Whether you want your makeup to stay in place for the whole day, or just want it to survive a night out, you can’t skip setting spray.
First developed as a product to keep actors and musicians’ makeup on during the filming of music videos, setting sprays are now very much part of an everyday makeup routine.
Gone are the days of spraying your face with hairspray after putting on makeup. (If you still do this, please stop!)
READ NEXT: Best setting spray 2020
We recently selected what we consider to be the best setting sprays and below we’ve explained what setting spray actually does and how it works.
By understanding more about the science behind the makeup trend, it will help you choose the one that best suits you – and find cheaper alternatives to the more expensive products on the market.
Setting sprays help keep your makeup on for longer but can also improve the look of it in the first place. All of them work to prevent makeup gathering in any wrinkles or lines, and keep your skin looking smoother. They can reduce fading of your makeup too, especially for people with oily skin.
Originally, setting spray was created with the entertainment industry in mind and the first cosmetic company to produce a consumer-facing spray was Skindinavia.
Skindinavia’s products are still incredibly popular to this day and you can read more about in our best setting spray guide. In fact, Urban Decay’s iconic All Nighter is developed using a Skindinavia formula. Since then, a huge number of beauty brands have entered the market.
There are two kinds of setting spray – those that change the appearance of makeup, making it look less powdery, and those that do this while also setting it in place. You can use a spray at the end of your makeup routine, or at each stage.
Setting, or fixing sprays, act as a barrier between your makeup and the world, to help prevent it being rubbed off. Most use some kind of polymer dissolved in a solvent, usually alcohol, which evaporates when sprayed on, to leave the polymer and create a light film over your skin.
The evaporation of the alcohol takes heat from your skin, which is why setting sprays also help cool your skin down – it’s the same reason alcohol gel feels cold.
The film that remains typically contains a waterproof molecule too, which helps keep makeup in place.
This is the same way hairspray works – a solvent evaporating to leave behind a polymer that keeps your hair in place.
But in setting sprays the solution is extremely diluted, making it safe to use on most people’s faces, unlike hairspray.
“While setting sprays can be useful when it comes to keeping everything in place, they also often contain alcohol and can be drying and even irritating for more sensitive skin types,” former GP and skin expert, Dr Rekha Tailor, founder of the health + aesthetics clinic in Surrey told mamabella.
“If your complexion is easily irritated it is best to look for a water-based formula” she added. You can check this by looking at the list of ingredients and making sure it does not contain any alcohol.
Water-based versions work using skin-friendly ingredients instead of alcohol and are usually marketed as hydrating setting sprays.
Usually, the active polymer is listed in one of the first four ingredients in your setting spray, and the most common are polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP) and those in the acrylates copolymers group.
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Using a makeup setting spray is simple.
We sometimes spray setting spray on our beauty blender to help set our foundation.
Be aware though that if you do use a setting spray, it can mean your makeup is harder to remove. “Make sure you remove your makeup thoroughly at the end of the evening with a gentle cleanser to avoid clogged pores and breakouts,” explained Tailor.
Abigail is a leading science journalist writing about space, sustainability, technology and culture. She is author of The Art of Urban Astronomy, a must-have guide to the night sky that guides you through the seasons and learn about the brightest stars and constellations, the myths and legends of astronomy and how to identify star clusters and galaxies.