Undertones and skin tones; choosing the right foundation is more complicated than it’s been made out to be.
A month before getting married, I took a hard look at myself in the mirror to confront what’s been baffling me for years. I texted my best friend for some supportive wisdom: “Why do I ALWAYS look weird with foundation on?”
“You need to find a shade with the right undertone,” she replied immediately.
As someone who invests more in skin care than makeup to avoid smearing foundation on my clothes, I haven’t thought to ask her this before. But when I did, it sounded like gospel.
Why Conventional Advice Doesn’t Work
To determine your undertone, all you have to do is figure out if you look better in gold or silver jewelry, right? Not exactly.
There are tons of largely unhelpful tips on the internet for finding your undertone. Many of them involve figuring out if you look better in white or off-white or orange-red or bluish-red (if you’re confused like I was about bluish-red, see below!)—but don’t obsess over these subjective points of reference.
The most-often told “tell-tale sign” is probably this: If the veins on your wrist look bluish or purplish in bright, natural light, consider yourself cool-toned. If they look greenish, you’re warm. If they’re in-betweenish, you’re probably more neutral or olive. This test might work for some, but it’s certainly not the definitive way to find the right foundation.
“Everyone sees color differently,” says Marc Reagan, Director of Global Artistry at Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. Your perception of your undertone might vary depending on the season, the lighting, your hair color or your outfit of the day. And that’s fine, because sometimes, undertones are overrated.
Undertones: The Truth (and the Right Way to Find Yours)
So how do you find your undertone? According to Reagan, people generally fall into one of three undertone categories: cool, warm and neutral.
Remember: undertones have nothing to do with the actual skin color or saturation of how fair or sun-kissed you are. Instead, it’s about the varying levels of pink, apricot, red, yellow, green and dark hues beneath your surface skin tone.
Cool Undertones: Does a blue-red flatter you?
Warm Undertones: Do you look good in yellow or gold?
Neutral Undertones: Do you fall in between cool and warm, or can you rock both?
But how do you figure that out? Don’t think about all those hues. Start with guiding yourself into the right direction. One easy way is to put a pure white cloth or sheet of paper next to your makeup-free face. (Do this test in sunlight, not artificial lighting.) If your skin appears more on the yellow side, you’re probably a warm tone. If your skin seems a bit more pink, you’re likely a cool tone. If you think you’re both, you might be a neutral tone.
Cool skin has more pink or red, warm shows more yellow or golden and neutral refers to varying shades of brown that are golden but with a cooler feel—neither hyper yellow or pink, says Reagan.
Still not sure between cool and warm? Consider which neutral shades are most flattering to you. If black and white looks great on you, you might have cool undertones. If you look better in off-whites, creams, tans and ivory, you might have warm undertones.
Once you have an idea of your undertone, your best bet is to head over to a makeup counter or store where you’ll be able to test samples. But don’t figure this out with any brand — test one that actually tells you which undertone their foundations are meant for. COVER FX, for instance, gives you the undertone and shade for each of their foundations, and there are 40 shades.
Remember to test your foundation on a bare face and in sunlight. Dab and apply on your jawline to ensure it blends in well with your neck.
Foundations For a Broad Range of Skin Tones
Unless You Want to Look Monochromatic, It’s All About Balance
I found that my issue with looking weird wearing foundation isn’t necessarily just about undertone, but that my face becomes a single homogenous color, which doesn’t look right because that’s not the nature of skin.
Each person’s complexion has many nuances, and those tend to get lost beneath a veil of foundation. That’s why even when you find a shade that matches your general color, you still might need to do some handiwork to re-introduce some color into your face with blush or bronzer (or both).
Reagan believes the deciding factor in choosing a foundation isn’t just matching or neutralizing your undertone, it’s deciding which features of your skin you’d like to enhance and which you’d like to minimize.
Take a good, long look in the mirror and decide what would bring you closer to achieving a balanced tone.
Try a cooler shade if: You’d like to brighten your whole face to play up the glow of your cheeks.
Try a warmer shade if: You’d like to neutralize the rest of your face to match your nose or forehead.
Test out both ways and see what looks and feels like you.
Undertones for Cheeks and Lips: Bring On the Colors
Speaking of, Reagan doesn’t believe people should feel limited to blush shades that fall into cool, warm or neutral categories that correspond with their skin undertones.
Instead, he says to consider the color intensity of the blush. If you have a darker complexion and want to try pink but feel intimidated, start with a subtle shade, and work your way to something bolder if it feels right. If you’re fair but are drawn to plum, same thing.
As for lipsticks—of course, your lips are a different color than the rest of your skin, and every lipstick shade has a life of its own once you paint it on.
Take a close look at the unique coloring of your lips, too. Reagan says lips with more golden tones warm up plums and reds really well, and cool-toned lips neutralize pastel pinks and peaches nicely.
The secret is, pretty much everything about makeup comes down to a matter of taste, skin tone, undertone and style.
Try not to be deterred by the process of trial and error. Remember that makeup is self-expression and self-discovery—and it’s supposed to be fun.
For my wedding-day look, that meant shaking off the pressure to have coverage that looked flawless in photos but way too extra in real life. Instead, I did a trust fall into Glossier’s Perfecting Skin Tint, which is super sheer and definitely not for everyone. Maybe I didn’t look airbrushed perfect, but I sure felt glowy and happy.