9 Tips to Pick the Best Foundation Color for Your Skin Tone

Various shades of foundation spilled on neutral background

Taylor Cready/Stocksy

While foundation is a staple makeup product for a reason—it can cover breakouts, even out your skin tone, and help you achieve a seamless, glowing finish—finding the right option for your skin can be a complicated process. The growing amount of brands, shades, and formulas available are overall a good thing, but if you aren't sure exactly what fits your particular needs, deciding on the right match can take a lot of trial and error. To help, we asked celebrity makeup artists Jenna Menard and Victor Henao, as well as dermatologist Hadley King, MD, for their best tips. Keep reading to learn exactly how to pick the best foundation color and finally achieve the radiant, tailor-made makeup of your dreams.

Meet the Expert

  • Jenna Menard is a celebrity makeup artist whose clients include Kate Winslet and Kerry Washington.
  • Victor Henao is a celebrity makeup artist who has worked with the likes of Adriana Lima, Misty Copeland, and Kate McKinnon.
  • Hadley King, MD, is a New York-based dermatologist who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology. She is also a clinical instructor of dermatology at Cornell University's Weill Medical College.
01 of 09

Identify Your Skin Type and Concerns

You should try to center your foundation search around your specific skin concerns—whether it’s a health issue (like eczema) or simply wanting your skin to look more luminous and glowy. “Think about your issue and work with it, not against it,” Menard says. Foundation isn’t one-size-fits-all—an influencer you trust might recommend a particular brand, but only you can decide if it’s the right fit for your unique skin

The main skin types are dry, oily, and combination. Of course, on top of that, you might be dealing with concerns like dullness, dehydration, breakouts, and sensitivity. Think about what you need out of a product, and make sure the foundation fits as closely to your needs as possible—for instance, one foundation might work like magic to cover up redness but have a comedogenic formula (which can cause breakouts if you have acne-prone skin).

02 of 09

Determine Your Undertones

Determining whether you have warm, cool, or neutral undertones is key to picking the best foundation color to match your skin, so you don't end up looking unnaturally orange or pink. This can be a difficult task for even the most seasoned beauty vet, but Henao breaks it down in a way that’s easy to digest. “I recommend looking at the exposed areas of the body first,” he says. “If your chest and shoulders tend to be more red and pink, it’s safe to say you have pink undertones, or if you’re golden, peach, and yellow, you have warmer undertones. Your face needs to match your body.”

Keep in mind that undertones have nothing to do with how light or dark your complexion is. “Any skin color can have cool, warm, or neutral undertones,” King tells us. “If none of the colors associated with undertones stand out as obvious, you have neutral undertones.”

In addition to matching your foundation color to your natural undertones, you can use these shades strategically to address your specific concerns. For example, if you have redness, foundations with yellow bases (and even green-tinted color-correcting products) can offset that. If you have prominent dark circles that skew blue or purple, using products with peachy or golden undertones can reduce their appearance.

03 of 09

Shade Match Before You Buy

Picking the best foundation color can be hard without experimentation, so you might have to physically test out foundations if you’re stuck. We recommend heading to a beauty store near you and either swatching several potential shades on yourself or asking an associate to help you find your perfect match. If you're testing on yourself, be sure to fully blend the product, and check out the result in natural lighting if possible.

“Shade-matching is intimidating, but you can experiment with different shades along your jawline and see which one disappears,” Menard says. Foundation newbies also report finding success with shade-matching tools like the Pantone SkinTone Guide, which was measured against thousands of real skin tones.

04 of 09

Choose Liquid, Oil-Free Formulas

Choosing the right formula (such as liquid, cream, or powder) depends on your complexion, but unless you’re gunning for a particularly matte look, liquid or cream is usually a good place to start. “I love the finish a liquid foundation gives the skin,” Henao says. “Even if you’re oily, I would choose a liquid—water and oil are basic ingredients your skin naturally produces and has, so when that natural oil comes out, liquid will sit on your skin much better than a powder.”

