Previous installments in this series can be found here.
Here is a partial list of terrifying things I had to do while I was a beauty school student: apply cake liner to the inner lash line. Sit with a pound of clay on my face molded to make me look like a burn victim. Volunteer as a model for an aesthetician exam only to be told that my assigned student needed to perform a bikini wax to graduate. None of these experiences came close to matching the terror and apprehension I always felt about matching foundation shades.
There are a lot of really simple skills you learn at beauty school. They aren’t easy skills – they’re just straightforward. Your teacher will say, “If you apply red lipstick in exactly the manner I’m demonstrating, it will look good,” and then you’ll mimic her and the red lipstick will go on perfectly. Eye makeup for television, bullet wounds for film, contouring for brides – all of these are complicated techniques with step-by-step instructions practically guaranteeing their success. But matching makeup to skin color is a completely different beast. My teachers would tell us to “just use our eyes”, but they had taught us enough to know that we couldn’t trust our eyes. What about the lighting, if the person moves from inside to outside? How will the texture of the makeup interact with the texture of the skin if they start to, let’s say, sweat? I would apply a swatch of makeup on my model’s skin and just stand there, petrified to make another move.
As you can probably tell from previous articles, my absolute favorite thing in beauty is the appearance of clear, healthy skin. It’s probably not a coincidence that my favorite beauty thing is the most unobtainable. I’m always looking for that Holy Grail of a product that will magically blend into my skin, hiding all the weird imperfections that only I can see.
Cosmetics companies know this. Much like skin care products, foundation, tinted moisturizers, concealers, powders and BB creams are all marketed as miracle products destined to give you skin like Beyoncé (for a price). They promise to shield you from the sun, dose the skin with antioxidants, blur fine lines and wrinkles – they’ll promise basically anything, if they think it means you’ll pay extra for it.
And, of course, here comes Haley’s patented brand of beauty-centric harsh real talk: no one can do this. There is no foundation, tinted moisturizer, concealer, powder, or BB cream that can provide 100% coverage and still disguise itself as real skin. There’s a trade-off present in most “natural” makeup looks (an odious term I could write an entire article about): you can look natural, or you can look like you’re wearing makeup, but in real life, it is extremely difficult to achieve both. Properly covering every single blotch or dark spot would require wearing a very “made-up” look; the natural looks rarely provide enough coverage to fully mask anything.
On top of that, the majority of cosmetic companies do not provide an adequate range of shades for the majority of human beings out there. That’s a really politically correct way of saying major cosmetic companies are, by and large, not doing shit to make sure people with skin darker than “medium fair” have options for foundation, concealers, etc.
At beauty school, our teachers worked really hard to make sure we learned the skills to work with any and all skin tones – but the assumption was that we would almost always be working with white or pale skin. We had a “black model” day, where we were required to bring in a model with black skin, and an “Asian model” day, where we would be required to bring in a model of Asian descent, and then there was the “mature women” day, and so on and so forth. On the one hand, we were learning exactly what we needed to know, but on the other hand, by separating anything that wasn’t young, white skin into a separate day, they were just enforcing the idea of a “normal” model versus a “special” model.
At the end of every course we were given a free photo shoot with a photographer and proper studio lighting. The idea was to build a portfolio that we could bring to job interviews, to prove our range. When I look back at my portfolio, I have 15 photos – 14 of them feature white models, and all of them are under the age of 30. Our teachers would often weigh in and remind us when we were planning our looks if they thought we were lacking something (for example, a teacher once told me I hadn’t done a bridal look yet, so I should use my photo shoot to add that to my portfolio) but not once did someone point out that my book was lacking in proof that I could work with people of all ages and skin colours because no one thought that was a problem.
I do think this is the prevalent attitude in the cosmetics industry overall, particularly if you work as a television and film makeup artist, where the majority of characters are young and white. If I had pursued a career as a makeup artist, having a portfolio full of young white women would have been exactly what photographers and directors were expecting to see. And that’s why cosmetics companies by and large cater to the young and white. And that’s fucking bullshit.
I spoke with Chi-Chi Ezenwa and Arabelle Sicardi, two beautiful geniuses who run the beauty blog Powder Doom about this issue in the current cosmetics industry and their recommendations for people trying to find that perfect match. Their beautiful genius answers are below.
