How to shop for the right foundation: Understanding skin tone and undertones

Foundation swatches

Have you heard this lament before? “When I go into a department store or drugstore, I have no idea how to pick the right foundation shade for myself.” All of us have been there. You think you know your foundation shade, you buy a color and then take it home and it looks too light, too dark, or too orange. Please keep in mind and accept that matching is not an exact science. There’s always room for error due to a variety of factors. Skin color and texture can often change up throughout the seasons, so what works in summer on your skin may not work in winter. Artifical lighting in stores is different to natural daylight so what you see in an Ulta or Sephora may look different when you step outside, etc. So it can definitely be tricky and overwhelming, but there are some tips on how to make it easier on yourself which we’ll delve into in this post.

First of all, let’s make some important distinctions. There are three things you will need to take into account when matching the right foundation to your skin: a) skin tone or color, b) skin undertone, and c) skin type. I’ll be talking about the first two in this post, while I’ll tackle skin type in my next post.

Let’s now define each area. Skin tone or color is the overall surface color you see everyday when you look in the mirror. This may seem a bit patronizing to define, but trust me there are some complexities which we’ll discuss in a bit. Skin undertone is the underlying color that comes through the skin’s surface to give your skin its overall hue. This can be trickier to detect for some. Skin type has to do with texture and the chemistry of the skin: are you dry, oily, normal or a combination of dry and oily? It’s important to keep in mind that matching the right foundation requires a certain amount of self-awareness of your own skin, which you will need before you even consult any professional to assist you.

Skin Tone/Color

While we all know what are our skin color is from a very early age, we might not pay attention to the different tones within our skin especially if you are not a makeup-wearer. Skin colors are made up of many different tones, and it’s very rare (maybe impossible?) to have one singular tone all over our bodies. Faces can be darker or lighter than necks, shoulders, and chests, and the other way around. Why is that? You could have patches of darker pigmentation from sun exposure, for example, or tons of freckles like I do, or acne scarring, or redness, or age spots. There are any number of factors that contribute to your face being multi-tonal.

The rule of thumb when looking for your closest foundation shade is to swatch the color towards the back of your jaw, close to your ear, and bring the color down onto your neck. If it blends seamlessly into your skin without any lines of demarcation you’ve likely found a good match. The idea is that you’re matching the base color of your face to your body, regardless of pigmentation color. This is the purpose of foundation after all, to even out your skin tone. If you match to an area of pigmentation, you may run the risk of looking like a “floating head” where your face is much lighter or darker than your neck and chest. It looks totally strange! I speak from experience.

Skin Undertone

Now you may find the right foundation shade for your skin color based on the jaw/neck trick from the above paragraph, but if you don’t also match to your undertone you may find yourself looking too yellow or too pink. This is where undertone becomes important. Since we already defined what undertone is above, let’s get more specific. There are mainly 4 skin undertones: warm, cool, neutral and olive. What do these each mean?

Warm undertone – your skin has a yellow, golden or peachy cast

Cool undertone – your skin has a pink, red, or even bluish cast

Neutral undertone – it’s hard to tell if you’re warm or cool since you likely have a mix of both yellow and pink undertones

Olive undertone – your skin has a grayish or ashen cast due to a mix of warmer yellow and greenish undertones

The next big question then is, how can I physically tell what my undertone is? Here are two ways, but you can certainly find more if you search the web.

Tip 1. Look at the inner part of your arm near your wrist. If your veins look bluish or purple, you likely have a cooler undertone. If your veins look greenish, you likely have a warmer undertone. If all you see is your skin color, you likely have a neutral undertone.

Tip 2. How does your skin normally react to sun exposure? If you have the ability to burn very easily (like I do) and hardly ever tan, you most likely are cool-toned. If you have the ability to tan, you most likely are either warm or neutral-toned.

Generally, you want to match your foundation to your undertone as opposed to going against it. So for example, I’m most definitely cool-toned as my skin has a pinkish, almost reddish cast. I want to make sure I go for a slightly pink-toned foundation, rather than a yellow-toned, as it will look the most natural against my base color. Here’s a quick guide that you might find handy when buying foundation:

Warm undertone – go for a slightly yellow-toned foundation

Cool undertone – go for a slightly pink-toned foundation

Neutral undertone – go for a peachy-toned foundation

Olive undertone – go for a slightly golden foundation

You should be aware that any skin color can have any undertone, so don’t assume if you’re pale-skinned you’re automatically pink-toned, or if you’re darker-skinned you’re automatically yellow or golden-toned. Skin is anything but formulaic.

