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Finding your perfect foundation shade

February 6, 2012 Reviewed by admin 1 Comment
Truth #16: Foundation shade matching is a process of trial and error

Foundation is the first subject in a series about finding the right shades for you. We started with an overview of color theory and how it applies to your personal look.  So if you haven’t read that Makeup Memo yet, go do it real quick to catch up. I’ll wait for you….

Warm or cool

Now that we are on the same page about which colors are “warm” and which are “cool,” you’ll have to determine which side of the spectrum your skin tone falls on.   Often people who are cool toned tend to have light features with lots of pink undertones. Those who tend to burn easily in the sun are also often in the cool/pink family. Warmer-skinned folks usually have golden tans and strong-colored features, such as dark hair and eyes.  I keep saying “usually” and “often” because there are so many variations and exceptions to these rules.

The best place to examine your color is under natural daylight.  Indoor lights can often be too yellow or too green to get an accurate view.  One quick trick is to look at the back of your wrist where the skin tends to be the lightest and thinnest on your arm.  See if your veins have a greenish tint or bluish one.  If you’ve got a green cast, your skin tone is warm and if more blue, then you have a cool tone.  One reason you look at your arm instead of your face is because there can often be misleading red discoloration on the face, leading to the false conclusion that there’s more pink in the skin, and you are therefore cool toned.

If it still isn’t obvious to you, then trial and error is your next best bet.  Every brand of makeup has varying shades within its spectrum of colors.  Not one company does it the same as another. In one way, it’s great because you have more options if your skin happens to be a more unique shade.  On the other hand, making a transition from one brand to another can be frustrating.

The wrong way to pick a foundation shade

This would be staring at a bottle, through a package in bad store lighting (and, yes, almost all stores have bad lighting for makeup, even the department stores). The color you see through all that glass and plastic is very rarely the color that will appear on your skin.

The right way to pick a foundation shade

Do a swatch test on the side of your face - applying a stripe of foundation from the cheek to the jawline - using at least two colors that appear to be close to your skin tone.  Then take a mirror, walk outside (not directly in the sun, but enough to get daylight), and see if any of the stripes appears to blend in perfectly.  You’ll be able to tell very easily if something is too peach, yellow, dark or light.  Keep trying until you find one that is practically invisible when applied.  Then give the winning shade about 10 minutes to settle in.  Sometimes skin chemistry and oils will cause a shade to turn darker on the face.  So after 10 minutes or so, check your face in the daylight again.

Another exception to the rules

Your face may be lighter or darker than your neck and chest area.  If this is the case, you need to find a foundation that will harmonize the difference in color between the two areas.  So it may be necessary to darken or lighten your base to make you look even toned.

I hope this helps you understand a bit more about how to choose the right base tone for your face! Leave comments below, and let me know how the process went for you or other color tricks you use.
  • February 11, 2012

    by Jenna

    Nice explanation! Despite having over a decade of experience in fine arts, I still find myself struggling with foundation shades. For instance, I'm light skinned and burn very easily, and have bluish veins in my wrist. All these point to having "cool" tones. However, I have dark brown hair and eyes! After a lot of experimenting, I've determined I'm actually quite neutral in skin tone. Strangely, I feel neutral tones are even harder to find! Anyway, I think most women will find that it's mostly trial and error. It can be a pain, but it's really the only fool proof method :)

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