Q & A: How do I find my foundation shade?

Hey, remember when I was going to do Q & A posts on the regular?

Instead of discussing my many failings as a blogger and “influencer” (even typing that word makes me feel icky), let’s focus on the issue at hand: finding the right shade of foundation.

This is the makeup equivalent of rocket science, and choosing the right shade on the first try feels like what I imagine winning an Olympic gold medal must feel like. There’s elation and maybe some tears, followed by an impossible set of expectations to continue performing at that level until we finally crack under the pressure and go back to the eeny, meeny, miny, moe method.

Obviously, that’s supposed to be comedy, because come on, makeup isn’t that serious, but sometimes it can feel exactly this overwhelming. It’s especially prescient if you’ve ever thought a shade looked awesome in bathroom lighting and then left the house for an event only to realize later that you’re orange. Or so pale that you look like a floating head. I’ve done both and honestly don’t know which is worse, but since they both legitimately haunt my nightmares, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into learning how to choose shades. Here’s my quick and dirty guide to choosing the right shade (or damn close to it) for your skin tone.

Step 1: Consider Coverage and skin type

I know that sounds weird, but stay with me: the amount of coverage you need determines whether or not the shade needs to be dead-on or close enough. If you’re into super full coverage, you’re going to need to match the shade as closely as possible or get extremely creative with bronzer/”translucent” i.e. ghost powder. If you’re like me and prefer medium coverage, you can get away with being close enough.

Similarly your skin type may play a part in the kind of coverage that’s best for you. Matte, long-wearing foundations tend to be best for oily skin, and they’re generally full coverage (or damn near), so I have to be accurate when choosing a shade.

Step 2: Understand undertone



When I was first learning about makeup and choosing foundation shades it was the late 1990s. Skinny brows were in, blue eyeshadow was out, and no one gave much thought to shade ranges. The other thing we didn’t think about: undertone. I was lucky enough to have a mom who knew a little about makeup and she helped me choose my shades, but I don’t remember her even uttering the word “undertone”. With time comes wisdom, and we now know that undertone can make or break us.

We all have a cool (pink or red), warm (yellow or peach) or neutral (gray or olive) undertone to our skin. The easiest way to find your undertone is to look at the veins in your wrist: if they look blue, you’re most likely cool toned; if they’re green you’re likely warm; if they’re both or somewhere in between or you really can’t tell, chances are good you’re neutral and as such have a little more flexibility since you can wear any undertone. It’s all about preference. For example, I’m neutral but I typically lean toward foundations with a warm undertone.

Step 3: Know which part of your body to color match

This one is oddly controversial. Ancient (meaning 20 years ago) wisdom says it’s fine to color match foundation on the inside of your wrist or the back of your hand. This is a terrible idea for obvious reasons. Personally, my arms are about 12 shades darker than my torso.

Some people say to match your cheek, which is fine if you never see the sun and your face is the same color as the rest of your upper body. I don’t know many people who are one uniform color from head to toe, so I’m not really a proponent of this method.

I do the jaw test: starting an inch or so above my jawline, I draw one stripe from the cheek down another inch or so, and then look at it in natural light. At my current level of tan, there’s only about one shade difference between my neck and my face, so I choose a shade that’s a tiny bit dark for my face and a tiny bit light for my neck. Once I’m powdered, bronzed and ready to walk out the door, it looks damn near the same shade.

Think you’ve found your perfect shade?


I didn’t mean to startle you, but this last part is important: some foundations will oxidize, or get darker, after being on your skin for a few minutes. This is due to pH levels in your skin reacting with the chemical components in the foundation and slightly changing the color. I know that sounds a little gross, but it works the same way with perfumes; not every fragrance will smell the same on every person, and every foundation formula won’t look the same on every face. This can be mitigated a little by wearing a primer, but it won’t completely stop the color change.

This is not to say you shouldn’t wear a foundation that oxidizes. You may just need to go down a shade.

Practice makes perfect

I know it sounds lame, but the best way to nail finding your shade is to screw up. A lot. Truple that if you’re trying to buy something online. If you live in the US, most stores here have extremely generous return policies, especially beauty stores like Ulta and Sephora. These are makeup people and they understand the struggle. Some drugstores are a little more stringent about returns, but if you’re concerned just ask. I know that Walgreen’s/Duane Reade is outstanding in this capacity because I’ve returned many, many foundations to my local store.

When all else fails, ask for help

If you’re still nervous, ask for help. Take your mom, your sister, your friend, your coworker, really anyone you trust who isn’t colorblind or completely oblivious and have them look at the shades for you. If your friends can’t be trusted with this important task, head to Ulta or Sephora, depending on your budget. Ulta sells a metric crapload of budget-friendly and high-end foundations, and unlike the actual drugstore, they have testers of just about everything. If you’re in the market for something insanely expensive and bougie, Sephora is the place for you. Either way, the store is full of extremely helpful people who know that no one wants to look like an Oompa Loompa on the regular.

I hope this offers some insight into a difficult topic. If there are other basics you’d like me to cover let me know in the comments!

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