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How to Match Foundation to Skin Tone

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Asian Beauty
Shuji Kobayashi / Taxi / Getty Images

Picking out the right foundation shade can be a problem for women of all races, but it can really be difficult for those with darker skin. Though the range of shades and cosmetic lines for dark skin has improved, some lines still don’t go beyond caramel. The wrong shade will look orange, pasty or muddy on dark skin.

Women of color on the other end of the color scale can run into some difficulties as well. Just because you have a lighter complexion doesn’t mean you’ll be able to wear light shades that often have a pink undertone. You need a shade that not only matches the color of the skin, but also its undertones, i.e., yellow/golden, pink/red and olive.

"When it comes to selecting foundation based on undertone theory, the undertone acts like a guide," says Aliesh Pierce, celebrity makeup artist, esthetician and national trainer for VerialD, an ayurvedic cosmeceutical skin care line.

"I suggest looking at the inside of your wrist, the unifying hue will be either olive, red, or yellow. This simply helps us narrow the search when trying to zero in on the right foundation shade," Pierce adds. "Once we can see our unifying color, we look at the overall shade based on skin tone. From there we just need to determine whether we're the light, medium, or dark version of that shade."

Pierce advises her clients to try three shades within the same undertone.

How to Determine Your Skin's Undertone

How to Determine Makeup Undertones

Fortunately a lot more companies state whether a shade is in cool, warm, neutral or olive categories, or will let the consumers know the exact undertones of the makeup. For example, Fashion Fair’s liquid mineral foundation line gives a selection in three undertones: yellow, red and neutral to match with the customers' complexion. Foundation with a yellow/golden undertone is warm and red/pink undertones are cool.

If a company does not state what the foundation’s undertone is, you can contact customer service and ask. You can also compare shades side-by-side to determine the undertones. "If you line up a few shades you'll clearly see which shades have a blue-olive, yellow-orange, or red-pink base," says Pierce. "The issue is the florescent lights at the counters create a green cast on the skin."

Pierce suggests that you "ask the counter attendant if you can take a mirror outside...or there's often an atrium with a skylight in the middle of the mall. Rely on balanced sunlight for a true color match."

When you plan to test out foundations, make sure that your face is cleansed and moisturized and don’t wear any makeup (stop moaning). If you can, pick a store that actually has testers because you will need to test three shades, one slightly lighter, one that looks like it matches your skin exactly and one slightly darker than your skin tone. Apply each one in a line from the cheek to the jaw line.

In addition to testing the foundation in natural light, it needs to be on the skin for a few minutes. Wait about five minutes (10-15 minutes would be better if you have the time) so that the foundation will be warmed up by your body heat, mix with your facial oils and will reveal its true color. Look at the three foundations. The one that disappears, blends with your skin tone and shows no demarcation line at the neck, is the perfect match.

If the store doesn’t have testers, don’t worry about having to purchase three shades; you might need to mix two of the foundations together for your perfect shade. Also having these two other shades will be helpful for use during the winter months (when skin tends to be lighter) and the summer when skin can become darker.

Don’t make the mistake of picking a foundation to either lighten or darken your skin tone. This will make your face look unnatural. A shade that is too light can make you look pasty, tired or unhealthy and a one that is too dark can look too orange or give you the appearance of wearing a mask. If you want to add color to your complexion, try using blush or bronzer.

How to Apply Bronzer

Many makeup experts suggest using a foundation that is slightly lighter than the natural skin tone so that you avoid looking like you’re wearing a mask. Note that liquid foundation tends to look darker in the bottle than it will look on your skin.

You can also take advantage of free makeovers at makeup counters that especially happen around the holidays. Make sure that you go during the day so you can see yourself in the sunlight. Sales people don’t always pick the right shades, so you’ll need to be able to go out into natural light and observe how the makeup looks before making a purchase.

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