Below are some photos that (hopefully!) show how some yellow and pink foundations appear in bottles, compacts and swatches. I apologize for not having many neutral or olive photos. Disclaimer: the pinker hues of some of the foundations had a harder time picking up in my phone’s camera but rest assured when I say something has a pink tone, it does.

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From L to R: Bare Minerals BarePro Powder Foundation in Warm Natural 12 (yellow tone), Almay Truly Lasting Color Foundation in Ivory (pink tone).
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From L to R: Bourjois Healthy Mix Serum Foundation in Vanille (yellow tone), Almay Truly Lasting Color Foundation in Ivory (pink tone).
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Top to bottom: Almay Truly Lasting Color Foundation in Ivory (pink tone), Bourjois Healthy Mix Serum Foundation in Vanille (yellow tone).
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Top to bottom: Kiko Skin Evolution Foundation in Cool Rose (pink/peach tone), Estee Lauder Double Wear Foundation in Cool Bone (pink tone), Bare Minerals BarePro Powder Foundation in Warm Natural 12 (yellow tone).

So how do you utilize all this information when walking into a Sephora, Ulta, or drugstore? First off, you’ll likely have very different experiences depending on where you shop. At Sephora or Ulta or a department store, you can easily ask a consultant or artist to help match you. Honestly I would recommend going this route if you can, especially if you are a makeup newbie. There is no substitute for having an in-person conversation with a professional who can physically see your skin. Ask for a foundation sample and see what it looks like in daylight. If you cannot get to a makeup counter, a lot of brands like MAC or Bobbi Brown also have online resources to help you get matched, like live chats with artists.

It can be much harder to shop for foundation at drugstores particularly in the U.S. where we don’t have testers available to us. In those cases, look for W’s (warm), C’s (cool), or N’s (neutral), or the words “cool” or “warm.”  L’Oreal’s True Match Foundation range might be a good place to start in the drugstore since they have a huge swath of shades clearly labeled for all undertones. But I must tell you that I was matched in a CVS once by a beauty consultant who was spot on! So don’t sell the drugstores short.

Once you have that one foundation shade that matches you correctly, it will be that much easier to find your color across brands. The internet is full of great resources like Findation.com or Sephora’s Color IQ system. You enter your shade and the brand and voila, a list is automatically generated with additional choices.

I know this is a lot of information but I hope all or at least some of it is helpful for those of us out there who struggle with foundation. I’ll have another post up in a few days on how skin type plays into foundation selection, with a foundation “cheat sheet” also included for reference.

I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for foundation matching!

xo, Erica

Author: Erica

Hi! I’m Erica, a makeup enthusiast based outside of NYC. I discovered my love of cosmetics back in 2011 when I started watching simple tutorials on YouTube. It was a revelation to me that with just a simple few swipes of mascara or dabs of blush, you could transform into a more enhanced version of yourself. My obsession has not abated over the years, but instead has grown stronger as the beauty industry has gone from strength to strength. After graduating from business school in 2018, I decided to finally share my thoughts and opinions on all things cosmetics and this is where ‘We are glamerus’ was born. I share my musings on a bi-weekly basis on everything from my holy grail products and preferred application techniques, to the latest trends overtaking the beauty world. I hope you enjoy! xo

4 thoughts on “How to shop for the right foundation: Understanding skin tone and undertones”

  1. Wow, so informative!!! I think knowing your skin undertones is the important key. Also getting matched by a makeup artist or hopefully competent sales person at a makeup counter can give you the basic knowledge of how to purchase the right foundation for you. I was matched by a MAC sales associate once and it was a perfect match that I go by now when purchasing any foundation by any brand. Keep the great posts coming !

  2. Really appreciate how much detail you’ve gone into with this topic. Finding the right, shade, undertone, finish etc can be quite overwhelming and other articles online haven’t gone into the same detail you have. Great post! x

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