Foundation 101: Everything you need to know about foundation

Foundation 101: Everything you need to know about buying, choosing and applying foundation makeup

10th February 2024 | Author: Victoria Woollaston-Webber

From finding your foundation shade to learning how to apply foundation and the common mistakes to avoid, we explain it all in our foundation makeup hub

Foundation is more than just makeup; it’s the canvas for your entire look.

Serving as the base layer, foundation helps to even out skin tone, conceal imperfections, and provide a smooth complexion upon which all other makeup is added to.

This makes it a staple in makeup bags and explains why the foundation market value exceeded $3 billion last year and is on track to pass $4.7 billion in the next five years.

We’ve got a growing list of foundation content across mamabella so we wanted to pull it all together in a foundation makeup hub.

Below you can read more about the history of foundation makeup, how it works, the different types, and how to find a shade match.

You can also explore all of our foundation content using the links below.

mamabella Foundation Content 

Boots No7 foundation shades colour chart in order from light to darkBoots

The history of foundation

IT Cosmetics foundation shade matchmamabella | mamabella

The history of foundation dates back to ancient times, with evidence of its use in Egyptian and Roman societies.

Egyptians used a form of foundation made from minerals such as malachite and galena to create a smooth, even complexion and protect their skin from the sun. They valued a light complexion, which was associated with wealth and status because it suggested that the person in question didn’t have to work outdoors.

Both Greek and Roman societies used face cosmetics, including chalk and lead-based formulas, to lighten the complexion.

During the Middle Ages, pale skin continued to be a sign of wealth and nobility in Europe. Women used lead-based paints and powders to achieve a fair complexion, despite the risks to their health. By the Renaissance period, both men and women used a mix of vinegar and lead to whiten their skin.

The Victorians frowned upon too much makeup and women used light powders and creams to subtly enhance their complexion. It was during this time that zinc oxide became a popular non-toxic alternative to lead-based makeup.

By the 1920s, the rise of cinema and glamour made makeup, particularly foundation, more popular. Max Factor introduced Pan-Cake makeup, which was initially created for actresses but soon went mainstream.

Liquid foundations weren’t developed until the 1930s but they gave people more options in terms of coverage and in the post-war era, the likes of Elizabeth Arden and Estée Lauder expanded their foundation ranges to include various shades and formulations, catering to a wider audience.

Today, there are hundreds if not thousands of foundations – from liquids to creams, sticks and powders – and there’s a greater focus on inclusivity, skin health, and natural ingredients.

Types of Foundation

Glossier Stretch Fluid FoundationGlossier

There are a number of foundation types depending on your skin type, what coverage you need, and your desired finish. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of foundation:

  • Liquid: Versatile and suitable for most skin types, liquid foundations range from sheer to full coverage and come in matte, dewy, and natural finishes. They’re the most popular type of foundation and is what you’re probably used to.
  • Powder: This foundation type is ideal for oily or combination skin. Powder foundations offer a matte finish and are great for touch-ups throughout the day. They’re popular on-screen because they reduce shine and reflection from studio lights.
  • Cream: Cream foundation types typically offer more coverage than liquid foundations and they’re great dry or mature skin, providing a dewy, hydrated finish.
  • Stick: Stick foundations have grown in popularity in recent years because they’re convenient for fast and on-the-go application. Stick foundations tend to offer medium to full coverage and work well for normal to dry skin types.
  • Tinted Moisturiser/BB & CC Creams: These aren’t technically foundation types but they give light coverage and are perfect for a natural look, often containing skincare benefits like SPF and antioxidants. Read more in our best tinted moisturiser guide.

Foundation shade finders

Sephora foundation shade finderSephora

Beyond knowing which of the above foundation types suits your skin, finding a perfect foundation shade match is the hardest part of shopping for makeup.

We explain more about how to swatch foundation in our best foundation shade finder guide but in summary, you need to know:

  • Skin tone: Foundations are sold in categories based on your overall skin tone. This typically includes Light, or Fair; Medium; Tan; Deep or Dark.
  • Undertones: Once you have an idea about your skin tone, you’ll need to know your undertone. Depending on the foundation type, this may be listed as Warm, Cool, or Neutral, and/or it will be listed using different colours such as yellow, olive, pink, peach, red, and more.

