Setting Powder vs. Setting Spray: When to Use Each and How

product still life

Unsplash / Design by Jiaqi Zhou

No one applies makeup with the hope it won't last all day. So, it's only natural we research the longest-lasting products—the ones that will stay on through work, a night out, and perhaps even that impending snowstorm. Through it all, we've realized an absolute truth: For extending your wear, you’ll need a good setting product. But the question remains... which one?

You’ve probably seen the two setting mainstays: setting powder and setting spray. The one you apply depends on your skin type and the finish you're after. "Both setting spray and setting powder are used for keeping your makeup in place," says Kenny Screven, a beauty influencer and makeup artist. "They may sound the same, but they have a few key differences." Screven says setting powders and setting sprays are suitable for different situations. “What they do and how they are applied are completely different," he says.

Keep reading to learn the difference between setting powders and setting sprays and how to choose the right one for you.

What Is Setting Powder?

setting powder on face

Keri Blair, a senior national artist at MAC Cosmetics, says setting powder is typically used on the face in places where you’d like a matte finish. “Setting powder comes in a loose, generally jet-milled powder form and requires a brush or a puff to be applied,” she says. It essentially does just what it sounds like it does: sets your makeup in place throughout the day.

Setting powders are available in tons of shades or as a translucent veil, depending on the look you want. “Colorless versions are universal for all skin tones, while tinted kinds are used to warm up or deepen a foundation,” says Dino Dilio, a makeup instructor at CMU College of Makeup Art & Design.

The Benefits of Setting Powder

If you have oily or combination skin or your makeup tends to bleed throughout the day, you may prefer a powder. Screven says setting powders can be used to zap oil, often just where it's needed instead of all over. “Setting powder can help absorb the extra oil on your skin, and it's perfect for holding foundation in place,” he says. “I generally like applying setting powder after I apply concealer to help keep it in place. This helps to brighten the under-eye and to keep the concealer in place for a longer amount of time.” For people with dry skin, only a few swipes of powder is needed (likely where most people are prone to oil, such as the nose or t-zone).

Dilio says that a talc or mineral-based powder, like Armani Beauty's Neo Nude Powder Foundation, is best for staying powder and oil-absorbing mechanisms. It's also perfect for the "no makeup" makeup look.

Armani Beauty Neo Nude Powder Foundation
Armani Beauty Neo Nude Compact Powder Foundation $64.00

Blair is a fan of powders with ingredients like “silica, mica, and cornstarch,” which “are great for creating a soft, texture-less effect on the skin that is transparent and almost undetectable.” She recommends Ilia's Soft Focus Finishing Powder for a blurred finish thanks to its light formula of organic powders and oils. “Interestingly enough, baby powder continues to be a go-to as an inexpensive alternative,” Blair adds. MAC's Set Powder ($38) is also a good choice.

Ilia Soft Focus Powder
Ilia Soft Focus Finishing Powder $34.00

Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r has a range of skin-tinted setting powders—including "banana powder," favored by Screven, which is a glowy shade that won’t leave you ashy or washed-out. We also love Pat McGrath Labs's Skin Fetish Sublime Perfection Powder ($38), which is finely granulated and easy to apply for a light finish over foundation, concealer, and other face makeup.

fenty powder
Fenty Beauty Pro Filt'r Soft Matte Powder Foundation $38.00

How to Apply Setting Powder

After you’ve chosen your powder, know you can apply sparingly, or all over based on the finish you're looking for. Blair explains exactly how it's done:

  • Use a soft, fluffy brush with a tapered end to ensure even (but specific) placement, like MAC's 240 Synthetic Large Tapered Blending Brush ($35).
  • Swirl your brush into your powder and apply it in circular motions, paying close attention to the areas around the sides of your nose and through your t-zone (these are areas where skin gets oilier and product can wear away faster).
  • For a full face, use a large, flat powder brush like MAC's 135 Synthetic Large Flat Powder Brush ($45), or It Cosmetics's Wand Ball Powder Brush ($49) for a softer touch.
  • For a bargain buy, Elf's Powder Blurring Brush ($7) is also great for all-over coverage.

What Is Setting Spray?

urban decay all nighter setting spray

Byrdie / Khera Alexander

A setting spray is a liquid misted onto the skin through an atomizer. While setting powder is used to absorb oil all over or just in key areas (with a more matte finish), a setting spray, according to Blair, "gives a softer effect with less visible texture."

Setting spray is used to keep your whole face of makeup in place—that includes setting powder, mascara, even lipstick. "Setting spray is applied all over the skin, not just your face makeup," Screven says. "And, some offer a more dewy finish, while others keep things matte."

The Benefits of Setting Spray

Different setting sprays work better for various skin conditions. Humectant mists are “ideal for dry skin, as they attract and trap moisture into the skin,” Dilio says. Tatcha's Luminous Dewy Skin Mist, for instance, is formulated with 20 percent botanical oils, leaving the skin hydrated and soft, according to the brand. And then there are illuminating mists, which contain micro-fine, light-reflective particles that lend radiance and glow to the face.

Cover FX has a great mattifying and illuminating spray in its range of setting products. Blair says if you have flaky skin, especially in the winter, opting for a spray might be preferable. “I find that drier skin types will often prefer a spray, as it sets makeup without adding texture or additional coverage,” she says.

Cover FX Mattfying Setting Spray
Cover FX Mattifying Setting Spray $31.00
Cover FX Illuminating Setting Spray
Cover FX Illuminating Setting Spray $31.00

Heather Hughes, a makeup artist and Luminess Air’s Director of Education, likes to look for specific ingredients that tackle your skin needs. “Aloe is a soothing product to have in a setting spray, whereas witch-hazel and rose water would be two others to help control oil."

MAC Prep + Prime Fix+ ($31), preferred by Dilio, comes in multiple formulations like soothing lavender, coconut, and rose. The lightweight mist is perfect for a mid-afternoon skin refresh while keeping your makeup looking finished.

prep + prime spray
MAC Prep + Prime Fix $31.00

Herbivore's Rose Hibiscus Spray is great for combination skin and helps target dullness and dryness. With the addition of coconut water and hibiscus extract, this is a super-fine mist that will keep skin dewy throughout the day.

Herbivore Botanicals Rose Hibiscus Hydrating Face Mist
Herbivore Rose Hibiscus Spray $34.00

Colour Pop's Setting Spray extends the wear of makeup while moisturizing and softening skin with coconut water. "Mattifying mists," Dilio adds, "are made for oily skin, and contain ingredients with properties to keep skin matte and control unwanted shine."

hydrating setting mist
Colour Pop Hydrating Setting Mist $12.00

How to Apply Setting Spray

  • It's important to hold the spray at least 14 inches from your face, as you don’t want large water droplets to mess with your makeup.
  • With your eyes closed, spritz the center of your face, then again over your forehead.
  • Finish with two more sprays for the sides of your face, and one last time on your chin and neck
  • Once it dries, you're set to go.

If you’re looking for the longest wear, from morning application to post-work date, multiple artists swear by Urban Decay’s All Nighter Spray ($33), formulated to hold makeup through hot, humid, and cold conditions.

The Final Takeaway

How you choose to set your makeup depends entirely on your skin's needs and the look you're going after. Either way, experts recommend this "invisible" step in your makeup routine to yield long-lasting results from AM to PM.

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