which is fine in and of itself, but let's call a spade…) So it's thus been heartening to note that on the runway and even on the red carpet (cheers, Alicia Keys), a "natural" look has evolved into something aptly pared-down. What a relief—I'd almost forgotten what real, un-Facetuned skin actually looks like on other people. And for awhile, on myself.
This all being said, removing the full-blown foundation step from my routine has given way to a few others in its place—though I'm happy to put in the effort to keep my complexion looking its best. (And on that note, let's be clear that this extra "effort" still falls under my relatively strict definition of low-maintenance—especially since it's essentially my morning skincare routine, to boot.) Below, I lay out my step-by-step routine—and every product I use in place of foundation.
Step 1: Start with a good moisturizer
For me, that's Odacité's genius Oleosomes—made with all-natural ingredients, it's lightweight and has a perfectly velvety finish. But its real selling point is its time-release technology: Rather than front-loading your complexion with nutrients, it delivers them into your skin over a 12-hour period, ensuring lasting hydration all day. Since my dry skin is especially prone to dullness by mid-afternoon (read: caky foundation), this formula has been a godsend.
Step 2: Or, if necessary, bring in the big guns
When I've had a late night—or if I'm doing my makeup during the months of November through March, aka peak dryness season—un-zombifying my complexion requires something a bit more intense. When nothing else will do for daytime, Tatcha's pudding-like serum always resurrects my skin. The point here is to remember that your skin is a product of ever-changing circumstances—to look its best, it might need a different lineup of products on some days than others.
Step 3: Add a drop or two of foundation…
Is this the part where you gasp in horror and cry, "The jig is up"? Yes, foundation is still technically part of this whole shebang, because sometimes a (very) sheer wash of color really makes a world of difference.
The difference is that I don't actually use it like traditional foundation—instead, I add just a drop or two from a cushion compact to the glob of moisturizer or serum on my wrist. After blending (more on that in a second), I've essentially crafted a very lightly tinted moisturizer—and just that tiny bit of pigment helps correct any unevenness while remaining undetectable to the eye.
And the beauty of this technique is that its transition-friendly. Start by going half-and-half (or even 70/30!) of foundation to moisturizer, and slowly work your way down.
Step 4: …And a drop of brightening serum. Blend
If you rely on foundation to give your skin a bright, glowy finish, a vitamin C serum is a must. Because it's an effective chemical exfoliant that also defends against free radicals, it's one of the most foolproof ways to find and maintain your freshest-looking skin. In fact, it was only after I started adding a drop of SkinCeuticals' cult-fave serum to my moisturizer/foundation mixture that I really became confident in dwindling the makeup component. I wanted to show off my visibly illuminated skin rather than cover it up.
After dabbing all the components of my customized, tinted skin primer onto the back of my hand, I mix them all together and apply them to my face using a sponge. After letting the combination mattify for a couple of minutes, I'm ready to move onto the next step.
Step 5: Spot-conceal wherever necessary
Any errant blemishes, under the eyes, around the nose… as needed. Note that finding a great formula is paramount, especially since you're not blending it with a layer of foundation. I'm a fan of RMS's oil-based formula, since it melts right into my skin (but still stays put). Add less product than you think you need, and blend it by lightly tapping with your finger, says Laura Mercier makeup artist Jerry Johnson.
Step 6: Add a little dewiness all over
To find your proper shade of concealer/foundation, test the product on your cheek—if it disappears, that's the one.
I enjoyed the strobing craze as much as the next person, but these days, I've settled into subtly enhancing my natural glow. RMS's Master Mixer is perfect for this, since it offers more of a muted golden shimmer than a full-blown highlight. I dab it on my cheekbones, brow bones, and on my Cupid's bow.
Step 7: If you're shine-prone, add the tiniest smidge of powder
Another pointer from Johnson—just a breath of powder is really all you need to wick grease and set your makeup in place. If it's hot and/or humid, I'll dust on a bit of this Ilia formula after finishing my makeup to keep my face on lock for the day. (The extra dose of sun protection is a sweet bonus.)