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In-depth, informed beauty reviews and advice from a professional makeup artist & lover of all things natural and organic

  • Writer's pictureShelley Scott


How to choose the right foundation for you, understanding the 'jargon' and the do's & don'ts

If you're a regular foundation-wearer then apologies as I'm sure none of this will be new information to you. However, f you're new or new-ish to wearing foundation, hopefully this will be a good beginner's guide to breakdown some of the most common lingo you'll hear at the makeup counters and in reviews along with some good tips on how to choose the best foundation for you.

Hope you find it helpful x

So let's here's all the terminology you'll need to know when choosing a foundation...


Fairly straight-forward. You need to consider to what degree do you want to 'cover' your skin and what are you trying to minimise the appearance of. The main types of coverage are;

Sheer Coverage: Best for people who have good skin, don't like wearing a lot of makeup or don't like the feel of a full face of makeup on their skin. Also suits mature skin as this tends to be the least likely to sit in fine lines and wrinkles. Most foundations can be worn for 'sheer' coverage.Just apply very little of the product and really blend it in or mix with a moisturiser to make your own tinted moisturiser. (*Side note: Foundations that are 'sheer' by nature often are not made to be applied in lots of layers if you want more coverage and will look cakey if you try to do so. At the most you might be able to get to a medium level of coverage if the foundation is a good one. Tinted moisturisers, BB Creams & CC's creams are all basically just very sheer foundations with some added skincare benefits.

The main aim of a sheer coverage is simply to even out your skin tone, minimise a little redness and/or brighten tired and dull looking skin. They are not suitable on their own for covering blemishes, completely masking redness or discolouration etc. But you could wear them along with a heavier concealer if you have just a few small areas that need to be covered.

Medium Coverage: Most true 'foundations' are medium coverage that can be 'sheered out' or 'built up' to full coverage. They are the most flexible option and can be worn by any age or skin type. A medium coverage foundation will not hide everything but should even out skin tone and definitely minimise any redness, pigmentation or blemishes.

Full coverage: If you're new to wearing foundation then 'full coverage' probably isn't the best place to start. Most people don't need full coverage on a daily basis or at all, but if you have extreme redness or discolouration then they can be wonderful thing! A good full coverage foundation should do just that, completely cover redness, pigmentation or any marks and completely even out your skin tone so that it is all one uniform colour. If you have anything particularly unusual like scarring marks or a birthmark you may need to invest in a special camouflage concealer (future post on it's way!). But if you're someone who doesn't like the feel of a lot of makeup on your skin, then these aren't for you. I also wouldn't recommend full coverage for mature skin as it will emphasise wrinkles.


Just as there are generally 3 types of coverage, there are 3 main types of finish: Dewy, Satin (Semi-Matt) or Matt.

Dewy: Creates a healthy appearance to the skin that makes your skin look slightly moist. Not necessarily shiny but your skin will reflect light and have more of a luminous glow to it. You can still create a luminous glow with a matt foundation but that's another post again. People who have dry and dehydrated or mature skin tend to prefer a dewy finish as these foundations feel more moisturising. Those with oily skin will tend not to like these as it makes them feel oilier, more shiny and it won't last long on their skin. 'Dewy' foundations by nature tend not to last as long on the skin. Those with oily skin who like a dewy finish, don't fret there are still dewy foundations you can use, just make sure they are oil-free.

Matt: Basically the opposite of dewy, skin will not look moist or have any kind of sheen to it. Those with oily skin tend to prefer a matt finish as it minimises the appearance of their oiliness. Matt foundations tend to last longer and have slightly better coverage than dewy foundations. Matt foundations are also better suited if creating a vintage look of any kind. Again though, sometimes those with dry skin also prefer a matt finish and there are matt foundations that aren't drying on skin (again watch out for a future post on this).

Satin or Semi-Matt: For those who are on the fence, a good middle ground. Gives a slight sheen to the finish and is probably the closest to how most people's skin looks naturally. Most of the foundations I use in my professional kit are semi-matt as you can make them look dewy by mixing them with a primer or moisturiser or make them look more matt by setting them with powder. The best of both worlds.


Obviously if you prefer a natural/organic foundation or need a fragrance free foundation for sensitive skin, then that's your first step but either way, the next things you need to look out for are as follows:

1) Choose foundations that match your skin type: Unless you're going for a particular look e.g. a vintage look with a matt foundation, for day to day wear find out which foundations are best suited to dry, oily, combination, sensitive or redness prone skin etc (I'll do a post soon for each)

2) Choose a foundation that matches your skin's undertones: Your skin's shade, colouring or surface tone is basically the colour you'd describe your skin to be e.g. ivory, tan, dark etc and that's often the name of the shades in the foundation too. But you also have to think about your skin's undertones.

