Foundation: Tips for People of Color

I am not a novice to the world of face makeup. When I saw my first pimple sprout from my forehead at the ripe age of ten, I began my never ending search for the proper solution to my acne- and while I was always an adamant believer in self-love, and the idea of accepting one’s own imperfections (although, is labelling what is “perfect” or “imperfect” the right way to promote self-acceptance either?), I wanted to feel confident, and being confident entailed putting my self- perceived “best” out there. Makeup became my saving grace.


I remember, vividly, the first time I’d ever had a real discussion or thought about face makeup. One of my cousins, Stephanie (who was, at the time, a makeup artist in Hong Kong) was discussing with her sister the pure fun of having a morning facial routine, and I’d overheard her say that she liked “painting her face” the most.

“What?” I’d asked. “Paint your face?” I thought of makeup as nothing more than eyeshadow and lipstick.

“Yes,” Stephanie responded. “Foundation. It’s like paint but it’s skin-colored, and you put it on your face so it covers up the skin underneath. Makes your face very smooth!”

Yeah. I really didn’t know what foundation was. I guess I was just less knowledgeable about makeup than the average, because that discussion preceded EVERYTHING: the research, the trips to the drugstore, the consultations at MAC, the trial and error after trial and error until trial and, finally, SUCCESS! But that success came after years of using incorrectly-matched foundation. Years of being too pale or too dark or too pink, and years of me getting very, very close to sending angry emails to the makeup brands that I had observed failed to make proper shades for my fellow folks of color. The world’s skin colors are not strictly divided into the categories “LIGHT”, “MEDIUM”, and “DARK”, so why do so many makeup brands build their foundations and concealers around that specific triplet of shades?

I’m Hong Kong American. While I am quite light skinned, I’m not the pink kind of light skinned you’ll find sitting in the shelves of most drugstores and makeup stands. I have yellow undertones. I’m not as light as “LIGHT”, but I’m not as dark as “MEDIUM”- so where do I stand? Ah, a question that I’ve heard from my other friends of color. Until Rihanna’s launch, my best friend didn’t have a color dark enough for her complexion. But what about all you baddies on a budget, who don’t have the money to try luxury foundation after luxury foundation? Well, good news: over a long span of makeup-purchasing experiences, I am here to help you, my fellow POC comrade, find your perfect cover-up!

1. Go to a beauty counter expert OF COLOR!

Experts know their shit. Well- some do. Look for a person of color to help you. I went for the first time when I was fifteen, and I’d been wearing foundation routinely for about five years before I even considered seeking the advice of a color expert.  

That took me long enough! Her choice was bomb (she was East Asian too!); I wear the same foundation (Nars Sheer Glow) to this day, and it didn’t require my having to flush money down the drain with each failed luxury makeup product. So I’m going to save you several years here by telling you now: go to someone who is supposed to know what’s up with makeup, and with your skin. Start there. Because if they’re PoC too, chances are that they’ve had first-hand experience with their own skin, and will be able to give you bona-fide, honest opinions on different products.


2. Test the jawline, not your hand.

Your hand and your face are different colors. Plus... I mean, it’s best to test the product on the real thing to get an accurate glimpse of what works. Your jawline is a perfect target for experimentation. Swipe a stripe of the foundation on there, and rub the product in completely so you can see how the foundation will look on your skin once blended out.

If you need to, ask the store for samples to take home!


3. Step into the sun! Stand next to a window!

Natural light is the best light for anything: it makes everything look so damn pretty, it reminds us of nature’s beauty, it’s best for taking selfies, and it’s THE foundation tester. In order to make sure the color works on your face, stand next to a window and let the beams shine (after lathering on LOADS of sunscreen, of course) as you apply the product to your skin. Diffused, neutral lighting allows you to see your complexion most clearly, without the influence of light-bulb tints and shadows.


4. Study your undertones.

Cool or warm? Yellow or pink? All of these factors you must consider as you choose the correct shade of foundation. Here is where light-medium-dark doesn’t work! The vast range of skin tones can’t possibly fit within the three colors some brands only offer. East Asian skin usually has yellow undertones, and whether you are cool toned or warm toned can be determined by your veins. Do your veins look blue? Try cooler toned foundations. Do your veins look green? Look for warmer.


5. Ask your family for advice.

Or anyone you know who will be honest with you. Getting another person’s perspective on things is always helpful. For me, there is nothing like Yeye (my grandfather) saying that my foundation is too light to get me to return to the lab!


6. Mix shades.

This is key for all my drugstore makeup lovers out there. Sometimes the colors of our skin can’t be limited to one bottle. Sometimes, the perfect shade is riiiiiight in the middle between two colors. Feel free to mix and match, because drugstore options can be limited, and when you buy something that doesn’t work, it’s a pain to have to throw the whole bottle away. High end and drugstore makeup brands aren’t all that different if you know a) where to look and b) what to look for. Some drugstores have makeup consultants to help you as well!


7. Consider the season.

Skin color changes with the season. When the sun is bright and shining in the summer (or in the winter, depending on where you are) your skin will change not only in color but in texture, dryness, greasiness, etc. You’ll need to account for these factors. Make sure that by the season you purchase a new foundation, or at least go into a store and test some out. I get ghostly, flaky, and especially yellow during the winter months, so it’s hard for me to match my paler, drier complexion with the less-yellow, more-brown shade that my skin naturally takes on in the summer when it’s dewy and constantly exposed to sun.


Because so many makeup brands cater to white skin, it is difficult to find shades that work for people of color. Luckily, all of the above tips can work for anyone. Yes, please test on your jawline! Yes, please consider the season! With regards to some factors like beauty counters and undertone study, you may or may not need to get more specific. In the end, the most important thing to do is research. I know: it’s frustrating to be surrounded by brands that cannot adapt to the world’s skin diversity. This problem is one (albeit minute) that accompanies a lot of problems people of color face in this age!

But I believe change will come if we fight for what we believe in. The colors brands pump out may change if we keep asking. And while we spend our time being kickass activists, they better know that we’ll stay looking POPPIN’ with what we’ve been given.