A Primer on Makeup Primers


When it comes to makeup primers, our thought has always kind of been “...great, but do you really need one?” And not in the “I don’t need this because it’s a luxury item,” way (because, let’s face it, we’re kind of all about the occasional luxury pick-me-up). Rather, it's because, in between all the cleansing/clarifying/moisturizing skin-centric good times we already perform on a daily basis, we just weren’t sure an extra step, another layer, was necessary, especially since most of us don’t regularly wear foundation. But then last November, the New York Times wrote about “appearance-conscious women” and their increasing devotion to primers, calling the products “The Spanx of cosmetics.” Are they trying to trick us? We wondered, They know we love Spanx—the “they,” in this case, is The Man. We decided to delve deep and friends, we don’t think they are.

Consider the act of painting a wall or canvas: you prime that sucker with a layer of thin white liquid (some sort of paint mixture or gesso, for those art-school grads) before you go in with the real stuff, so as to make sure the color is uniform, surfaces are even and non-porous, and you don't get any weird patches. Makeup primers essentially do the same thing: they even out your skintone, mask pores, help your makeup stick longer, and create a barrier between your foundation and your skin. (Plus, most of them offer additional bells and whistles than your regular moisturizer, as you shall soon see below.) So, whether you wear foundation all-day/every day or never do/never want to: we’ve got primers for everyone, should you be so inclined to test the waters. Because all of you deserve to have perfect canvases, if you want to get your paintin' on.

Feast your eyes on our picks:

Do you want to look airbrushed? Like, Kardashian-makeup-airbrushed? Because then it's a tie between L'Oréal's new Revitalift MiracleBlur (which advertises itself as 'More Than a Primer' and actually, we're not even kidding, leaves you looking like you travel with Oprah's lighting team thanks to something called Opti-Blur Technology, and Sephora's regularly-best-selling Perfekt Skin Perfection Gel in Translucent. Both products offer essentially the same effect: like you've got a re-toucher not only on speed dial but, you know, magically working their skills on you in real life. They're transparent, slightly gelatinous (Perfekt) or waxy (L'Oréal), thicker than most of the other primers, and mattifying, for a silky finish. You'll be camera-ready no doubt, but might look a little intense to your officemates. These don't conceal blemishes, but they do seem to make pores less visible, and our makeup went on smoothly afterwards, though one would have to be careful not to veer too far towards "cakey." The silicone-based MiracleBlur's aim is to replace your moisturizers and your serums and your anti-aging treatments (and it has SPF 30, the highest out of this group), but the most remarkable thing about it is how actually blurry it makes your skin look, like someone has smeared vaseline over the lens of the world (soft focus!) and you're Greta Garbo. Or something. You'll notice a difference right away, but you can definitely feel it on your skin.Perfekt is also packed with antioxidants and vitamins, and is oil-, fragrance-, and paraben-free—though the air-pump takes a little time to figure out. Both keep your foundation fresh for longer and are worth a look if you're feeling serious about the whole affair. Perfekt comes in tints, too, if you'd like to replace the foundation step altogether, though concealer w0uld still be required for spots and blemishes.

Do you want big results with little effort? Hourglass Veil Mineral Primer is one of those products that, if we didn't include, everyone would be asking us, "Why not?!" because it's that good. It's also free of oil, fragrance, and parabens, has SPF 15, and is extremely lightweight and works for all skin types (oily, dry, you name it). It absorbed the color of our foundation beautifully with a dewy, natural finish, and we found that if we used it bare-faced under strategic concealer, it held the cover-up in place all day and left us looking rather well-slept (lies! Beautiful lies!). It absorbs in a flash and there's no greasy after-feel, only silky, good ol' great skin.

Are you more of a skincare-type, but want to try something slightly different? Clarins Instant Smooth Perfecting Touch is a makeup base and a primer in a little red tub that feels thicker than our other picks, but goes on creamily, melting into your skin and helping conceal unevenness in skin texture or otherwise prominent pores. Skin feels fresh, smooth, soft. To the touch, it's more like a balm and less like a lotion.

Do you have dry skin? Laura Mercier Hydrating Foundation Primer is moisture-rich and conditioning, non-comedogenic and very nourishing (vitamins A, C, and E, don'tcha know). They advise keeping it in the fridge for a refreshing, puffiness-reducing jolt. We concur.

