Foundation Week, Day 1: Your Epidermis Is Showing


We love beauty products, and we love experimenting, but we understand not having time to wile away the hours at your nearest makeup counter. Most of you just want to know what’s good, why, and how to get it. Anyway, a few weeks ago, we got all makeup-theory and weighed in on primers, and a whole bunch of you took to the comments/our e-mail inboxes to ask about foundations (e.g., "Pleeeease, ITG, do a round up on foundations!!!"). We had a better idea— we enlisted writer Molly Young to investigate every brand and type of foundation under the sun (literally, she assembled dozens) and play guinea pig. The result: A 3-day foundation extravaganza, which we're calling Foundation Week (like Shark Week). First up: What is foundation and why do we use it?

Let’s not kid ourselves. The history of makeup is the history of women eating poison, rubbing poison on their faces, rinsing their hair with poison and then—when the tidal wave of poison finally catches up with them—applying more poison to keep up appearances. Sumerian queens mixed lead with red dust and called it lipstick. 16th-century Venetian ladies coated their hair in horse urine for blondness. (I bet the results were still better than Sun-In!!) Victorian lotions dripped with arsenic. Depilatory formulas contained thallium, which would be amazing for removing unwanted hair if it wasn't also used to kill rats. A 1922 book by a chemist named George William Askinson contains a recipe for "Freckle Milk" that features mercury as its main ingredient; the doctor thoughtfully advises readers to handle mercury "with the greatest care."

(But doctor, those silver pellets are so fun to play with!)

We’re lucky to live in an era where safety in makeup is a given. Safety, however, doesn’t mean quality, or that it’s any easier to locate the right makeup. Finding a color match in the foundation field is especially tough, and the market is overstuffed. If you do happen upon the right shade, the coverageheavy and opaque? light and sheer?is apt to be wrong. If you find the right coverage, the finish will be weird. An hour at the beauty counter is enough to make a person cry oily beige tears.

The best thing about today’s makeup, aside from the fact that it won’t cause nerve damage, is the way that products are named. The conventions are extremely straightforward: eyeliner is for making lines around your eyes. Lipstick is a stick that you put on your lips. Concealer is to conceal horrible things. Nothing fits the rule as well as foundation, which is exactly that: the hidden infrastructure of your makeup.

Do you wear foundation? I do. I’m naturally pale, with ruddy cheeks, visible pores, and a yellowish donut of skin around my mouth; I need foundation primarily to even everything out. I need it secondarily to carpet over blemishes and protect against New York City’s ambient filth.

Because we naturally assume that what is true for us is true for everyone else, I’d always assumed that my friends wore foundation. Uh, wrong! After quizzing thirty of them about what brands they wore, I was dismayed to find that few of my friends wore any kind of foundation at all. (Some wear tinted moisturizer.) Here, I Excel-charted the results to show you:


I know my friends meant no harm in answering honestly, but, to me, “I don’t wear foundation” has always translated as "I don't need foundation," which turns into feelings on my part of sadness and embarrassment about needing foundation. Going without it is the beauty equivalent of wearing tight white jeans: a small number of women can pull them off…and I am not one of them. (Miranda Kerr is.)

Luckily, there is dark denim and a variety of products for the rest of us to pour all over our faces, like gravy over mashed potatoes. You can even put foundation on your eyelids, like Grace Coddington! (who does it to achieve a “pale, bald, Renaissance look,” as she explains in her memoir, Grace). Most women, however, use foundation for its stated purpose—and here is where my mystification begins. What kind is the best—liquid, mousse, spray, powder? How are you supposed to apply it? Why is it so hard to find the right color?

In order to answer these bedrock foundation questions, I quizzed makeup artists, Skyped with a foundation “expert” (yes, such a thing exists), stained collars, and tried every formula I could get my hands on. I even Googled “skin” (not recommended). I listened, took notes, went through a malt liquor-sized bottle of Bioderma makeup remover, and compiled my findings for ITG.

First, the fundamental observations:

Perfect skin is a status symbol
Wealthy people and celebrities have much better skin than non-wealthy, non-famous people. Not always, but in general. This is unfair and upsetting, but it makes sense—having access to facials, expensive skin products, and resourceful dermatologists will make anybody’s skin better. Based on observations, I can state that having perfect skin, in New York City, is the second most conspicuous status symbol, after walking around with an extremely large dog (which indicates a correspondingly enormous apartment).