When it comes to matching foundation to your skin tone, what should people of colour be looking for? Are there any brands or products you can think of that work exceptionally well for non-white skin tones?
Chi-Chi: I think that women of color should look for different undertones when looking for different foundations. Most foundations that come in a limited darker range in the drugstores are mostly yellow-based, which may work for some skin colors but definitely not all. In addition, a small portion of drugstore to mid-end foundations come in pink undertones, which again might work for some skin colors but definitely not all. Many women of color, especially in the darker skintones, have a red undertone to their skin, which is close to impossible to find in most foundation ranges. The one brand that comes to mind which has a good darker foundation range with various undertones is Illamasqua. Also, Bobbi Brown has a decent range of foundation shades, however most of her foundations run a tad yellow, making a perfect match difficult to find. Finally, if you can find where to purchase the products, Fashion Fair makes a great array of foundations for women of color, from the lightest to darkest skintones.
Arabelle: Definitely learn about undertones, as Chi-Chi said. That’s the most important factor when it comes to a shade, the wrong undertone can make you look sallow, ill…. it’s just not a good look if you miss the mark, really. You can sometimes negotiate around this by using a color correcting primer underneath a foundation that nearly matches you, but it more neutral. It’s all about the undertones. This is why it’s important to get samples when you can, so you can test out potential buys in the daylight and out of the fluorescence of a beauty store. You want to see what it looks like on your skin after it’s been lived in for awhile.
What sort of foundation/cover-up is available for people of colour? What would you say is missing from the majority of cosmetic shelves?
CC: Most of the foundations available for darker skintones are either liquid or cream foundations, leaning heavily towards the liquid side. As for concealers, the range of colors and undertones for women of color is even more limited. The powder, pressed powder, and mineral foundation ranges for women of color are severely lacking, and for the companies who do make those products, their shade ranges include one to three colors only. The main thing that is lacking from the majority of cosmetic shelves is a range of shades. If you go to a drugstore, the choices for foundation are limited, maybe including one or two shades that might match the skintone with blending and creative powdering and bronzing. Women of color cannot be generalized into two shades – and it’s absolutely ridiculous that companies, drugstore or high end continue to do this.
A: There’s a huge lack of depth in color for foundations in shades even (or especially in) mid-range and luxury brands. I’m often surprised if I see a high end brand with more than 4 shades of beige and ivory. Drugstores are better at shade ranges than mid range and high end brands, but there’s still a lot to do. For example, BB and CC creams are now a dime a dozen but the ones that come in any shade darker than a deep tan? I can count those on one hand. These are products that are constantly being hyped up in the media and everyone is launching them, but they’re only reaching a select few.
Do you think there are enough options for non-white skin tones on the current cosmetics shelves? Why or why not?
CC: I do not believe that there are enough options for non-white skin tones on the cosmetic shelves for a couple of reasons. First, there are a couple companies from the drugstore that just do not make foundation ranges darker than dark beige (Neutrogena and Rimmel come to mind first). Depending on the store, this is two parts of a makeup section that is already ruled out for women of color. Going towards mid-to-high end companies, there are two scenarios. As I previously mentioned, a couple companies either have a grand total of one to three dark shades that is somehow supposed to encompass all of women of color (it doesn’t) or they just don’t bother to make darker shades in their foundations or base products. Absolutely inexplicable – we have money, we would spend money, can we please have more choices?
A: Definitely not. Chi-Chi said it best.
When I was working as a makeup artist, my perception of what was wrong with the existing makeup for people of colour was that it lacked any depth. Makeup for white people always has yellow, blue, etc. undertones, but makeup for people of colour seemed to automatically turn to ash because it didn’t have those undertones. Is that something you’ve experienced as well? Do you think there’s a way to add depth to the existing ‘flat’ foundations on the market?
CC: I mentioned this briefly above, but the problem with most current foundations as they get into darker skintones is that they stick to one undertone for all of the foundations. Some women of color have yellow undertone, some pink, some olive and some red. Depth in foundations, in my opinion, comes from matching the right undertone or mixing colors to find the right undertone. However, through current foundation choices, there aren’t many options for choosing the right undertone(s) for women of color. Finally, many women of color may have to use two foundations because of the different shades of their complexion (the forehead and T-zone area is darker than the cheeks), one foundation for their forehead and T-zone area, and one for their cheeks. Even between those places, there might be different undertones so finding the correct balance to make the skin look like skin again through foundation is even more difficult.
