How to Find (or Mix) Your Perfect Foundation Shade
If you have trouble finding a foundation that is a good match for your skin, you are far from alone.
I see a lot of confusing and misleading information out in the world about skintones and foundations. This is a complex topic and while I don’t want to overwhelm you, I do want to clarify some ideas.
To that end, I’m first going to discuss what colour skin actually is.
You don’t have to know this to find your foundation shade, but it might help you understand why the advice you hear may not have worked.
After that I’ll cover variations in your skintone, what foundation should actually do, where and how to match it, and how to mix up your shade if you can’t find it straight out of the bottle.
Now, this is a lot to cover, and you may prefer to skip the theory and get straight into matching your foundation.
If that’s you, I recommend starting at Where to Test Foundation.
(You can always come back to the theory later, if you need to.)
Ok, let’s get started.
The Colour of Skin
All human skin is orange.
Sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true. The hue is always some kind of orange.
As you can see in the graphic above, high-chroma orange looks nothing like skin, but as the chroma reduces, the more skin-like the colours get (until they get too grey). We usually call these colours beige and brown, depending on the value. And at this lower chroma, values from light to dark are all skin-like.
So, the hue of skin is orange.
The chroma of skin is low.
The value of skin spans the gamut from light to dark.
Depth (value) is something most people understand when looking for foundation, but hue and chroma are not so well understood.
We’ve established that skin is orange.
But, the orange hue above isn’t the only one in the world — there are many.
In the graphics below, you can see the hue we saw above, plus a yellower orange and a redder orange. The low-chroma colours in each are still within the range of human skintones.
The fact that skin can be relatively yellower or redder (pinker in lighter skintones) gives rise to the foundation undertones we’ve all heard of.
Most makeup companies describe yellow undertones as warm and red/pink undertones as cool, though MAC designates yellow as cool and red/pink as warm. Foundations that appear somewhere in the middle, neither noticeably yellow or red/pink, are usually described as neutral.
From a colour analysis perspective, none of these descriptions is accurate.
If your tone is warm (True Spring or True Autumn) it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should have a yellow-undertoned foundation (or pink-toned, according to MAC), or vice versa for cool tones.
Just as there are warm, neutral, and cool yellows, so are there warm, neutral, and cool skintones with yellow undertones. And the same is true of pink or red undertones.
Warm yellow skintones appear more orangey-yellow, while warm pink skintones appear peachy-pink or orangey-red. In both cases, the colour appears more orange.
Cool skintones, conversely, appear less orange. Cool yellow skintones have relatively more yellow and less red, and by comparison appear slightly green. Cool red or pink skintones have relatively more red and less yellow, and by comparison appear slightly purple.
We’ve established that skin colours are low in chroma. Nobody has bright orange skin (barring fake tan disasters).
However, within the range of skintones are some that are relatively higher or relatively lower in chroma.
If I take the first graphic we saw, remove the higher-chroma section and expand the lower chroma range, I get this:
As you can see, there are 3 or 4 possible skintones at a given value setting, and the difference between them is higher or lower relative chroma.
I think this is responsible for much of the difficulty women have getting a good foundation shade, and why it can be so hard to understand why a shade is wrong.
Let’s say the best match for your skin looks like this:
You’re shopping for foundation, and the sales assistant suggests you try one which looks like this:
Now, these are similar colours. The have exactly the same hue (a yellowy-orange) and the same value level (medium, or on our charts, 6).
The difference is that your skin tone is slightly lower in chroma than the foundation. The foundation will look too colourful, too orange compared to the rest of your skin. It’ll look like a bad facsimile of skin, or like a bad fake tan, or like you’re overheated.
But going more yellow doesn’t work, and neither does more red, and neither does lighter or darker.
Only going more muted, ie. greyer, will work.
I see this effect on women all the time. In many brands you will have trouble finding a low-chroma enough shade.
I see the reverse less often, of a too-low chroma foundation on a higher-chroma woman, but I have definitely seen it. She looks grey and ill.
Matching foundation to your skin
So, how do you use this information to find the foundation that best matches your skintone?
Can you infer it from which of the 12 tones you are?
While there are some commonalities between people of the same tone, there’s too much variation to know your skintone simply because of your tone. And even if we did, makeup companies do not describe their shades accurately enough for that information to be useful by itself.
Knowing, for example, that you have a medium-value, neutral-cool, yellow-undertoned, relatively low-chroma skintone doesn’t tell you which foundation will fit you, because that information about foundations doesn’t exist.