The beauty industry should be more inventive with color labeling. Why are all my foundation shades “beige”? Nobody wants beige skin. Beige is for area rugs. What about Tawny Sawdust? Buttered Chipmunk? Ikea Bookshelf? All of these describe my skin tone more evocatively and memorably than “beige.”

iPhones and foundation are natural enemies
If you wear foundation, you are familiar with the skin-colored fuzz that sticks to your screen after a phone conversation. Disgusting. Can’t be prevented. [See photo 4.]

Trust not in waffle-face
Don't trust someone who has bad foundation to advise you on foundation. This is obvious in theory but counterintuitive when, for example, you stroll up to the YSL counter and find a beautiful employee who looks like she face-planted in waffle batter. Walk away.

Clarins has the best packaging
The foundation comes in a geometric golden container with a hidden compartment. It looks like an Egyptian treasure.

Has never made a difference for me.

The paradox of heavy coverage
If you wear matte heavy-coverage foundation in your everyday life, you’ll look like Tom Hanks in Polar Express. If you wear matte heavy-coverage on camera, you’ll look really nice. (See: the Kardashian women.)

The biggest difference between drugstore foundation and luxury foundation
…is that luxury foundation lasts longer.

Color is all
At the end of the day, it’s all about color—the shade. That’s it. That’s all that matters. Unless your skin is freakishly sensitive to certain ingredients, there’s no reason to avoid a certain brand if they make the right color for you.

Molly Young

Check back tomorrow for Foundation Week, Day 2: The Good Ones, the Bad, and the Ugly. (Or, The Results Are In!)

Molly Young photographed by Emily Weiss in New York. If you're looking for more Molly, read her Top Shelf and follow her on Twitter @magicmolly.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Nomadic D.

    I'm a total beauty geek (and geek in general - love the excel pie chart!) so I'm super excited for this series. My absolute favorite foundation so far is the Burberry Sheer Luminous Fluid, see here:

    but the other day I tried the Armani Maestro and just about keeled over wen I saw how amazing the texture was. Too bad it has a ton of potentially irritating alcohol in it... I wear foundation pretty much every single day, but I will say that I use it more as a lightweight sheer concealer, just in spots rather than all over. I feel like it looks more natural that way, and it's nice to see some bare skin as well. Of course this means that the texture and color have to be even more perfect than otherwise. But hey, it's worth it.

  • Sofia

    How wonderful! As it happend Im in for a new foundation/tintend moisterrizer! I got The Laura mercier silk Cream foundation just yesterday! I hope it came out The test as 'Good One' ! Becouse I have dry skin I am not quite sure about it...

  • Jody

    I'm really excited that you're writing for ITG, Molly. You are hilarious and you have this great way of cutting through any bullshit without ever being mean-spirited. On the subject of foundation, I love the Hourglass Veil Fluid foundation, but it's only amazing when you use it with the Hourglass buffing brush.

    • Molly Young


  • Nicky

    Givenchy photo perfexion is awesome! So is Bourjois Healthy mix, and a cheap thrill!

  • izee

    LOVE THIS! such a great read!! I can totally relate to the 'fundamental observations'

  • TinaOurWonderLust

    Great post! Super informative, smart and funny! Thanks

  • mickharper

    Will you be covering whether foundation increases breakouts? I had an issue when I was in a play in 8th grade, but maybe foundation has improved a lot since 1998. It was Fiddler on the Roof.

  • Morgan

    Can you do foundation recommendations the same way you did with the primers?

  • Shirin

    I've finally found a colour that matches my skin! But it makes my skin look lifeless.. I try mixing it with moisturiser on a brush when applying so it's bit more dewy but that can only go so far once it's set. I think the key to good skin is in the skincare, my skin finally took a turn when I started using Clinque Clarifying Lotion #2. Hopefully when my skin is to the condition i want it in I'll be able to get away with just a tinted moisturiser! Really well written piece, I had a few chuckles :)

    • fairytalesandcoffee

      mix it with a liquid highlighter/illuminator - pale gold seems to work with most skintones and if you are pale - pinky-silver, or pearl, toned highlighters work great, too. Becca in Moonstone or Lorac in Pearl 1. Luminizers are the best.

  • Bonnie Clyde
  • KoryKendrick

    Thanks so much for this! I am definitely not one of those girls that can get by without foundation -- thank you genetics!

  • Courtney – Mama’s Heels

    Fun read! I have always been hopelessly devoted to foundation and also get skin-envy of anyone who doesn't wear it.

  • Blij Vrouw

    The main difference between drugstore and high end is ingredient quality. Now, don't get me wrong, I definitely don't mean fancy sounding "active" ingredients or simple scarcity economics. What I mean by quality is where the ingredients are sourced, how they are processed, supervision of processing (to ensure consistency and prevent contamination), and method of stabilisation. Of course, not all high end brands are made alike but by simply reading the ingredient list and checking company history and ownership, people with sensitive skin can avoid a whole lot of dermatitic hell! --Cheers, the girl with freakishly sensitive skin

    • Miss Y.

