The Search for the Perfect Foundation // Foundation Shades and Tones!!

Foundation is aptly named. It’s, quite literally, the foundation for all your looks. I know growing up, I had this image of foundation that turned me off of it. That cakey, slightly-too-orange look that so many of my peers sported wasn’t appealing, especially because it didn’t really /hide/ anything. Zits? Yeah, you could still tell they existed. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it- why would anybody want to look like Oompa Loompas?

So I became terrified of foundation. I insisted only on using a light-coverage powder foundation, if I were to use it at all. In fact, I didn’t even KNOW it was a foundation I was using, technically speaking, because I thought it was fundamentally different because it wasn’t a liquid form.

Embarrassing as it is, I’ve only recently begun to understand foundation, so let’s get to the basics of what a foundation is and what it is not.

  1. A foundation is meant to “even up” skin tone. It is NOT meant to “cover up” blemishes. This was probably the biggest foundation “myth” I ever believed, and unfortunately I know several people who still don’t understand this. When you try to “build up” a foundation to cover up blemishes, you exponentially increase your risk of “cake face.” Concealer is meant for blemishes.
  2. Foundations come in different forms, not just liquid. I think most people know this now, but I didn’t. Foundation can be a powder (loose or pressed), they can be liquid, they can be a cream, and now other types, like gel or mousse, are available. Different types have their different uses, but they are all for evening the skin tone to create a nice “base” for your look. I’ll go into the different forms of foundations in another post!
  3. Foundations are not meant to change your skin tone / make you appear tan when you aren’t. Oh my goodness at one point in time, I believed that was the only point for some of the girls I went to school with. Their foundation would be at least a shade too dark if not more, and it was very, very noticeable.
  4. Foundations are not supposed to look orange. Unless you ARE orange, of course. Your foundation is supposed to blend in naturally, so if your foundation looks orange, you have the shade and/or tone.

Speaking of skin tone, though, here’s something else I didn’t know: foundations actually come in various tones, not just shades. The term “shade” refers to how light or dark your skin is. This is pretty straight forward: darker shades are for darker complexions. When we’re talking about foundation shades, usually the higher the number, the darker the shade (usually). While some people use “tone” and “shade” interchangeably, “tone” can also refer to the undertones or specific pigments in your skin. So, “Shade” would be a color intensity- how MUCH pigment you have- and “tone” would be WHAT pigments. In science terms, because I am a scientist, “shade” is a quantitative attribute and “tone” is qualitative. So let’s get into the specific tones.

  1. Warm-toned. Warm-toned usually refers to yellow, orange, or peachy complexion. If you look down at your veins, they appear to be more green- this is because you’re seeing the blue vein mixed in with yellow pigmentation. Golds look amazing on this skin tone. Yellow and orange shirts? Excellent! Warm toned foundations will generally have “w” or “y” in the name
  2. Cool-toned. Cool-tones usually have more pinks, reds, and blues. Veins will look blue to purple. Silvers look so good on cool-toned skins! Yellow and orange shirts will make you look sickly and silver is your best friend. These generally have a “c” or “r” in the name.
  3. Neutral-toned. If you read through most of these and think, “Eh, none of these really stand out to me,” you might just be neutral. Neutral is a mix of warm and cool tones, so you may not be able to tell if your veins are green or blue, you look good in silver and gold, and you don’t really have to be careful about colors- you look good in everything! Sometimes these are labelled with an “n,” other times they aren’t labeled at all.
  4. Olive-toned. Yes, unlike most people, I classify olive on its own. When you think of “olive tones,” you may think of a medium shade complexion common for eastern Indians or people of such descent, but it’s not a just a shade- it’s a tone. Olive tones contain green pigments. They aren’t just “yellow pigments over blue veins.” There are light olives, and your olive tone can lean more warm or more cool, too.  There’s not a lot out there about light olive skin tones (or even cool olive skin tones), but if you have trouble foundation matching- like warms are too yellow or orange, cools are too pink, and neutrals just look weird, you’re probably some type of olive! Unfortunately, western cosmetics seem to think olive doesn’t exist. Sometimes, olive tones will be in a warm (w or y) color, but sometimes, especially for a cool olive, it’s just not passible.

Exceptions to the general “tone naming” rules include MAC cosmetics (“W” is actually for cool tones and “C” is for warm! So confusing!) and most drugstore brands (“Ivory” vs “Porcelain” vs “Honey Beige??” There’s no info there!). So, you really have to read descriptions. Descriptions will often describe shade as fairest, fair, light, medium, and dark. Sometimes, for darker olives, they will use olive as a shade itself! Descriptions will often describe undertones as pink, red, or rosy for cool tones and peachy, yellow, or orange for warm tones. While I wish there was consistency between brands for descriptions such as beige, ivory, and porcelain, there unfortunately isn’t.

So let’s say you think you think you know your shade and undertone. You may be tempted to jump on anything that says your shade or tone in the description. You could, but it may not work for you, and you probably will end up wasting a lot of money and time. The best way to find your foundation is to choose a few and swatch them. You can do this in-store if you go into Ulta, or you can ask for some samples if you go into a cosmetics counter or a Sephora. Take the samples home and swatch them- paint a line starting from below your cheek bone, over your jaw, and down into part of your neck. Do this for a few at a time. Let the foundation dry (you may want to blend it in a bit), and then take a picture in natural light. How does the foundation look? You want a foundation that will blend seamlessly into your neck (or at the very least, close to it). You can also swatch on your chest / collar bone area if your neck is off-colored from the rest of your body.

So let’s say you THINK you’re an NC15. Instead of grabbing an NC15, ask a sales associate for a sample of NC15, NC13, NC20, and then also NW15. Swatch them next to each other. Notice the shade of each- which one matches your shade? Check the undertone. Does NW15 look better than NC15, but NC20 is the right shade? You may actually need NW20. Yes, this is trial-and-error, but it’s honestly necessary.

Once you have a feel for how some foundations look on you, you will be better able to use online swatches and make an informed decision about what shades to try in other foundations.

For us pale folk, finding a light enough shade in our correct undertones can be very difficult. I have yet to find my HG shade- let alone formulation. This is because in addition to being pale, I’m also a cool olive. Warm shades will be too yellow or orange on me; cool shades will be too pink on me. And all around, they’ll just be too dark.

Yep, as kermit the frog says, “It’s not easy being green.”


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