A: I’ve seen that as well. I think MAC does a good job when it comes to serving multiple undertones across the skin tone spectrum. There are a few professional palettes for color correcting you can buy to ‘fix’ base makeup to suit your skin better, but honestly, most people aren’t going to do that when the foundation is already $45-55 dollars on average, and the correcting palettes are even more money and are harder to find. Consumers shouldn’t have to go to a professional beauty supply store to get something that other consumers can buy easily off the shelves. It’s not fair to them and it makes the journey of buying makeup a lot more difficult and frustrating for so many people.
On top of everything Arabelle and Chi-Chi said, here are a few beauty school dropout tips when you’re trying to find a shade to cover or conceal your skin:
Texture is the most important thing. Skin has to look like skin. You need a texture that matches – or corrects – whatever is going on with your skin. If you have oily skin, you’re going to want a matte formula and a light dusting of powder; if you have dry skin, you’re going to want a liquid or cream formula and the absolute minimum of powder you can get away with. Different parts of your skin might need different kinds of texture. Most people have oily T-zones and dry cheeks and chins, so, take not and adjust accordingly. Often, even if the colour itself doesn’t match 100%, you can get away with it as long as it blends into your skin texture.
Scratch that, blending is the most important thing. Tied with texture is proper blending. One of my teachers used to always talk about lines – like you should never see the line where the makeup ends and your skin begins. Too often, people stop blending the foundation when it gets close to your ear. You have to keep blending until you can’t tell where the product begins and ends. If you’re applying a foundation all over your face, you have to blend it all the way down your chin and into your neck and up into your ears and hairline if you want to really trick all those people looking at you. This rule applies to bronzer, blush, highlighter, and eye makeup as well, unless you’re going for a Demi Moore-in-St. Elmo’s Fire-look (which would be a great choice, if anyone out there does this on a regular basis please send pics).
Depth is also really really important. If you have a pimple, it’s three-dimensional. A pimple lifts right off your face, putting it front and centre for everyone else’s eye line. This means that any product applied to the pimple will be much more obvious than anything else on the flat surface of your face, so a light hand with concealer is really important. I like to apply a healthy dollop concealer to the very centre of the pimple with a pointed concealer brush; then I take a slightly bigger, flat concealer brush and blend the colour to the outer rim of the pimple, blending the shade into the skin surrounding the raised part of the pimple. I apply tinted moisturizer over concealer because I think it looks more natural, but as long as you’re using a light hand and the proper shades of makeup, there’s no reason you can’t apply the overall colour first and concealer second.
Watch your lighting. How could I not mention this? You know how I feel about good lighting. Most bathrooms have really flattering lighting, which means you could under-apply, particularly when it comes to undereye concealer. It’s best to get as close to natural sunlight as you can when you’re applying foundation.
Colour doesn’t matter. I mean, obviously it does. You need to have a colour that matches your skin. But as we’ve already discussed in great detail, the chances of you finding that one perfect colour that blends into your face seamlessly is like winning the lottery – there just aren’t enough shades out there to properly accommodate all our beautiful faces. So don’t make my mistake and stand there paralyzed with fear. Try to get a colour as close as you can to your skin, and then keep trying everything, ask your friends, ask makeup artists working at counters, blend different shades to create custom colours – just go for it. As long as the texture is correct, it’s properly blended, and it’s close enough that there isn’t a huge difference in colour between the jawline and your neck, you should be fine. Go forth and experiment!
Are there are Toast readers out there who have more suggestions for matching foundation shades? Favourite brands or products? Tell me in the comments!
Haley Mlotek is the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal. Her writing has appeared in WORN (obviously), as well as Hazlitt and The Hairpin. She believes in reading, writing, and red lipstick.
WORN Fashion Journal is a completely different kind of fashion magazine. An independent print publication based in Toronto, Canada, WORN discusses the histories, personal stories, cultures, and subcultures of fashion.