How to Pick the Best Type of Foundation for Your Complexion

June 03, 2024
By: Emily Orofino | by L'Oréal
Swatches of different shades of liquid foundation on a green background.

Many of us pick a foundation and primer based on recommendations from our friends and favorite influencers, rarely thinking about what’s actually in each formula. But if you’re wondering how to choose foundation that works for your skin, looking at the ingredient list should be your first course of action.

Per celebrity makeup artist Kasey Spickard, “There are three main types of foundation: silicone-based, water-based, and oil-based.” Each, he says, has different benefits. Steve Kassajikian, Head of Global Artistry for Urban Decay, concurs, adding that considering the ingredients—as well as your “skin type, skincare regime, and the other makeup products you use” in your routine—is the key to finding the best foundation formula for you.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the different foundation finishes and formulas available on the market and can’t figure out where to start, keep reading. Ahead, we’re sharing what you need to know about different foundation formulations and offering advice on how to choose foundation for your skin. Plus, we’ll share tips on how to find your foundation shade, pick a makeup primer, and more. Your best base yet awaits.

Silicone-Based Foundation

What are silicone-based foundations?

According to Spickard, “silicone-based foundations contain ingredients like dimethicone, which create a smooth and silky texture on the skin.” You can tell if a product is silicone-based by taking a peek at the ingredients label: if it is, ingredients ending in -cone or -siloxane will typically be the first or second ingredient listed.

Spickard adds that “silicone foundations can come in a variety of finishes, from dewy to matte,” and says that they can help give the skin a smoother, more uniform appearance. If you’re already sold, we suggest checking out the Urban Decay Face Bond Self-Setting Waterproof Foundation, YSL Beauty All Hours Foundation, or the Lancôme Teint Idole Ultra Wear Care & Glow Foundation, all of which are silicone-based, breathable, and offer lasting wear (more details on all of these ahead).

Who should use a silicone-based foundation?

Anyone can use silicone-based foundation: the variety of finishes available means that there’s a foundation formula to suit nearly anybody’s needs and preferences. However, Spickard says silicone-based formulas are especially beneficial for those with uneven skin texture (think: large pores or fine lines), as “silicone can help to blur and fill them in and create a smoother surface,” particularly when paired with a blurring primer (more on that in a bit).

It’s also worth noting that silicone-based foundations tend to offer a fuller coverage finish than more fluid, water-based options. So if you’re looking to camouflage unevenness, conceal blemishes, or hide other imperfections, silicone-based foundation is absolutely worth a try.

Our favorite silicone-based foundations

Urban Decay Face Bond Self-Setting Waterproof Foundation

This genius formula from Urban Decay offers the coverage of a buildable foundation, the skincare benefits of a serum (thanks to three percent niacinamide), and the flawless finish of a setting powder, all in one weightless product. The non-comedogenic formula helps absorb excess sweat and oil for a natural-looking finish that wears up to 24 hours without smudging or transferring. Plus, it’s waterproof, sweat-proof, and humidity-proof, and available in 40 shades to complement a range of skin tones and undertones. Apply it with a sponge for a sheerer finish or pat it on with your fingers for a fuller-coverage look that lasts—no setting powder needed.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

YSL Beauty All Hours Foundation

We can’t get enough of the luminous-yet-matte finish of the YSL Beauty All Hours Foundation. The hydrating foundation formula glides smoothly across your skin for a full coverage, natural matte look that lasts up to 24 hours. Not only does this luxe foundation instantly give your skin a soft filtered effect, but it stays that way all day—the weightless, breathable formula is waterproof, transfer-proof, and heat-resistant.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

Lancôme Teint Idole Ultra Wear Care & Glow Foundation

Those looking for a hydrating foundation would do well to try out Lancôme’s beloved formula. It features an 82% serum base and is packed with skin-loving ingredients, including hyaluronic acid and mandelic acid. Apply the silky, medium-coverage formula in the morning and enjoy up to 24 hours of glowy, healthy-looking skin.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

Giorgio Armani Beauty Luminous Silk Foundation

There’s a reason the Giorgio Armani Beauty Luminous Silk Foundation is all over your For You Page—this silky, weightless foundation does it all. The medium-coverage formula applies and blends like a dream, leaving the skin with a blurred, naturally glowy finish that lasts up to 24 hours. It’s lightweight, suitable for all skin types, and comes in 24 shades to flatter a variety of skin tones and undertones.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

Oil-Based Foundation

What are oil-based foundations?