Are you concerned about skin discolorations? Dermablend SkinPerfector Pigment Correcting Primer is professional-grade stuff (they're known for their tattoo-concealing makeup) but gentle enough for everyday use, employing something called "Ceramide White with LHA," which targets excess melanin (sunspots, etc.). And, it's hydrating, to boot. It helps your makeup stay put for longer (they know a thing or two about long-term coverage, ahem, check out one of their spokesmen, Zombie Boy aka Rick Genest), but requires an extra minute to dry, compared to the other formulas.

Would you define your skin as 'mature?' No shame in it. Urban Decay's classic Complexion Primer Potion (now targeted at "Brightening & Tightening")  not only brings us back to our Delia's-lovin' days of the '90s—that bottle! That brand! Our scrunchies are in a twist—but it packs a pretty serious, skin-prepping wallop. It's lightweight, doesn't feel greasy, and reduces the appearance of wrinkles using something called Matrixyl 3000, which would worry us (robot?), except it works pretty damn well. Ideal for mature skin. Or immature skin, really.

Are you terrified about the day you're going to have to describe your skin as 'mature?' Smashbox is on it with their Photo Finish Foundation Primer SPF 15. It's been a longtime favorite, and now comes with antioxidants, vitamins, and sun protection. Smashbox makes a lot of primers, but this one was our favorite of the bunch: it took makeup (foundation) like a champ, and pores, lines, and creases seemed less noticeable, and our skin seemed softer.

Lest you think we’re neglecting your more specific needs—or  you’re only really interested in priming in pieces: Urban Decay makes a slightly tacky-feeling (as in stickyLip Primer Potion that prevents your lipstick from feathering or bleeding out and keeps it bright and in fine fighting form. Professional-grade brand Kryolan (their makeup was used to transform Hallie Berry into multiple characters/races/genders in Cloud Atlas) has an Eye Shadow Primer that works wonders if you don't like your shadow creasing and fading. With a swipe of the primer on each lid, bright powders blend easily, last long, and appear more vibrant. Totally worth it if you’re going to mess around with a serious eye.

Need we say more? Welcome to prime time.

Photos by Elizabeth Brockway.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • http://nomadic-d.blogspot.com/ Nomadic D.

    What a great collection of mini-reviews! Loved this article. I've never been much of a primer girl, for the same reasons stated here, I just thought I was being tricked into thinking it was necessary, and that if I could save a layer it would be better for me. But now you have me rethinking things! The blur effect sounds pretty cool, I have to say I always felt like that's exactly the effect I got from Armani's Face Fabric foundation, which goes on so sheer some people do use i as a primer. I always thought of it as a slightly photoshopped look, in the best way. Now I'm kind of addicted to Armani's Light Master Primer, not for any of its priming capabilities per se, but for it's luminizing factor. Pretty awesome for natural glowiness. Definitely going to check out the Hourglass Veil now though. Also gets high marks over on Paula's website, which is my go-to place before I try something new.


  • http://twitter.com/KateSouthSays Kate South

    I definitely used to think that primers were unnecessary, but after getting a few samples in the past 6 months (Urban Decay, Laura Mercier), I can see why people use them. They smooth the skin and my foundation goes on a little easier.

  • Misses Robinson

    Now we need some foundations that work and a lesson on concealer.

    • ITGNick

      Oh, you just wait... We've got something cooking at this very moment!

      • Jared

        Could a boy potentially wear primer as an SPF that makes your skin look better? Is that a thing?

        • http://lerablogs.blogspot.com/ Lera

          It's just from my experience, but as soon as I got Miracle Blur, my boyfriend grabbed it, used it, and said his wrinkles diminished. I haven't tried it myself, yet.

  • Y.

    I have sensitive dehydrated skin that looks like oily on most days. I have two problems with silicone based products: they strip me off moisture (I use cream and a moisturizing serum + lotion) and make dry patches of skin become even plus (really a minus) they cause milia. If you've ever had those nasty white bumps - you'd want to avoid primers. I have not yet given up the idea of using primers and would love to hear any advice from a similar sensitive-dehydrated-milia-prone skin girls.
    Now I am really content with my BB cream and Nars highlighter, combined they seem to produce a very nice "airbrushed" effect described in the article. Though you can see the pores (which I don't mind).

    • ws

      what kind of BB cream do you use? looking for one for sensitive skin!

  • http://www.getmadcute.com/ MADCUTE

    Great post! I love the Clarins. Another great one along the same vein is Shu Uemura's Stage Performer. Can't love without it!

  • npr

    I like primers, but I haven't found one that plays well with the Armani Maestro foundation -- it tends to flake horribly. Any recs?

    • edie

      Yup. See above.

