How to Select Your Makeup Foundation

woman applying foundation

Foundation is one of the most important, yet challenging, cosmetics items. Just a touch of the right foundation can even skin tone, blur imperfections, enhance radiance, and provide a smooth canvas for the rest of your makeup routine. However, with such a wide variety of formulations and shades across a spectrum of prices, it can be difficult to choose the right products to meet your needs. Take a little time to identify your skin type, concerns, and preferences before shopping, so you can more easily narrow the best options for you.

Identifying Your Skin Type

The first step in selecting foundation is profiling your skin type. Do you know if your skin is oily, dry, normal, combination, or sensitive?

Oily Skin

If your skin is oily or acne-prone, narrow your search to formulas that are non-comedogenic and free of mineral oils. Also, consider a matte finish, such as a mineral powder or compact powder foundation, which will help you stay shine-free.

Dry Skin

If you tend to have dry skin year-round, narrow your search to nourishing, creamy formulas to ensure a smooth finish.

Combination Skin

If your skin is oily just in the "t-zone" across your forehead and down your nose, narrow your search to balancing formulas that will reduce shine in problem areas without creating splotchy results.

Sensitive Skin

If your skin is sensitive, narrow your search to fragrance-free formulas, and consider spending a little extra for organic brands which may contain fewer irritants.

Normal Skin

If you're one of the fortunate women with "normal" skin, you can take your pick of formulas available, keeping your personal preferences and budget in mind.

Skin Concerns

For those with special skin concerns, the evolution of foundations to include treatment ingredients helps save time, money, and stress. Even drugstore formulas are becoming much more effective at reducing fine lines, evening discoloration, minimizing the appearance of large pores, and covering scars or blemishes.

Choosing Foundation Coverage

Both your skin type and the look you'd like to achieve help you determine the best level of coverage. More brands are introducing highly-pigmented options, which allow you to get a flawless finish with a lightweight formula.

Light Coverage

If you'd like a more natural look, choose light coverage. A lightweight liquid or mineral powder can even tone and reduce shine while still letting your true skin show through. With light coverage, the appearance of pores is reduced, but freckles still show.

Medium Coverage

If you'd like a more polished look and a base for blush and other cosmetics, choose a medium coverage option. A mousse or compact powder goes on quickly, yet covers lots of little imperfections. Medium coverage helps disguise redness around the nose and discoloration due to age and sun.

Full Coverage

If you'd like a flawless face, choose a heavier full coverage product for higher pigment levels. A cream or aerosol foundation provides a magazine cover complexion. However, perfect color matching and skilled application are needed to keep the foundation from looking theatrical or mask-like.

Choosing Foundation Color

Matching foundation to your skin can be tricky. Even if you intend to purchase a drugstore brand, visit a cosmetics counter at your local department store first and ask an employee to assist you in finding a good foundation. You'll then get a better idea of the range of shades available.

Determining Undertones

A cosmetics salesperson may help determine if your skin's undertones are warm or cool. Alternately, you can do so yourself at home by wrapping one a white towel around your hair and draping another behind you, and evaluating your skin in strong, natural light.

  • If your skin has a rosy, pink, red, or pale blue hue, you have cool undertones. If you find grey, magenta, and jewel-tone fashions most flattering, and look best in silver jewelry, you are most likely a cool beauty.
  • If your skin has a yellow, gold, peach, or bronze hue, or if you have an olive complexion, you have warm undertones. If you find earth-tone fashions most flattering, and look best in gold jewelry, you are most likely a warm beauty.

Applying a Sample

Whether in the department store or drugstore, choose a small selection of testers according to your undertone.

  • Apply the foundation samples on your lower jaw where skin tends to be even-toned.
  • For a better view, also apply to the back of your hand or inner wrist.

The shade of foundation you choose, as a general rule, should match or be slightly lighter than your natural skin tone.

Some drugstores have limited access to testers. If so, inquire as to the return policy before purchase, so that you will know if you can test without risk in natural light at home.

Choosing Foundation Formulas

Liquid, cream, pancake, powder, stick, or airbrush? The choice of formulas can seem overwhelming. Don't be daunted, just keep a few tips in mind when choosing the most important attributes for your foundation type:


Liquids come in the widest range of colors, which is great for women who tend to be at the lightest and darkest ends of the spectrum. Liquids can be applied by fingertips, brush, or sponge, from light to full coverage, depending on application technique. In addition, quality liquids are available from just a few dollars at the drugstore to more chic, and costly, formulations at premier cosmetic counters.


Powders, especially dry ones in compact form, are great for women looking to save time in the morning. Fast to apply, and with even coverage, powder achieves a matte effect and blurs imperfections. The color ranges are sometimes more limited, and the dropped-and-shattered compact factor can sometimes be frustrating. But, the ease and speed of use make powder a popular choice.


Creams range from lightweight formulas in tubes, similar in coverage to tinted moisturizers, to thick, rich concoctions in jars. Creams usually provide a more luminous, satiny finish and are more forgiving to older complexions. A precise color-match is even more important with a highly-pigmented cream.


Though they have a light finish, mineral powders can provide a great amount of pigment and a no-fuss matte finish. Prices can be higher for quality versions, plus the big, fluffy brushes needed for application can also be expensive. For those who don't like the feel of a fully-made-up face, though, mineral powders are a natural option.


Cream foundations in stick form allow you to apply just to needed areas. Looking to touch up the t-zone? Just swipe a stick across forehead, nose, and chin, and then blend. Sticks usually offer buildable coverage, and are more portable and less messy than many options.


For a completely even complexion, airbrush or spray foundations can gently mist color in place. Airbrushing may provide model-worthy beauty, but the technique can be complicated to master, especially for newbies. Before making an investment, see if your local beauty retailer or cosmetologist will offer a demonstration.

Choosing Foundation Applicators

Should you use your fingertips, a sponge, or a fan brush? The foundation application technique you choose must be compatible with the foundation consistency and the level of coverage desired.

  • In general, disposable sponge applicators are great for oil-based liquids and creams.
  • Fingertips are great for water-based formulas.
  • Fluffy, high-quality brushes best disperse mineral and loose powders.
  • Fan brushes and flat brushes take a bit more skill, but can be used to expertly apply high-pigment liquids and creams.
  • Dense sponges best are best to pat and build coverage with compact powders.

It also helps to use a sponge with a small bit of moisturizer to blend color at the jawline and hairline, regardless of formula or application.

Changing Your Foundation

Whatever your skin type may be, keep in mind that it's impacted by many factors, and you may need two or three 'go-to' foundations depending on the way your skin behaves. You'll want to re-evaluate your foundation needs when:

  • The weather gets colder or warmer
  • The humidity changes, or you move to a new climate
  • Your skin becomes more tan or pale seasonally
  • Your skin "acts up" due to stress, diet, or hormonal changes
  • Your skin changes due to pregnancy
  • You notice more sun damage, including fine lines and brown spots
  • You change other skincare or makeup products, so everything works in harmony

As your skin and seasons change, you can experiment with combinations of coverage, formulas, and color. For example, you may usually only need a light liquid, but with a top-notch concealer added when skin acts out, or a layer of powder foundation for hot, muggy days.

Bringing Out Your Beauty

No matter what effect you'd like to achieve with your color cosmetics, your foundation should bring out the best of your natural beauty. A smooth, even, and radiant complexion is possible with a bit of practice and the right tools.

Don't be overwhelmed by the choices. Just do your research and test your foundation samples in natural light. When possible, choose a formula that includes sunscreen to ensure your skin stays healthy and beautiful for years to come.

How to Select Your Makeup Foundation