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What does primer do? An expert explains the one rule you MUST follow if you want flawless makeup

6th March 2021 | Author: Abigail Beall

You’re already cleansing, toning, moisturising your skin, and (hopefully) applying an SPF. There might even be serums and face oil in your skincare order too. With all this going on, do you really need to add another product before you apply foundation?

Primer may seem like a waste of time – and money – but its plays an important role in preparing your skin for makeup. When used correctly, it can make your skin appear flawless and help your makeup stay on for longer. There is an increasing number of primers in the skincare makeup trend that improve your skin at the same time as creating a smooth base.

“Primer is a preparatory product that is applied to your skin after cleansing, toning and using an SPF and is used to create an ideal canvas on which you are able to apply your makeup,” Dr Rekha Tailor, skin expert and former GP, told mamabella.

FURTHER READING: Best primer makeup: Our fave face primers for all skin types

The science of primer

Unlike moisturisers, which are designed to be absorbed by the skin, primers are designed to create a layer on top of your skin. This creates a barrier between your skin and your makeup, meaning less oil or sweat will get through to your makeup and it’ll last longer.

But finding a primer that works with your foundation is key.

READ NEXT: Best SPF products

“Some primers come in the form of hyaluronic serums, while others contain SPF, and some are silicone-based,” Tailor continued. The hyaluronic serums are mostly water-based, and these are the ones you should go for if you use a water-based foundation. If your foundation is silicon-based, use a silicon-based primer.


If one or more of the ingredients in your primer ends in ‘cone’ or ‘siloxane’ it is silicone-based.

If there’s ‘oil’ or ‘oleate’ in the list, it’s oil-based and if none of these are present, your primer is water-based.

We explained in detail how to tell whether your foundation is water, oil or silicon-based in our article ‘What’s really in your foundation?’ but, to summarise, the best place to look is at the first few ingredients.

Another way of telling what the base is can be looking at what form the primer comes in.

Silicon-based primers are usually smooth gels, oil-based primers have a runnier consistency and water-based primers often come as sprays.

But this rule is not hard and fast, so check the ingredients.

Silicon-based primers provide the smoothest-looking skin, while oil-based primers tend to be hydrating. Water-based primers are great for those with acne-prone or oily skin, as they don’t clog your pores as much.

The number one rule is: always match your primer and foundation base. If your foundation is water-based, you need a water-based primer, and the same goes for oil and silicon.

If your foundation looks patchy as soon as you apply it, the first thing you should check is whether you’re using a compatible primer.

A great primer and foundation combination can be the key to achieving a flawless look, at any age “because primer makeup has the unique ability to fill in fine lines and wrinkles.

Using primer as a layer between your skin and foundation provides the base necessary to create the appearance of perfect skin at any age,” explained Tailor.

You can read more about our best primer recommendations in our Best Buys list, but we’ve also handpicked a number of primers below that are oil-based, silicon-based and water-based to make things a little easier.

READ NEXT: How to get flawless skin

♥︎ Oil-based primers

Glossier futuredew

£23 | Buy now from Glossier

This is an oil-serum hybrid that will do your skin some good while also getting it ready for makeup. Glossier says it does not interfere with makeup, so it could be used with any kind of foundation, since it contains oil suspended in water. It also helps provide a soft glow.

Buy now from Glossier

Smashbox Primer Oil

£30 | Buy now from Smashbox

Smashbox is the champion of primers, and this oil is a great choice if you have dry skin and use an oil-based foundation.

Buy now from Smashbox

♥︎ Water-based primers

Too-faced Hangover Primer

£12 | Buy now from Cult Beauty

Too Faced Hangover PrimerToo Faced

Made with coconut water, this primer is designed to soothe and hydrate dry or parched skin. Especially if you’ve overdone it a little and you’re suffering from hangover skin. The lightweight formula contains probiotics and skin revivers to rebalance moisture levels and boost skin’s radiance.

This means it can be used on its own, or before makeup.  As is the case with the entire Too Faced range, this primer is cruelty-free.

Buy now from Cult Beauty

IT Cosmetics CC Cream

£32 | Buy now from IT Cosmetics

With SPF 50 and colour correcting properties, this primer from IT Cosmetics does a whole load more than most, meaning you can remove other steps from your skincare routine including a CC cream, BB cream and moisturiser. Use it on its own for light coverage foundation, or underneath a tinted moisturiser. You can read more about why we love this cream so much on our best foundation makeup list.

FURTHER READING: IT Cosmetics foundation review: Does the ‘Your Skin But Better Foundation+Skincare’ really improve your skin?

Buy now from IT Cosmetics

♥︎ Silicone-based primers

The Ordinary High-Spreadability Fluid Primer

£5.50 | Buy now from Cult Beauty

An excellent choice for those on a budget looking for a primer, this lightweight primer is moisturising, but it’s also silicone-based. Read more about The Ordinary in our Brand Spotlight.

FURTHER READING: The Ordinary primer review: At £3.90, is The Ordinary High-Adherence Silicone primer a bargain or a dud?

Buy now from Cult Beauty

Smashbox Photo Finish

£28 | Buy now from Smashbox

Smashbox primerSmashbox


A classic primer from the absolutle OG of priming your skin.  This Photo Finish Smooth and Blur primer creates a super smooth surface for your makeup to stay looking perfect all day.

Buy now from Smashbox

How to make your own primer with face oil

As you will have read above, a lot of mainstream primers contain silicones. If you don’t want to use silicones, or you find they don’t agree with your skin, you can make your own primer using a face oil.

Effectively getting two benefits for the price of one.

For a natural, non-pore clogging primer, combine a tiny amount of facial oil with your favourite serum and apply it all over your face. This combination locks in moisture whilst keeping your makeup fresh and in place all day. We recommend Green People’s Hydrating Firming Serum. 

What’s more, if you choose an anti-ageing face oil, like the Anti-Ageing Facial Oil (again from Green People) you’ll be rejuvenating, plumping, and nourishing your skin without it feeling greasy. This is particularly good for acne-prone skin and the Green People facial oil includes rosehip, avocado, and almond oil and is 99.9% organic.

FURTHER READING: The science of face oil: From when you should use one, to which ingredients to look out for in the best face oils

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