Oil-based foundations, as the name suggests, feature oil (rather than water or silicone) as their bases. They tend to feel nourishing and may leave the skin with a glowy, dewy finish. Unfortunately, they’re not nearly as common as water and silicone-based foundations, and can be a trickier foundation formula to find.

Who should use an oil-based foundation?

Oil-based foundations feel moisturizing, and as such, can be a great choice for those with drier skin types. They’re also a great pick for mature skin, which tends to lack moisture. However, Spickard cautions, oil-based foundations “can sometimes feel heavy or greasy on the skin.” If you have oily, acne-prone, or combination skin, you may find that a water or silicone-based formula provides a more comfortable feel.

Water-Based Foundation

What are water-based foundations?

Water-based foundations feature water (sometimes listed as “aqua” or “Eau”) as their primary ingredient. They “are typically lighter in texture” than silicone foundations, Spickard says, and “can provide a more natural, breathable finish.” Keep in mind that many water-based foundations do include silicone in their formulas—it’s just less than you’d find in a silicone-based foundation.

Who should use a water-based foundation?

Like silicone-based foundations, water-based formulas are suitable for a wide array of skin types and concerns. “They work well for those with dry or combination skin, as they tend to be more natural-looking and can help hydrate the skin,” Spickard says. He also notes that these lightweight, fluid formulas can be a great pick for those with oily or acne-prone complexions.

If you’re struggling to choose between water-based vs. silicone-based foundation, we suggest determining the level of coverage you want and going from there. As Kassajikian explains, water-based formulas tend to provide lighter, sheerer coverage than silicone-based foundation, making them ideal for those who favor natural-looking makeup over full glam.

Our favorite water-based foundations

Maybelline Super Stay 24H Skin Tint + Vitamin C

If you’re on the hunt for a water-based foundation that you can wear every day, this hardworking formula from Maybelline is a must-try. It provides buildable light-to-medium coverage with a dewy, skin-like finish and wears up to 24 hours while resisting sweat, humidity, and fading. Plus, it’s infused with vitamin C for brighter, fresher-looking skin—both instantly and over time. For these reasons, it’s among the best water-based foundations for those who favor more natural, skin-like foundation finishes.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

Lancôme Skin Feels Good Nourishing Foundation

Even out your complexion and protect your skin from the sun with this SPF 23 foundation. It’s made with hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and moringa seed extract and provides lightweight coverage that leaves your skin looking fresh and radiant.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

ILIA Beauty Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40

We absolutely adore makeup with skincare benefits, and this lightweight, fluid skin tint fits the bill perfectly. This silicone-free serum combines the benefits of makeup, skincare, and SPF 40 mineral sunscreen into one game-changing product. Use it for sheer coverage with a hint of glow on those no-makeup-makeup days.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

Pairing Primer With Foundation

How To Choose the Right Primer Formula for Your Foundation

Knowing how to choose foundation is only half of the battle. It’s also important to find the right makeup primer to pair with it. Primer, explains Kassajikian, can “alter the way foundation applies and sits on the skin.” Needless to say, finding the right one is key if you want your makeup to last.

As a general rule, when picking base makeup, finishes and formula should be similar—layering two very different formulas can lead to separation, pilling, or unwanted texture. In other words, you’ll want to pair like with like: silicone-based primers with silicone-based foundations, and water-based primers with water-based foundations.

To test your foundation and primer’s compatibility, place a small amount of primer on your hand and layer your foundation on top. If it turns powdery or starts to separate, then you know your products won’t play well together. Another way is to test the combo on your complexion and see firsthand how your foundation wears with your primer throughout the day. Ultimately, if your foundation pills or flakes, that’s a good indication that your primer and foundation have conflicting formulas.

