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Finding the right foundation for your skin amongst the dozens of options at the drugstore, department store, or Sephora or Ulta can feel like you’re searching for a needle in a haystack. There’s a lot to consider: the type of finish you want (dewy, satin, matte), the amount of coverage (sheer, light, medium, full), and, of course, finding the actual color that complements your skin. While those first two options can be as simple as reading the label to find out if a foundation has your desired results, choosing a shade is more complicated. For this reason, we spoke with Boston-based makeup artist Natalie Lelless to learn how she color matches her clients and herself.
In your foundation search, you’ll likely encounter the buzz word “undertone.” To break it down simply, there are three main undertones, or where along the color spectrum from warm to cool your skin tone falls. Someone with warm undertones will have golden, yellow, olive, or peachy skin; cool undertones will have pink, red, or blue hues; and neutral undertones will have a combination of both warm and cool colors, or have coloring that changes throughout the day depending on the weather or your activities. For example, Lelless says that if you typically have yellow-skewing skin, but you turn red easily, you may lean more neutral.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a definitive way to determine your undertones; it takes some guesswork followed by trial and error (more on that coming up). If you’re feeling unsure of your undertone, Lelless says neutral is a good place to start. “When you look at that foundation on you, it might be a perfect match or you might say, ‘Oh, that’s too pink’ and you need to go more warm, or you may say, ‘Oh, that’s too yellow’ and now you need to go more pink.”
Since the goal of your foundation is to create a smooth-looking canvas for your finished look, you should decide how—and how much—tone correcting you might want. For example, if someone has a darker nose and darker cheeks from sun exposure, it may look best to even out the rest of their face to match the darker tone because it’s closer to their body’s skin tone. Alternatively, if someone has light under eyes and a light forehead, it may look best to brighten their whole complexion to match those light areas. If you’re unsure, Lelless suggests veering on the lighter side, as you can always go back with contour powder and bronzer to bring back shadows and warmth.
Next, head to the store and decide on a foundation you’d like to try out, based on your skin needs and your desired look. If you’re new to using a foundation, Lelless suggests starting out with one that’s light in coverage and can easily be sheared out or built up by adding more layers. If you have oily skin, Lelless suggests seeking out a matte foundation, which will lessen your natural shine, and if your skin is dry, go for a dewy finish so your skin doesn’t look powdery or flat.
Here comes the fun part—the try-on phase! You’ve determined, to the best of your ability, what your skin’s undertones are just by examination and you’ve decided how you want to accentuate your skin by leaning in either to its darker or lighter tones. Once you’ve decided on a type of foundation you’d like to try, look for a shade that most closely resembles your skin—some brands label their foundations as light-warm, light-neutral, light-cool (and so on) to give you a leg up on choosing your shade.
Swatch two or three shades along your collarbone or on your neck right underneath your jawline. “Your face will always—100 percent—be darker than your neck because it’s the first thing that hits the sun when you walk outside no matter how much SPF you’re wearing,” Lelless says. By applying your test foundation to skin adjacent to your face, you’ll end up with a tone that more closely matches your natural, non-sun-damaged hue. If your face is looking lighter than you want when matched with your neck, you can try a shade darker, or add color back with bronzer, contour, and blush.
Once you’ve swatched a couple of promising shades in the store, ask a sales associate if you may have small samples of the two most promising shades to take home to try out. If not, purchase both from a store like CVS or Target with a generous return policy. Try each shade for a full day and see how it wears on your skin: does it look too yellow? Too pink? Did it oxidize, or change color or darken due to its exposure to oxygen and skin elements, like oil? See how your skin looks at the end of each day to determine which foundation is actually a true match for your skin.
If you left the store with a foundation that matches your coloring but something isn’t looking right to you during your real-life test, Lelless says you may need to break the undertone color rules. “If your makeup undertone is too warm or too cool, it can actually amp up your [undertone’s] yellow or pink too much,” she says. For example, if you have very cool-toned skin and put on a cool foundation, it may make your skin look too pink. In which case, choosing a foundation that’s more neutral or warm—without going darker or lighter—should act as a color corrector.
When you’ve found your perfect shade, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ll likely need to lighten or darken your shade when the seasons change (and you have more or less sun exposure on your face), but you’ll be a pro by then!