Everyone's skin is made up of a multitude of undertone colours (reds, greens, purples etc) but your undertone is the predominant undertone of your skin. This is not the same thing as the shade or colour of your skin. For instance someone with very dark African skin can have a cool undertone the same as someone with a pale Nordic skin. There are 4 main undertones:

  • Cool: Will have pinkish/redish/bluish tones to their skin. The veins on their wrists will tend look more blue/purple. They tend to burn more quickly in the sun. Silver and platinum jewellery tends to suit them better than gold.

  • Warm: Will have yellowish,/peachy/golden tones to their skin. The veins on their wrists will tend to look more blue/green. They tend to tan in the sun more quickly and tend to suit copper and gold jewellery better.

  • Neutral: A good mixture of the above, neither particularly pink or yellow and veins will tend to look blue. You can often choose which way to go with your foundation (cooler or warmer). I personally think that leaning towards a warmer tone is more flattering on most people.

  • Olive: The wild-card of the group. It is a combination of the neutral, slightly yellow undertone everyone has plus the greenish ashen hue that’s unique to olive skin. Olive skin tone is very specific, but it's not neutral, as some tend to call it. It can sometimes look grey/ashy especially if you use the wrong foundation.

Now that you have an idea of how to gauge your undertone, when testing foundations at a counter you can ask which shades are designed for warm or cool tones. However, at the end of the day, it is quite subjective as some people choose to play up or play down their undertones. For example, I am very pale and actually have neutral undertones but tend to opt for a warm based foundation to give my skin just a little bit of colour.

**NOTE: If you are a MAC foundation wearer then the MAC Foundation colour coding system is basically backwards (just to make things more complicated) to everything we know about undertones which I've outlined above. Basically, they refer to 'Warm' as having pink undertones and 'Cool' as having golden undertones. According to Mac, their codes mean the following:

C - Stands for Cool. Best for yellow, golden olive skin. NC - Stands for Neutral Cool. So is best for skins with a slight golden glow. Common color. N - Stands for Neutral. Beige skin. Common color. (only available in Studio Fix Foundation) W - Stands for warm. So best for pinkish skin. NW - Stands for Neutral warm. Pink beige skin. If you have irish in your blood you could be W or NW.

For the rest of the world, it's best to think of NW as being 'NOT Warm or Neutralises Warm' and NC as being 'NOT cool or Neutralises Cool'. (This applies to MAC foundations only, their concealers are a whole other ball game) The numbers after the letters e.g. NC45 simply refers to how light or dark the shade is, the higher the number, the darker the shade.

Now that your super savvy on all the lingo, here's a few do's and don'ts just before you take that foundation to the till...

DON'T: Test a foundation on your hand, wrist or cheek. This is fine if you just want a general idea of the colour but don't buy a new foundation based on this alone.

DO: Test out your foundation by applying it to your jawline, your neck and your collarbone As general rule, you should be matching your foundation to those areas as opposed to your actual face so that the colour of your face (with foundation on), blends seamlessly into your body and you don't get the 'floating head' look where your face is a different colour from your body. However some people prefer to wear a slightly darker shade than their body to 'warm up' their complexion. Personally, I think it looks more natural to match your foundation to your body and then 'warm up' using a bronzer but that's just me. If you do decide to go a little darker, just remember to blend it all the way down your neck.

DON'T: Rely on the lighting in shops to help you decide, artificial light will always skew your perception of what shades suit you

DO: Ask for a sample and test your foundation in full on natural daylight - it's the only way to really tell if it suits you. And don't be shy, most counters are given countless samples for this very reason.


Between Instagram filters, ring lights and airbrushing, it's easy to be misled about what a foundation can supposedly do but makeup is not magic (although it's not far off in my opinion). From the common complaints I hear, sometimes I think we have to just manage our expectations a little more. A good foundation should last about 4 hours without any touch-ups, maybe 6 if it's a really good long-wear one and you don't have oily skin. If you want it to last longer, you have to set it with powder but even then, generally they won't last for 12 hours if all you do is slap it on and forget about.

Secondly, foundation is not supposed to completely hide every single red mark, pimple or bit of pigmentation on your face. Really foundations are there just to even out your skin tone and concealers should do the rest, if you try to cover everything with your foundation, it'll end up looking like a mask.

So I hope all that saves you a bob or two in future -

Happy foundation shopping everyone!

Shelley x

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