We’ve all been there: You reach for a new foundation (or sometimes even one that you’ve used for years) and apply it without a second thought (or glance), only to look in the mirror afterward and notice that your face looks plastered with makeup.
Such is the reality of cakey foundation. But the question is, is it really just your foundation’s fault? According to board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, not always. “Foundation can look cakey and dry as a result of the foundation itself or as a result of the skin that it’s being applied to,” she says.
With that in mind, we chatted with Garshick, as well as makeup artists Lori Taylor Davis and Nick Lujan, to find out all the reasons your foundation looks cakey. Uncover what they are, below.
Meet the Expert
You Forgot to Prep Your Skin
There’s a reason why makeup artists suggest running through a proper skincare routine before applying any face makeup products.
“A lot of how a foundation looks on the skin has to do with how we prep the skin to receive makeup,” says Davis. “If the skin surface is dehydrated, textured, [or simply] not at its best, this can change how makeup lays on the skin. That’s why skin prep is the key to ensuring that your foundation has a skin-like finish and never looks cakey. ”
With that in mind, Davis says that proper skin prep should include at least a moisturizer and primer. “Both products can help to alter the surface of the skin, helping to create the maximum perfected surface to receive foundation,” she says, noting that this is true for any skin type.
You Didn't Let Your Primer Dry
Just like dermatologists recommend letting your serums and moisturizer dry before applying sunscreen, makeup artists suggest the same for pre-foundation primers.
“Always allow your skincare or primers to rest a moment before proceeding to apply foundation,” says Lujan. “I like to re-distribute any moisturizer or primer from areas that didn’t absorb or set before applying foundations.” Doing so will prevent caking as well as pilling, so it’s a win-win.
You Didn't Apply Your Moisturizer Properly
If you think that simply applying any old moisturizer will magically transform your skin and help you avoid cakey foundation, think again. Since dry skin tends to repel product, Lujan says that it’s important to not only use a moisturizer but to properly apply it, too.
“Applying a good hydrator (water-based lotion) prior to a thicker, more nourishing cream will help plump up the skin, while the cream creates a more glowy and nourished look to the skin,” Lujan explains. “This hydration and even skin texture create the perfect canvas for applying any style of foundation.”
Still, if you find that even after following Lujan’s lead your foundation looks cakey, they say it’s an easy fix. “Try adding a couple of drops of your skincare into your cream or liquid foundations before applying,” Lujan says.
You Need to Exfoliate
While moisturizing and priming play an important role in the end look of your foundation, Garshick says that exfoliation does, too. “Those who have a build-up of dead skin cells and don’t exfoliate regularly may find their foundation appears cakey,” she says. As such, if you’ve been moisturizing and priming but still aren’t satisfied with how your foundation is laying, it’s worthwhile to add exfoliation to your pre-makeup prep.
There’s no one right way to do it, either. You can add exfoliating acids to your skincare routine (which help to gently slough away dead skin cells by dissolving them), or opt for a physical exfoliant.
You’re Wearing the Wrong Shade
Sometimes it’s not so much about your skin prep as it is about the specific foundation you’re using. According to Garshick, caking can occur when you’re using the wrong shade of foundation, as it simply looks unnatural, and thus caked on.
To avoid this potentially cakey experience, it’s important to think about your undertones when selecting your foundation. By knowing if you lean cool, warm, or neutral, you’ll be better suited to pick the foundation that best fits your complexion. Thankfully, many makeup brands have caught on to the fact that skin tones vary widely, so there are plenty of shades to choose from.
For a particularly natural-looking face makeup look, Garshick recommends reaching for Ilia’s Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40 ($48). “Because no anti-aging regimen is complete without sun protection, this lightweight serum foundation provides broad-spectrum SPF 40 coverage using zinc oxide, as well as a blend of hyaluronic acid, squalane, and niacinamide to help hydrate and soothe the skin,” she explains. “It also comes in so many shades, making it easy to find a shade that matches your skin tone.”
You're Using the Wrong Formula For Your Skin Type
In addition to thinking about your skin tone when selecting your foundation, it’s also important to consider your skin type. “The underlying skin can impact how foundation appears as it may not layer easily in those with dry or irritated skin,” Garshick explains.
This, of course, brings us full circle to the idea that a quality skincare routine is a must if you want to wear foundation. That said, Garshick says that looking for specific foundation ingredients can also help. “Those with dry skin may benefit from foundations with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, or liquid formulations,” she says. Similarly, Garshicks says that those with heavily-irritated skin (think: acne, redness, and general textural issues) may benefit from color-correcting foundations, as well as those with more mattified end looks.
“The Wanderlust Powder Foundation ($40) is particularly useful for someone with sensitive skin as it delivers a natural matte finish without drying out the skin since it starts as a liquid and transforms into a powder,” Garshick shares, noting that those with blemishes and dark spots may also benefit. “It helps to absorb excess oil, while also improving the appearance of redness, discoloration, and melasma, which can commonly occur in those with sensitive skin. It is lightweight and contains hyaluronic acid and aloe so it is both hydrating and soothing.”
Meanwhile, she says that those with particularly dry skin can fare well with It Cosmetics's Your Skin But Better Foundation + Skincare. “This foundation incorporates a blend of hyaluronic acid, aloe vera extract, vitamin E, and B5 making it good for all skin types, but especially for those with dry skin,” she explains. “It helps to deliver long-lasting hydration while providing buildable coverage, improving the overall complexion.”
The Formula You're Using Is Too Thick
There’s a time and a place for a full-coverage foundation. That said, it’s typically not every day. “As a makeup artist, I like foundations that mimic skin and that look hydrated and slightly glowy,” Davis shares. For everyday use, she says that tinted moisturizers, like Smashbox’s Halo Healthy Glow Tinted Moisturizer ($39), provide ample coverage. “The natural glow looks like perfectly hydrated skin. Pairing a product like this with a primer, especially one of Smashbox’s Silkscreen Primers ($39 each), is a one-two punch for perfected skin that never looks cakey, dry, or textured.”
You're Using Too Much Product
Another possibility is that you’re simply applying too much foundation. “This seems to be the most common reason for cakey foundation,” Lujan says. “Applying too much product can lead to an uneven application—especially if you are using a powder-finish product. Too many layers of powder finish tend to make the skin look textured/dry. Also, the layers tend to repel each other, creating a blotchy appearance and camera flashback.”
You're Not Using the Right Formula For Your Lifestyle
If you’re someone who likes to wear foundation but also likes to run around at a million miles a minute, Garshick says that it’s important to find a foundation that can hold up. “The L’Oréal Paris Infallible 24 Hour Freshwear Liquid Foundation provides long-lasting buildable coverage and is sweat-resistant,” she says, adding that finding a foundation for your lifestyle is paramount. “It is easy to apply and leaves a natural finish.”
You Didn't Set Your Foundation
What you do after applying your foundation is just as important as what you do beforehand. That’s why Lujan always recommends a setting product to ensure your foundation stays looking its best. “When it’s time for a setting powder, be selective in your placement and how much you use,” they say. “Load your brush with loose powder by dipping the brush in the powder, give it a good tap, and press and roll the brush over areas of texture or oiliness first. Then, press and roll the brush over the rest of the face.” If any extra powder remains on the face, Lujan says to dust it off using the same brush.