In its earliest iteration, foundation was known as “grease paint.” It was made from literal grease mixed with mineral pigments, and as you might imagine, it wasn’t exactly what anyone would call “skin friendly.” Thankfully, the cosmetics world has come a long way since the 1800s, but our associations between foundation and skin health have remained largely unchanged.
However, 200 years after foundation’s advent, it’s time to flip the switch on the theory that it’s bad for your complexion. Sure, there are some products that won’t work for certain skin types, and none of them are exactly great to leave on while you’re sleeping, but new formulas tap many of the same ingredients found in skin care these days, making them great options for those who previously felt like they couldn’t wear foundation. Here’s what you need to know about the formulas that will keep your skin happy.
The difference between water-based and oil-based foundation
There are two main types of foundation out there—water- and oil-based—each of which do slightly different things when you apply them to your skin. In general, “when you put foundation on, it has the ability to blur skin due to spherical powders, and has high coverage power due to pigments,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. This comes by way of either silicones, pigments, or film formers, which do different things to skin depending on the basis of the formula.
Let’s start with water-based foundations. Frequently found in both liquid and powder form, water-based foundations simply sit happily on the top layer of skin, without going deeper into pores, making them more breathable. Their color tends to come from silicone emulsions, which according to cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos are typically, “volatile” so they evaporate from the skin leaving behind a film of pigments instead of filling in pores. Because of this, they frequently have a slightly lower coverage capacity than oil-based foundations (your tinted moisturizers and BB Creams versus full-coverage stage makeup). As King explains, once water-based foundations are taken off, it’s like they were never even there to begin with, so you don’t have to worry too much about what they’re doing to your skin.
As for oil-based foundations, certain ingredients can get down into your skin, and that’s when problems arise. “When you wear foundation, or any other makeup that’s thick, it’s called ‘occlusive,’ and it’s going to create a sort of bandage over the opening of your sweat glands so that sweat can’t come out,” says board-certified dermatologist Nava Greenfield, MD. “And if sweat can’t come out from the glands onto the surface of the skin, it’s going to build up in the ducts and cause a pimple.” To avoid this issue when using oil-based formulas, keep an eye out pore-clogging culprits like lanolin, almond oil, mineral oil, coconut oil, says board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD
How to choose the right formula for your skin
Once you’ve decided which type of foundation formula best fits your facial needs, keep an eye out for a few other things for the sake of your skin. The term “non-comedogenic” on the label is a promising sign that a foundation won’t clog your pores, and Dr. Greenfield says that powders tend to reign supreme over liquid or solid formulations since they “don’t hug skin as tightly,” making them less occlusive. In general, alcohol should also be avoided because it “dries out the skin and disrupts natural oils that protect the outer layer of skin,” she says.
Beyond looking for formulas that aren’t bad for your skin, there are certain foundations on the other end of the spectrum that actually offer legitimate skin-boosting benefits. “Foundations can become a part of our skin-care routine and provide skin benefits to improve the quality of our skin on a longer basis,” says board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein, MD. “Some contain sunscreen, hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, peptides, and antioxidants to brighten skin and improve texture.” There are also formulas infused with acne-fighting ingredients, like salicylic acid, which help shrink pimples, while also covering them up.
But even armed with all of this knowledge, pros still want you to keep in mind that not everyone will react the same to every formula. “Everyone has different sizes and different concentrations of sweat glands—some of it is related to hormones, some of it depends on how old you are—so everyone is going to respond differently,” she says. “Some people can wear the heaviest foundations and have no problems, other people have very sensitive skin and can’t wear foundations on their faces at all.”
Just because you might be using the most skin-loving foundation on the market, you still need to be sure that you’re taking care of your skin properly before and after you wear it. “Wash your face with something gentle and moisturize well before putting on makeup, and make sure your moisturizer has absorbed before you apply,” says Dr. Greenfield. “If you’re going to wear something really heavy, make sure you wear it for as short of a time as possible. Wash it off afterward with a good makeup remover, then moisturize.”
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