How to Choose Your Contour Shade, According to a Makeup Artist

Woman contouring

Miquel Llonch / Stocksy

Chances are you’ve heard of contouring at one time or another, yet you might find yourself never having tried it for yourself or perhaps you're a seasoned pro. Contouring the face is a widely utilized technique when applying makeup, yet sometimes the method leaves many of us wanting extra help as well as expert advice.

When done properly, contouring can enhance your already beautiful features and bone structure and may prove to be quite transformative. Whether you’re just starting out, or need a refresher course on contouring, one question remains imperative when beginning your journey: How do you go about choosing the right contour shade for your skin tone? Whether you’ve been doing deep dives on YouTube tutorials or are just beginning to contour, we’ve got you covered. We sourced NYC makeup artist Caroline Baribeau to give us her take on contouring and share tips to get to the bottom of it all. Ahead—our compiled list of tricks and techniques you can use to find the right contour shade.

Meet the Expert

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It’s All About the Shadows

First off, if you need a basic refresher course on contouring, you’ve come to the right place. To contour the face is to simply darken certain areas that you want to add more definition. The most common areas on the face to contour are your cheekbones, forehead, nose, jawline, even the chin. No matter your face shape, contouring is something you can utilize to enhance, define, or even recede your own facial features, yet it’s certainly not necessary to do every single day.

Paying attention to the color of the shadows on your face is key when choosing the right contour shades to use, and Baribeau suggests using colors that mimic or closely resemble said shadows. Your foundation is a great place to start when beginning your contouring journey. “Think the same tone family as your foundation, but one to two shades darker than your skin; that’s about as dark as you should go. Remember, you can always build a product to achieve the desired result.” Adding a little at a time is great advice for those who need to start with a subtle contour and work their way up to something more definitive.

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Skin Tones Aren’t One-Size-Fits-All

The undertones of our skin mean something when choosing the right contour shades, and since skin tones are widely varying and beautifully unique, it’s ideal to be familiar with your individual skin tone to then learn what contour shades suit you best. Baribeau suggests that “if you have fair to medium skin, think of neutrals, taupes, and contour shades that lean on the cooler side. For more tan/olive complexions, you can tend to go a little more golden, as these tones naturally have more warmth in the skin. For dark skin tones, stick with something more neutral that has the right balance of blue and red undertones.” Testing out contouring products on the inside of your arm is an easy way to give you an idea of how a contouring product will look on your natural skin, and what might not work at all if you’re unable to test out shades directly on your face.

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Use the Right Blending Tools

No matter what makeup look you’re creating, using the right brushes and blending tools are important, as they can greatly enhance your look and help apply your products seamlessly. Brushes can play a huge role in how your contour looks, so there are a few things to keep in mind when utilizing the right tools. Baribeau suggests fluffier brushes for a more natural look. “Using a fluffy brush will keep the contour soft and diffused," she says. For a more defined look, you’ll want to opt for a different brush: “If you want a more sculpted look, reach for a smaller, more dense brush,” Baribeau says. Starting slowly with contouring products is the best way to use them. Baribeau recommends that when looking to start your contour, think of all the natural places the sun hits your face and be sure not to forget your forehead and temple.

If you’re not sure where contouring falls in line with the process of applying your makeup, you’ll want to note that the best practice for contouring is after you’ve applied your foundation and concealer. This way your complexion is set and you can begin to introduce other products. You can certainly go back after contouring and add more concealer if need be, and if you like wearing blush, apply it after you’ve finished contouring. Applied too much? Don’t fret. You can buff contour out to look more natural by using your foundation brush with a little product on it. And you can always start over if you have to.

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Cream vs. Powder Contour

Because cream and powder are two very different textures, you will want to get familiar with each kind and see which one you prefer more for contouring. Powder contours can help with oilier skin types and give more of a matte finish, while creams can aid with drier skin types and give a more luminous finish. You can even use your everyday bronzer to contour if you want to utilize what’s already in your makeup drawer and don’t feel the need to shop for anything new. Baribeau recommends Benefit Cosmetics Hoola Bronzer ($30) for powder. It’s a nice balance for a bronzer, and is not overly warm but still gives you a sun-kissed look. "It’s been a staple in my kit for years and anyone can use it!” she says. Baribeau also sings the praises of Tom Ford Shade and Illuminate Palette, ($89) along with Fenty Beauty Match Stix Matte Contour Skinstick ($26) for cream formulas. “Both are super easy to apply, whether it’s with your finger, a brush, or a sponge. They look seamless and natural on the skin and have a good shade range for all skin tones," she says. 

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Have Fun With Contouring

The most important tip? Have fun. There shouldn't be any pressure surrounding contouring, and the more you practice, the more you’ll find what works and doesn’t work for you. Experiment with different products, textures, and blending tools until you discover what suits you best, and you’ll become a contouring pro in no time at all.

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