      I'm not sure if what you're saying is entirely true because high end and drugstore brands are often owned by the same companies and share large parts of the technology, ingredients etc. Just like many luxury clothing brands are made in low-cost countries nowadays, or only had a small part of the production done in their resident country just to put it on their label...

  • Katie

    Foundation being called beige is like when you get ready, ask someone how you look and they say 'fine'. So far I love foundation week - my friends all go "why do you wear it, your skin is fine!" when in real life I have terrible spots and none of them have seen me without a full face since we were about fifteen. I'm in the market for some new products so excited to see the results!

  • KD

    Actually, safety in makeup is not a guarantee. I understand that's not the focus of this article, but it would be cool to be slightly less dismissive of it.

  • Sarita

    I have to say, you'd be surprised by the idea of not needing foundation. I wear foundation everyday for work, and on most weekends I'll wear it.

    Most recently (as in two weeks ago), I was out shopping with my mom and sister. I'd only put on a bit of eyeliner and Nars' Scarlet Empress (it was a deep berry kind of Saturday). At some point (after I'd passed a mirror and did the obligatory glance) I asked them, "Does it like I'm wearing foundation?" and they both said yes. That brought a smile to my face because they actually thought that my skin tone was even enough that they figured I was wearing foundation.

    Now, I like I said--I wear foundation to work and when I go out because I do really like it--but my mother's and sister's response was just the boost I needed to start believing that I don't NEED foundation; I just LIKE it...a lot.

  • Pixel_Queen

    Things that I find can't be stressed enough:

    If you are going to wear foundation (and I do -- every day) then for the love of heaven take it off at night. All of it! Get yourself a Clarisonic.

    If you are of color (and I am) save yourself some trouble and go directly to the NARS or Makeup Forever counters. Brace yourself and resolve to pay whatever they ask for a foundation that will change everything you've ever felt about foundation because it comes in colors for everyone.

    Don't skip the sunscreen. Ever.

    You can solve the phone issue by using a wired headset. Doctors are saying that we shouldn't be holding those phones next to our brains, anyway.

  • Poopy

    Can't wait til tomorrow! Eeeeeek!

  • bluesky557

    I am so pleased that you are doing a feature on foundation! I have coincidentally spent the last few weeks on a futile hunt for a new one, since my beloved Stila Natural Finish Oil-Free foundation has been discontinued (*sob*). I have tried a zillion new ones and nothing has worked, even the fancy and highly recommended Armani foundations. I await your results with bated breath!

  • Kristen

    FYI there are plenty of long-wearing drugstore foundations (Revlon ColorStay Whipped for one), and if you're finding that certain ones look heavy and terrible, did you try switching up your application method? Sure there are obvious differences in some drugstore vs. high end products but drugstore brands have been stepping up their game a LOT recently (also reflected in the annoyingly higher prices).

    And I know you said you were generalizing about perfect skin being a status symbol but it really doesn't have to be. You can achieve better looking skin with all drugstore products. My routine consists of witch hazel, Avalon Organics Vitamin C serum, Ponds Rejuveness moisturizer for the winter, RoC retinol serum for the night. The only thing I got at Sephora is my cleanser, Philosophy Purity Made Simple. You just have to do some research online and find people like you, find what's worked for them, find different ways of applying foundation, read reviews for them. It takes a little time for trial and error, everyone is different.

  • Stephanie

    The first observation "perfect skin is a status symbol" is so true, and is everything I've been thinking but couldn't put adequately into words. I long to be one of those "I don't wear foundation" girls.

  • Sara in America

    This might be dumb but could also talk about what ORDER to put everything on? Like, sunscreen, etc?

  • Jill

    Looking forward to reading the rest of Molly's series on foundation. I only wear Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer now so I will be curious how Molly finds foundations these days. Have her cover mascara next! I am always interested in mascara and am currently loving the new Le Volume de Chanel.

  • Guest

    yeah! i'm so excited to read this. i have graduated from laura mercier tinted moisturizer to armani's liquid foundation (both designer lift & luminous silk, haven't tried maestro yet). i found liquid foundation has better coverage and if applied well, it could achieve looking natural, healthy and clean. I am still searching the ultimate one/color!

  • thejulia

    I'm very excited for foundation week. Perfect skin is the goal but I'm all about faking it till making it. I'd like to echo two comments asking for more info:

    1) When do you put on sunscreen? Should it be included in primers or in the foundation?