    • ITGElizabeth

      You're in luck! I use Armani Maestro also and used the Laura Mercier Hydrating Primer with it this morning and had no flaking issues to report

  • fairytalesandcoffee

    intensely dislike primers...until I used Hourglass' no. 28 serum. Have a bunch of mini primers and regular primers I got to go through before will use no. 28 serum now. very difficult to layer: antioxidant serum, moisturizer, sunscreen, primer, and then foundation. so I just cut that primer out...many asian sunscreens can double as primer....

  • Loni

    I break out a ton from primers because they often contain silicones, or any type of 'cones.'It is really hard to find one that does not have those ingredients I found that this one by Korres (http://oneproductatatime.com/2012/11/12/prime-suspect/) is the best. It never makes me break out and helps my makeup stay on much longer. Also, there is one by Lorac which is water based, but I find that that just does not work well as a primer at all. Th korres primer is where its at for acne prone skin.

    • Loni

      Whoops, this link goes to the review of the Korres Primer, http://oneproductatatime.com/2012/11/12/prime-suspect/

    • heather

      I also have this problem. The Hourglass one in particular made me break out like crazy. I have a Nars primer that seems okay...I don't use it every day, though, so it's hard to say. I do think it has 'cones, but it also said it was non-comodegenic....

  • Nicole

    I love primers! I usually use the Nars primer, but recently switched to the Almay primer (the one with the green/purple corrective swirl) and I really like it. I have sensitive skin and I haven't had any breakouts so far

  • http://twitter.com/lolo_elena Logan

    I just started using Dermalogica's AGE smart skinperfect primer and I really enjoy it! It's slightly tinted and can be worn alone (nice for weekend mornings) and feels very light going on. I'm 28, but my mom's BFF recommended it and she looks fantastic, so.

    • edie

      Yes! This is wonderful stuff. I do wear foundation (Armani Maestro when I need to look like I care) but can go nicely with just this and a little concealer. I've already begun stockpiling it--a sure sign of my affection.

  • http://twitter.com/lolo_elena Logan

    Oh, it's also SPF 30.

  • Cay

    I love Laura Mercier. She can do no wrong with skin makeup.

    I also love Rimmel's primer, if you're looking for one that is seriously mattifying. It's a slightly alarming color out of the tube (orange), but it completely blends into your skin and keeps oil at bay all day.

  • Sofía Valanci

    Mainfashi's primer by KohGenDo is also super good and highly recommend it!

  • Ana

    where does clarins flash balm fit in to all this

  • Em

    Could we get an eye cream debate, similar to the lip balm round table? Best creams for younger eyes and older eyes, day and night use, eye masks... ?

  • jennifer

    Great article and information!


  • Mary

    Have you tried the #28 primer serum from Hourglass too? Talk about amazing for dry and mature skin...it has 24 different essential oils, and 4 vitamins...you can use it as a night serum (eyes and face) and during the day as a primer!!

  • Sophia

    What about the favorite you've gushed so much about in previous posts, Emily? Sunday Riley Effortless Breathable? It's definitely more of the skincare / minimalist makeup look, but technically it is a primer as well. Would love to hear how you feel they compare to your picks above. Great post!

  • anu dean

    very informative. Thank you very much.



  • KathS

    Please, none of y'all love spanx.

  • Liza

    Great post! I also love the Too Faced Primed and Poreless. It gives a really flawless, smooth finish and has retinol in it to help with breakouts.

  • Shimmy

    I tried to get on the primer bandwagon, but realized pretty quickly that the silicone in them was making me break out. Now they frighten me.

  • RR

    soo...Sunday spa day? ITG?? maybe want to let us know when you flake out?

    • ITGNick

      No flaking! It's back!

  • Jennm

    What happened to Sunday spa day???

    • ITGNick

      It's back! Check out the new post. And next week's is amazing, too...

  • Tim

    Is this like something a boy could wear by itself?

    • chicnoir

      Yes Tim, a guy could wear primer, no issues for smooth looking skin. SPnation on Youtube gives makeup rundown

  • Maria

    Very well written. I love how comprehensive the reviews were (very specific descriptions!), kudos!

  • Satya

    Great article on primers! You can find all natural primer at Glam Girl Naturals Cosmetics online, and they have many other great natural products, all of which are gluten-free, vegan, and cruelty-free. Great line, you should try them if you are looking for a non-abrasive, natural primer.

  • http://twitter.com/polyvorous Jane T.

    For lip primers, I also really love Guerlain's Kiss Kiss Liplift -- even just for wear on it's own!

  • Bobbi J

    I LOVE Laura Mercier's primer…I prefer a lightweight foundation so it creates a perfect base for my skin.