Your face is the ultimate canvas, and applying primer before makeup can truly make all the difference. But those new to the world of makeup often find themselves scratching their head wondering, "what is primer, anyway?" Glad you asked. Makeup primers are used underneath eyeshadow, foundation, lipstick, mascara, and even nail polish to create a smooth base that helps keep your other products in place all day.
Primers can also reduce the amount of makeup you use and make application a little easier. Essentially, they're meant to create a barrier between the product and your skin, giving you beautiful and long-lasting results. Since there are specific options for different parts of our beauty routine, we're breaking each one down with pro makeup artists Juliette Perreux and Lindsey Trop.
Meet the Expert
Read on to find out what primer is used for, how it works, and the best way to apply it.
What Is Primer?
Think of makeup primer the way you would paint primer—it's used as a base to improve the rest of your makeup application. Primer can be used to enhance many parts of your beauty routine, including your eyes, face, lashes, lips, and nails. Face primer, for example, can be used to smooth out pores, create a base for long-lasting makeup, manage oily skin, or prevent excessive shine, explains Perreux. Trop adds: "Whether you have dry skin, oily skin, dull skin, are concerned about acne, hyperpigmentation, sun protection, pollutants, or have multiple concerns, there is a primer out there for you."
And if you're looking to minimize the number of products you use altogether, take a page out of Trop's book. "When I work with clients, I sometimes try to minimize the number of products needed, so I use a primer that acts as an all-in-one: hydrator, smoother, and illuminator."
Types of Makeup Primers
- Mattifying face primer: If you have oily skin, a mattifying primer will be your go-to to prolong the wear of your foundation. Specifically, Trop says to go for a silicone-based one, as it creates a great mattifying barrier between the skin and makeup and has the added benefit of blurring and smoothing pores.
- Hydrating face primer: "Hydrating primers are ideal for dry skin, especially those that have skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid and antioxidants," suggests Trop. "Avoid using a silicone-based primer if you're of this skin type, as it could 'pill' over dry skin."
- Color-correcting primers: The color of these primers is designed to counteract underlying skin tones. For instance, green primers are used to correct redness while blue primers offset sallow or yellow tones.
- Blurring primer: According to Perreux, blurring primers are less about mattifying and more about smoothing, which is ideal for mature skin types to diminish the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Eyeshadow primer: Eyeshadow is notorious for wearing off by mid-day, and it seldom stays in place through gym workouts or on rainy or humid days. A simple primer can fix all of that, and it helps with your eyeliner as well. "Eye primers can color-correct the eyelid before makeup application, nourish and smooth the eyelid, and prevent the skin’s natural oils from breaking down the makeup," explains Trop.
- Mascara primer: If you have trouble with your lashes holding a curl, try a mascara primer. They're also often made with nourishing ingredients that condition the lashes and add additional volume and length.
- Lip primer: Not everyone will need a lip primer, but if you like to play up your lips and want all-day color, it's a good move. It can keep your lipstick from bleeding and create a smooth surface that will hold the color longer, perfect for wearing underneath a matte liquid lipstick of bold lip color. If you're going for a natural look, it can also give a quick boost to otherwise nude lips.
- Nail primer: For the DIY nail artists out there, a nail primer can add a layer of protection that keeps polish looking great longer. Like the other kinds of primers, it gives your nails a smooth base coat and helps the polish adhere evenly. It's also recommended under acrylic nails.
How to Apply Primer
Wondering how to use face primer? It's simple. If you're using a moisturizer, apply that first, then let your skin dry for a few minutes. Beginning at the center of your face, apply just a light layer of primer, dabbing it in with your fingers or a makeup sponge. Allow the primer to dry for a few minutes before applying your foundation. The key is to make sure the primer you select complements your foundation. For instance, if you have a silicone-based primer and a water-based foundation, your foundation could “pill” on top of the primer, says Trop. "If you have a silicone-based primer, it’s best to use a silicone-based foundation on top," she says.
When it comes to eyeshadow primer, Trop notes that they can be applied with either your fingers, a brush, or a sponge. "For color-correcting eye primers, I prefer to use a brush to ensure I’m targeted in my application," she explains. "For translucent primers, I like to use my fingers so I can tell how much product is being applied and where."
To apply mascara primer, curl your lashes, then sweep the primer from the base to the tips. Do just one eye at a time because you want to follow up with your favorite mascara before the primer dries. In the end, your lashes will look lush and fabulous.
For lip primers, it depends on the type of packaging. It may come with a wand, as a squeeze tube, or as a pot, says Trop. "With a wand and squeeze tube, you can apply it directly to your lips. If it’s in a pot, it likely has a thicker consistency, so I’d recommend using your fingers as it may be difficult to clean the brush afterward," she suggests.
Do You Really Need Primer?
Yes and no. Hear us out. They can be beneficial for certain seasons (think: helping your eyeshadow stay in place during melting temps). Also, as Perreux notes, in the winter, there are elements around us (like wind, snow, and thus, tearing eyes) that can make eye primer your friend. For special events, both Perreux and Trop say that primer can be beneficial. "Special occasions [like a wedding] bring about tears, sweat, and lots of hugging and kissing, so a primer can be super helpful to just keep everything in place and from smudging or moving around," says Perreux.
That said, Perreux prefers to check in on shine control with powder or blotting papers. "If you use a proper weight moisturizer for your skin type, the foundation should adhere just fine and give a beautiful finish," she says. "However, if you are someone that has significant skin issues like texture and redness or dullness, a primer will only help, not hurt."
Shop Our Favorite Makeup Primers
Smooth out pores with this blurring primer, as recommended by Trop. A pea-sized amount is all you need to create a flawless base. Plus, it's made with a vitamin E derivative, which shields skin from free radicals.
MAC's Pro Longwear Paint Pot is Trop's go-to for brides who need their eye makeup to stay in place all night. Not only does it cancel out discoloration and uneven veining on the eyelids, but it also comes in different finishes, including shimmer.
Perreux recommends this pick from Honest Beauty. "It's a dual-ended mascara with both primer and mascara, and it sets your lashes in place so that you don’t end up applying excess product while trying to comb lashes into place. It also helps hold a lash curl and prevents smudging," she says.
A product such as Anastasia Beverly Hills Lip Primer will keep your lipstick from bleeding and create a smooth surface that will hold the color longer.
A great nail primer like this one from Deborah Lippmann does far more than any base coat. It can clean and nourish your nails as well as strengthen them to ensure they stay healthy under the polish. It's typically applied before the base coat, and most formulas dry in seconds. It's a worthy investment if you want a beautiful color that stays on.
Makeup primers may be useful for some and not for others—it's all about preference. If you can get your face hydrated, glowing, and protected from the sun with skincare products, that may be enough for you, in which case primers may not be necessary. If you have issues like oiliness, enlarged pores, or redness, primers can help enhance your look.