Our favorite silicone-based primers

Giorgio Armani Beauty Luminous Silk Hydrating Primer

Smooth, soften, and prime your skin for makeup with this silicone-based primer. The rice bran and glycerin-infused formula hydrates as it melts into the skin, blurring imperfections and boosting radiance. We suggest pairing it with the coordinating Luminous Silk Foundation for the ultimate your-skin-but-better look.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

YSL Beauty Touche Éclat Blur Primer

Blurring primers can sometimes appear overly matte, which is why we love this luminous finish option from YSL Beauty. It helps smooth the appearance of pores and uneven skin texture while simultaneously helping to hydrate and soften the skin. Plus, it boasts ultra-subtle golden shimmer for a luminous, not flat, finish.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

NYX Professional Makeup Pore Filler Targeted Stick

If you tend to touch up your makeup throughout the day, you need the NYX Professional Makeup Pore Filler Targeted Stick. The transparent formula instantly blurs and smooths away pores, fine lines, oil, and shine. While it’s designed for on-the-go touch-ups, you can also apply this primer as a first step in your makeup routine before your silicone-based foundation.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

Our favorite water-based primers

IT Cosmetics Hello Sunshine Invisible Sunscreen For Face SPF 50

This clever formula is a three-in-one hybrid of a serum, sunscreen, and makeup primer, making it an ideal pick for those who are trying to cut down on clutter in their beauty bag (or are perpetually hitting snooze). It’s formulated with skin-loving ingredients like hyaluronic acid and panthenol to create a super hydrated, nourished base ahead of makeup application.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

NYX Professional Makeup Blur Screen SPF 30 Makeup Primer

Prime, prep, and protect your skin with this SPF 30 primer. The affordable pick helps blur imperfections, grips makeup in place for up to 18 hours of wear, and provides SPF 30 protection against the sun’s damaging rays. Plus, the invisible-finish formula blends seamlessly on a range of skin tones with no white cast and no greasy feel.

Everything You Need To Know About Choosing a Foundation Formula

How To Pick Your Foundation Shade

Now that you know how to choose a foundation, it’s time to learn how to find your foundation shade. Even the best foundation formula of all time won’t look quite right until you’ve mastered how to match foundation to your skin tone. Here are three things to consider when searching for your shade match.

Determine your undertone

Determining your skin’s undertone is key to achieving a seamless match. “You will either have a cool, neutral, or warm undertone,” explains Kassajikian, who notes that how your skin reacts to sun exposure will probably tell you the answer. “If you tend to burn while in the sun, then you most likely have a cool undertone; if you tan while in the sun, then you most likely have a warm undertone,” he says. If you initially burn, then tan, that’s a good sign that you have a neutral undertone.

You can also try on different jewelry to find your undertone—silver flatters cool-toned skin, gold enhances the glow of warm skin, and those with neutral undertones can easily rock both silver and gold. From here, you can pull a few shades that look like they could be close to your skin tone. Consider shopping from a collection with a wide shade range to make easy work of finding your perfect hue—Kassajikian is a fan of the Urban Decay Face Bond Foundation, which is available in 40 shades with cool, neutral, warm, and olive undertones.

Find your light

When working on how to color-match foundation, lighting is everything. You might have experienced this when shopping for foundation in the past—the formula will look like an impeccable match in mall lighting, then look completely off once you get home. “Lighting is very important when choosing the right foundation shade,” confirms Kassajikian. “I recommend using natural light to ensure you get a perfect match every time.” It’ll be easier to choose a foundation color by trying it on in daylight.

Swatch your options

Once you’ve identified a few shades that could be a match, you’ll want to swatch them. You might be questioning whether your foundation should be lighter or darker than your skin—ideally, it’ll match your face and neck perfectly. “However, sometimes your face is lighter than your body or vice versa,” Kassajikian acknowledges. “In that situation, I would choose a slightly lighter or darker shade to match perfectly with your neck and the rest of your body.” Kassajikian himself uses self-tanner on his body but not his face, so he uses a slightly deeper foundation shade so he can match his faux glow. For extra help, try the Urban Decay AI Foundation Shade Finder, which uses a database of 22,000 skin tones to find your perfect hue.

Next Up: Foundation Sticks for Easy, On-The-Go Makeup

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