Foundation matcher tools can help you narrow down your search but if you have the chance to speak to an expert in-store, this can make the whole process easier. A couple of things to note, however:

  • Test in natural light: Swatch a few shades along your jawline, neck and chest. Face redness, hyperpigmentation, and other skin conditions can change the colour of the skin on your face but your jawline, neck and chest give a more accurate representation.
  • Let the foundation dry: Foundations oxidise as they dry, which means their colour can change. This usually means they get darker (but not always) so it’s worth checking the shade match after five minutes. Not judging it purely upon application.
  • Consider seasonal changes: Your skin tone may change throughout the year so you might need different shades for summer and winter.

FURTHER READING: How to find your perfect foundation match with the best foundation shade finders

Foundation for different skin types

New Huda Beauty Luminous Matte foundationHuda Beauty

Once you know your skin tone, and undertone and think you have a good idea about your foundation shade you then need to choose a foundation that suits your skin type.

We’ve tested more than 100 foundations and have picked which brands best suit which skin types but as a summary.

  • Oily skin: If you have oily skin, look for oil-free, non-comedogenic, and mattifying formulas. We have recommendations in our best foundation for oily skin guide.
  • Dry skin: Hydrating, creamy foundations with a dewy finish can add moisture to dry, dehydrated skin. Get recommendations in our best foundation for dry skin guide.
  • Mature skin: Foundations with light-reflecting particles and hydrating ingredients can minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. We’ve handpicked the best foundations for mature skin, as well as the best foundations for mature skin over 50.
  • Sensitive skin: If your skin is sensitive and easily irritated, opt for hypoallergenic and fragrance-free foundations to avoid flare ups or problems.

If you’re not sure what your type is, check out our What skin type do I have? guide. 

How to apply foundation

Applying foundation with a beauty blenderShutterstock

Our resident makeup artist, Victoria Howe, explains how to apply foundation like a pro in more detail here, but to summarise her expert advice, the steps are as follows:

  1. Prep: Foundation sits better on hydrated, moisturised skin so make sure you’re applying serums, moisturiser and SPF before applying foundation. Ideally, you should wait until the skincare is absorbed before applying foundation. Check out my best moisturiser, and best sunscreen for face recommendations for products that work well under makeup.
  2. Warm: Put the foundation on the back of your hand and wait for it to warm up. This means it goes on more easily, and gives you more control about how much you use.
  3. Apply: Put a small amount of foundation in the centre of your face, on your nose and cheeks using a brush or damp beauty blender. You can also use your fingers (just make sure they’re clean!) Making the blender damp stops it from soaking up the liquid foundation.
  4. Blend: Using a foundation brush, damp beauty blender, or your fingers, start to spread the foundation from the middle of your face towards the edges. You don’t need to press hard, in fact, a lighter touch will help create a softer, blended base.
  5. Soften: Using a large fluffy brush, gently buff your face to soften and blend the foundation into the skin.
  6. Set: Once the foundation has dried down, apply a powder all over your face to set it in and place and finish with a setting spray.

The key to knowing how to apply foundation is to use it sparingly. If you need to apply a thick layer all over your face to get an even colour, chances are you’ve got the wrong foundation shade.

You can find out how to find your perfect foundation match here, or you can take advantage of free foundation samples, listed here.

FURTHER READING: Best foundation brushHow to clean makeup brushesHow to clean beauty blenders fast

Can foundation be used as concealer?

Yes, there are no rules to makeup, and foundation can be used as concealer but you need to bear in mind their differences, so you know how to use them in the best way possible.

Foundations are typically thinner than concealers and are designed to even out your overall skin tone, cover minor imperfections, and provide a smooth canvas. Concealers are thicker and more pigmented meaning they provide higher coverage.

As a result, if you want to use foundation as concealer, you may either need to apply more of it or it should be saved for blemishes or imperfections that require less coverage.

We recommend:

  • Using a light to medium coverage foundation
  • Applying it in a thin layer with a concealer brush or sponge
  • Blending well, especially around the edges
  • Setting with powder to prevent it from creasing

Common foundation mistakes

There are a number of common mistakes made when buying and applying foundation. These include:

  • Using the wrong shade: Blend down the neck or mix shades to get a closer match.
  • Caking and creasing: Use less product and make sure you blend thoroughly. Our resident makeup artist Victoria Howe says that if you think you’ve blended enough, blend some more. Setting spray or powder can also help lock foundation in place and prevent it settling into creases. As can choosing lighter, hydrating foundations.

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