What you need to do is try a lot of foundations on your actual skin and find the one that blends in the most convincingly.
Once you have some basis for comparison, your understanding of the complexities of skintone will help you narrow down the foundation that fits you best.
Variations in skintone
In the discussion of skin colour above, I left out an important variable. Skin colours vary between people, but they also vary within a single person.
Try comparing the skin on your belly to the skin on your shins. On most people, the belly is pinker or redder and the shins are yellower.
Your skin colour is different in different places.
That’s especially true on your face.
Your cheeks and especially lips will be pinker or redder than other areas. Under your eyes will be different, greyer or greener or purpler or whiter, it’s different on different people. The temples are often greener.
Surface redness is very common on faces, though the location can vary. Most people are red around the nostrils, some people are red down the centre of the face, some on the cheeks or jaw.
(This surface redness is not the same as having a pink or red undertone to the skin. Surface redness can change with environmental conditions and health, is more localised, and appears as an effect or blemish on the skin. A pink or red undertone is intrinsic to the skin, and looks like a healthy, natural skin colour.)
Pigmentation can also vary across the face, with melasma and hyperpigmentation and age spots all being results of uneven melanin distribution in the skin.
The colour of the throat is often paler than the face or body, because it’s protected from the sun by the jaw. The face, on the other hand, may be significantly lighter than the rest of the body, if sunscreen is commonly applied to the face only, or darker, if the face is the only part that is commonly exposed to the sun.
Now the question is, given all these variations in your skin, how do you find a single foundation colour to match it?
In fact, why even wear foundation when variation is normal and natural, and in fact, necessary for skin to look like skin?
Great question! (If I do say so myself.)
The Purpose of Foundation
Let’s start by talking about the purpose of foundation, which is to even out the skintone.
While variation in the skin is normal, excessive variation or abrupt discontinuities in skin colour can be a sign of poor health.
If you look at children, who mostly have offensively perfect skin, you’ll see some variation, but less than in older people, and much less than in sick people, and the variations will flow into each other smoothly.
Now, if you’ve had a Personal Colour Analysis, you will have seen that disharmonious colours can draw attention to blemishes in the skin, and can make different areas look oddly different in colour and disjointed from each other.
Harmonious colours, conversely, make the skin’s colours appear to flow into each more smoothly, and appear as a cohesive (though not completely uniform) whole. This is partly why wearing your own colours can make you look younger.
That’s what foundation is supposed to do, too.
You may find that wearing your own colours evens out your skin enough that foundation is unnecessary, or you may prefer the extra effect that foundation will give you.
If you do choose to wear foundation, keep in mind that skin without any variation doesn’t look natural or healthy, and that’s why full-coverage foundations usually look mask-like. Sheer to medium-coverage is a better option for most people.
Foundation is not intended to cover blemishes — that’s what concealer is for.
Where to Test Foundation
Match foundation in an area of skin without excessive redness, pigmentation or blemishes, that is most similar to the skin that will be visible.
I admit, there is a bit of an art to this, but I’ll talk you through it.
Avoiding redness usually means avoiding the nose and chin, and frequently cheeks. The side of the jaw is often a good place to test.
If you have distinct areas of pigmentation, common in darker skins, choose an area that overlaps each, to find a colour that splits the difference. The cheek is sometimes best in this case.
If you’re matching in summer, when you have more skin showing, look for a place that is representative of the colour of your body, since you’ll want your face and body to look similar. If you don’t have a lot of redness on the chest that can be a great place to test, and is especially easy to see in a mirror.
In winter, consider again how much skin you’ll be showing. If you usually only show your face and neck, you could match on the side of the neck, so that the foundation will blend into the neck effortlessly. Sometimes the neck works, sometimes it’s too pale relative to your face, and a foundation that matches it will make you look ghostly.
(You may need a different foundation shade in winter and summer. As you transition from one to another, you can mix the foundations together to get the perfect shade.)
Matching very freckled skin can be difficult. The best colour usually splits the difference between the underlying skin tone and the colour of the freckles. Unfocusing your eyes when assessing matches can help you see how the foundation colour harmonises.
(Freckles are fabulous and youthful, so I avoid covering them, by choosing as sheer a foundation as I can get away with, or none at all — a full coverage foundation can look strange, because of the difference between the monochromatic face and freckled body.)
The back of the hand is almost never the best place to match foundation.
If in doubt, test on the side of your jaw, but expect some trials with full-face application.