    2) Can we please discuss product safety in more detail in a future post? There are a lot of all natural, good for you products out there, and I'd love to hear more about them. My 3 best friends got pregnant at the same time and in the midst of having hormonal acne, random discoloration, etc, they're discovering that they can't use a lot of the products they used to!

    • thejulia

      Also, I'd like to add: BB cream (which is basically tinted moisturizer, right?) Does ITG put this in the foundation category?

  • panglu

    10 points to molly!

  • Danni

    It's pretty hilarious that many of your foundation shades are called beige. As a woman of color, my foundation names are always related to foods ( toasted almond, deep honey, chocolate, chestnut, etc).

    • Molly Young

      Yum, your food-shades are so appetizing!! Pale food shades are disgusting (eggshell, bisque, etc)

    • fairytalesandcoffee

      Don't forget trees.....yellow toned ladies always get the golden treatment, while red-undertoned get the spice/desert-earth treatment.

  • Phoebe Lovatt

    Yay for Molly's excellent writing on ITG, and for her fearless use of the much-maligned exclamation point (in double doses, at that!!)

  • fairytalesandcoffee

    SOOOOO EXCITED! Yes, perfect skin IS a status symbol, kind of like being "naturally" thin. On the other hand, I find most women who go without are kidding themselves and DO NEED something for their uneven, sallow or flushed, if perfectly matte and clear skin. However, I rarely see individuals older than mid twenties with "naturally" perfect skin (that hasn't been obviously botoxed, stuffed, lasered to tight-shiny plastickyness). I start to notice faint lines/sagging in some and uneven tone in everyone else. A little skin obsessive aren't I? Can't wait to see if there are brands on the list I haven't tried. A few recs? Givenchy Eclat Matissme is great on oily skin, Stila's HD All Day Foundation looks amazingly skinlike and undetectable despite its heavy cream feel - buff that sucker in, Becca's Luminous Skin Colour offers the sheerest hint of glowing color for those who hate foundation, and Dior's Nude Glowing gives an amazing luminous skinlike finish with an incredible barely there feel. :) Also, I agree - I REALLY enjoy Molly Young's writing style. So engaging! Can't wait to read more of her contributions here.

  • D.A.

    Foundation for me is a source of conflicting feelings: it causes me to break out (every brand, Ive tried it all) but it also covers the redness on my T zone which is an absolute necessity for me. Ugh.

  • Loni

    I too cannot leave the house without foundation. And I agree when people say that they "don't wear foundation," its always because they don't need it and that makes me feel bad too! I used Laura Mercier Oil Free Tinted Moisturizer for ages, but ultimately when I went 'green' with my beauty products, I knew I needed to find another one, but still I clung to Laura Mercier's for ages even well into my green beauty adventures. That was until I found, Vapour Organic Luminous Foundation (the stick). Not only does it cover like a tinted moisturizer, but since using this 100% of the time I have had reduced breakouts (amazing reduction) which results in less product usage. So I've almost become one of those people, 'who don't need foundation,' but only with regard to needing to PILE IT ON, which looks so unsightly, basically a win-win. Seriously, I think conventional products even those that are "oil free" can clog pores. Switching to this product has made a dramatic change in my skin and made me feel way better about foundation in general.

    You can check out my review of the Vapour foundation here:

  • Joyce

    this is a great post! Well done. Can't wait to see what else is in store for foundation week! :)

  • azrakun

    Well, I can't wait for more! I started using BB cream (Dr. Jart+), because my bf keeps telling me I use too much make-up and it makes me old older. I know he doesnt have a clue at the end of the day, but i've also suspect it signifies I am not using the correct foundation! goosh... i NEED help...

  • Malena
  • Natalie

    Yes! ITG, thank you for getting Detective Molly Young on the case. (I feel like quoting the Olsen x Olsen mystery agency.) I'm a huge fan of her writing, always sparkling and humorous, never pandering. In fact, ITG is one of the few beauty websites with such a positive yet not dumbed-down tone.

    Thank you guys! And please cover Jemima Kirke and Audrey Gelman for your next Top Shelf posts :)

  • mccubcakes

    i have a silly question - but i never know if i SHOULD wear foundation. like you said, all those counter ladies pile it on and i just dont trust them. how do you know if you should...??

  • Christine P

    I use Revlon Colorstay and was a certified makeup artist for 7 years. ( I still do weddings and use Colorstay on all my brides). It does last, and it lasts perfectly. Don't spend more money on makeup than you have to. Drugstore brands are already practically putting high end brands out of business, because the quality is improving and the price is right.