Powder (or mineral) foundations
can work for oily complexions, but you should avoid them if you have dry skin. Pro tip: If you are leaning towards powder, Henao suggests only using it in specific climates—a.k.a. a dry and cool environment—as powder turns darker when it gets wet.

When it comes to liquid and cream foundations, oil-free formulas are great if you’re dealing with sensitive, breakout-prone skin. “Look for products that are noncomedogenic,” says King. (Noncomedogenic means a product is formulated to not clog your pores.) “You can also find makeup with active, acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid.”

If you have combination or dry skin, oil in your foundation is okay. In fact, many makeup artists argue it’s essential to any good skincare routine, primarily for its moisturizing and anti-aging benefits—and that includes the foundation you use.

05 of 09

Consider Your Coverage Needs

When choosing your coverage level, ask yourself how much you want your natural texture to show. If you want the result to look like an enhanced version of your skin, choose a lightweight foundation or even a good tinted moisturizer. If the answer is not a lot, choose a medium-coverage foundation you can “build” to fuller coverage. “There are very few moments where anyone needs a full-coverage foundation,” Henao tells us. 

Whether you prefer your coverage to be fuller or more sheer, it's possible to achieve various texture finishes within each level. “Different formulas can be used to give the skin a dewy look, or a matte look, but you have to know what your end goal is,” Menard tells us.

You can make any foundation more sheer by mixing the formula with your favorite moisturizer and/or applying it with a damp beauty blender.

06 of 09

Be Careful with Full-Coverage Formulas

Even if you’re dealing with textural issues like acne scars or rosacea, heavier, fuller-coverage formulas usually aren’t the answer. “Sometimes people think using a full-coverage foundation will solve the issue, but it’s the opposite—it’ll make your texture appear more raised and uneven,” Henao explains. Although silicone-based moisturizers and primers often receive a bad rap for being comedogenic, Henao suggests using one if you have textured, non-breakout-prone skin, as you can smooth out the surface of your complexion before applying foundation. 

The key is addressing particular skin issues separately for a natural look that allows your skin to breathe throughout the day—rather than looking for a foundation to fix all.

You can also use a trick Menard swears by if you’re breakout-prone and set on a fuller-coverage formula: “I like using a full-coverage foundation or concealer in a sheer way with a damp beauty blender,” she explains. “I’ll use Tarte's Shape Tape concealer ($31) as an allover foundation, sparingly, to achieve natural-looking skin.”

07 of 09

Use Sample Sizes

You might love the foundation you have now, but sampling other foundations from time to time is a great way to discover everything that's out there in case you find a product you like even more. Be sure to try out any foundation samples that come with your purchases, and consider trial sizes when available.

“It’s so important to constantly shop,” Henao says. “Sample different foundations when you run out! The technology in formulas changes every day, so what you may love about your foundation today might be different during a new season.” 

08 of 09

Refine Your Application Method

It’s not just about picking the best foundation color and formula—the way your base looks depends heavily on how you apply it, so be sure your method is right for your desired result. Use a brush for more coverage and product, your fingers if you want it worked in, and a wet sponge to add moisture and sheerness.

“Application makes all the difference, and you can make one foundation look totally different simply by how you apply it,” Menard says. This means that if you find a product you like, you can switch up your application method whenever you'd like depending on your desired result.

09 of 09

Customize Your Foundation

While foundations have so many shades and formulations these days that you should be able to find a good match with the above tips, we totally understand if you've already bought a product that's slightly off but still want to use it. In this case, try mixing your foundation with other products to alter the shade slightly. If you need to make it darker, mix it with blush, bronzer, or a darker shade of foundation or concealer, while lighter foundation or concealer, primer, moisturizer, and powder can all make your foundation color lighter.

You can even customize your foundation if the undertone isn't the best match for your skin. A bit of turmeric can add a golden tint for warm undertones, cocoa powder can make the shade more brown, and blush can be helpful if you have cooler pink undertones.

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