How to Test Foundation
First of all, find several foundations that look like feasible colours for you.
Put stripes of each colour next to each other on the area you’ve identified above.
(If you’re in a store without external windows, you’ll need to go outside to check the foundation colours. Normal indoor light doesn’t cut it.)
The one that disappears into your skin is the best match. (If none do, keep looking, or choose the best and adjust it, as discussed below.)
Now, and this is important, apply that foundation all over your face.
Never take a swatch test as conclusive. We’ve done our best to find a good area to match the foundation, but only by applying it all over will we be able to see how good the colour really is.
A perfect match looks like your skin, but perfected. It looks healthy, and blends well with the rest of your skin.
(If you think you’ve found a good match, continue wearing it for a few hours before purchasing, because some foundations will change colour (oxidise) over time. This also gives you some time to see how the formula wears.)
If it’s not perfect, it will look, compared to your bare skin, one of these: green, yellow, orange, red or pink, purple, grey, too pale, or too dark.
Your task then is to find a foundation which has more of the complementary colour or depth to it.
So, if the foundation, compared to your skin, looks:
- green, look for a pinker shade
- yellow, look for a purpler shade
- orange, look for either a more muted (greyer) shade, or a lighter shade
- red or pink, look for a greener shade
- purple, look for a yellower shade
- grey, look for a more saturated (more orange) shade, or a darker shade
- too pale, look for a darker shade
- too dark, look for a lighter shade
It may take some trial and error, but using this process, and with access to enough foundations, you should be able to narrow them down to one that looks healthy and beautiful on you.
What to Do if You Can’t Find a Good Match
You may not be able to find a good match for your skin if your options are limited.
You may live in a place where physical access to stores to try on foundations is difficult. Or you may have sensitive skin and can only wear a few brands. Or you may just absolutely love a particular formula even though the colour range is poor.
If this is you, there is hope!
You can adjust the colour of your foundation by mixing.
As a makeup artist I do this regularly because if I didn’t, I’d have to keep a prohibitively large range of foundations in my kit.
One way to do this is to buy two shades of a foundation that, when mixed, create a shade that matches you.
Otherwise, you can use foundation adjusters, which are different colours that you can add to foundations to change them.
I use these ones from Temptu for adjusting silicone-based liquid foundations:
If you’re using a cream foundation, use cream adjusters, like these from RCMA:
And if you’re using a loose powder foundation, use powder adjusters, like these from Mineral Mine:
How to Use Your Foundation Adjusters
The process here is just like the one described above. See how your existing foundation compares to your bare skin.
If it is:
- greener, add a red adjuster
- yellower, add a purple adjuster
- oranger, add a blue adjuster if the foundation is too saturated, or a white or lightening adjuster or a lighter foundation if the foundation is too dark
- redder or pinker, add a green adjuster
- purpler, add a yellow adjuster
- greyer, add an orange adjuster if the foundation is too muted, or a darkening adjuster or darker foundation if the foundation is too light.
- too pale, add a darkening adjuster or darker foundation
- too dark, add a white or lightening adjuster or a lighter foundation
If your adjuster set does not include orange, use a mix of yellow and red; if it doesn’t include purple, use a mix of blue and red; and if it doesn’t include green, use a mix of blue and yellow.
A couple of notes:
- If possible, start with a foundation that is reasonably close to the depth of your skin. If you have to make very large depth adjustments, you may end up using more adjuster than foundation.
- Avoid starting with a foundation that looks muddy on you, even if that means you need to start with an incorrect undertone. Correcting the undertone is much easier than clarifying a foundation. If the foundation is muddy on you, you will have to use much more adjuster than foundation to clarify it, if you can achieve it at all.
If you are mixing up a single application, you can either mix it on the back of your hand or on a palette, or if you’re using a powder foundation, in a container.
Start with tiny amounts of the adjusters — it’s easy to go way too far and end up not with, say, a slightly greener foundation, but rather a full-on green foundation.
If using liquids or creams, put a blob of your foundation and a drop of your adjuster in different areas, and then begin mixing a bit of each together. This way you can control how much you use of each more easily.
Once you have a colour you like, test it on your face. Adjust again until you have your perfect match.
If you want to adjust a whole bottle, again start slow with adding your adjusters, and make sure to mix or shake the bottle very well after every addition.
Finally, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, don’t panic.
It might sound hard, but take the attitude that the more you experiment, the more expert your eye becomes, and the better your colour choices.
Have fun with it.
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