  • Emily

    I love ITG too, but was surprised by the comments that make-up is totally safe now.... lead in lipstick is hardly a thing of ancient history and MANY (actually, MOST) brands still contains toxins and unsafe ingredients.

  • makeitwork

    Fabulous article Molly- love your writing!

    I am a foundation fiend! The golden moment is when someone asks if you're wearing foundation (on those days you've spent a good chunk of time priming, brushing, buffing etc) I might sometimes claim I don't... my bad.

    My top three:
    1. Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturier (a foundation-like coverage, it makes my splotchy skin look natural and flawless)
    2. Estee Lauder Invisible Fluid Makeup (lasts all day, feels like nothing, and covers the galaxy of acne on my cheeks)
    3. Maybelline Fit Me (I'm a bit of a makeup snob, but this foundation is light and beautiful, and lasts all day. Can be a bit shiny without translucent power though).

    Bottom three:
    1. Lancome Photogenic Lumessence (whilst it has the most beautiful doll-like finish, after a couple of hours I can actually feel its heaviness as it traps any fluid escaping from my skin. So uncomfortable I have to wash it off.)
    2. Estee Lauder Double Wear (whilst this has a cult following, for me it always ends up looking like a solid clay mass)
    3. Maybelline Super Stay Makeup. (Same thing as doublewear- has the consistency of glue, a strange grey-ish colour once it settles in, and leaves me with a bounty of pimples. boo!)

  • kat

    Ikea Bookshelf! I laughed out loud so hard.

  • Liisa

    Actually, safety in makeup is NOT a given. You may not know this, but there are no laws regulating what goes into personal care products such as makeup, hair products, and skin care products. And many companies use ingredients in their products that cause cancer, nervous system damage, organ toxicity, reproductive harm, and all sorts of terrible things. While mainstream and luxury brands are especially bad, many companies that brand themselves as "natural" also use dangerous ingredients in their products. And there is NO government oversight over these products. So there could still be lead or arsenic in your makeup, and it would be legal. This is a very serious safety concern, especially for people who use a lot of beauty products (like I'm sure many ITG readers do!). Since I learned about this, I have gradually switched all of the products I use to natural products that do not contain dangerous ingredients. Please check out to know more.

  • Liisa

    To join in on the actual conversation about foundation, Jane Iredale is a great brand for all-natural and non-toxic makeup. I currently use their Glow Time Mineral BB cream as my foundation, and I love it! I have dry skin, so the creamy formula works really well for me. It covers well, blends great, and matches my very pale skin perfectly. When I have it on, I can't tell I have it on except that my skin looks so much better! Jane Iredale also has a huge range of mascaras (I use their lengthening formula and I love that too), foundations, eye shadows, eye liner, etc. So switching to natural products doesn't mean settling for a lower-quality product. You just have to find the right products! (I think it's fun, kind of like a treasure hunt!) As for sunscreen, I use La Roche Posay's Anthelios 50 Mineral Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid. I put it on over my moisturizer but under my foundation. I mix the tinted and non-tinted so it's not whitening. I use a 100% mineral sunscreen instead of a chemical sunscreen because chemical sunscreens are dangerous (they increase the amount of free radicals in your skin as they break down) and cause my sensitive skin to burn and get all red and inflamed. It's so important to do your research before you buy. Some products by mainstream and luxury companies are completely safe, and some products by natural brands are totally toxic. One company often has products that are on both ends of the spectrum.

  • Janet Lee

    I like the IDEA of a primer because I have really oily skin, but they all feel so slippery and oily when i apply them.

  • Janet Lee

    Oh wait, I just read that there's a fragrance-free version of 8 hour cream. I'll definitely be trying that on my next visit to EA counter!

  • Vaida

    I found that the best foundation is mineral foundation. So far the best I found is LL.

  • Kerri

    " 'I don’t wear foundation' has always translated as 'I don't need foundation,' which turns into feelings on my part of sadness and embarrassment about needing foundation." That makes me feel very sad. I'm sure your skin is beautiful just the way it is. Nobody NEEDS foundation. Acne scars or acne? Just take care of the skin, they'll go away, it's okay to have imperfections showing. Nobody has perfect skin, it just can't happen, so spending thousands of dollars to try to paint it perfect is pointless. Make-up companies are clever with advertisements, though. They create a problem (imperfect skin) in your head, and then they offer a solution. On the other hand if you enjoy make-up for the artistic value or to get dramatic effects with fashion and photography, that's fine. But if you truly believe you NEED make-up in order to show your face in public, then I recommend giving yourself a good hard look in the mirror and asking yourself "why do I think I'm ugly?"