The Best Foundation

Flawless color and buildable coverage that never looks cakey.

Foundation can feel like all risk and low reward. After all, when your foundation is truly perfect, it goes unnoticed. But the slightest bit off? The best-case scenario is a tinge of oompa loompa. And there are so many variables to get just right: the formula, the coverage, the shade. In the end, the best foundation is the one that effortlessly evens out your skin while looking natural and staying on all day.

In our search for the best, we rounded up 364 best-selling formulas, interviewed makeup artists, tried out shade-matching tools, and personally tested the finalists. More than 40 hours of research later, we’re confident in our picks: MAC Studio Face and Body Foundation (Best Sheer to Medium Coverage) and Estée Lauder Double Wear Stay-In-Place (Best Medium to Full Coverage).

The Two Best Foundations

Our Other Top Picks

How We Found the Best Foundation

Foundation, like all cosmetics, is personal. To choose one, you need to have not only a deep knowledge of your own skin — its shade, its undertones, its strengths and weaknesses — but also an opinion on what perfect skin is. Fresh and dewy? Pearly and luminous? Porcelain like a doll?

There are a few universals that make it easier, though, and that’s where we started.

We removed foundations with controversial ingredients.

“Controversial” is a purposely loose word: An ingredients list that makes one person shudder is shrugged off by another. To warrant being cut, ingredients had to increase the risk of skin irritation, clog pores, and/or increase the risk of sun damage.

    These ingredients include:

  • Formaldehyde releasers like diazolidinyl urea and quaternium-15
  • Cleansing agents like sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Pore-clogging fillers like mineral oil
  • Chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone and octinoxate
  • Retinoids like retinol, retinyl palmitate, and retinyl acetate

We removed foundations with fewer than 12 shades.

Women of color have historically been underrepresented in the beauty industry — especially in the foundation category — and in many ways still are. Case in point: The median number of shades offered by our original 364 foundations was only eight, which seems incredibly limiting given several brands offer upward of 40.

Makeup artists we polled didn’t have a perfect number of shades to make a “complete” line. One even said four was enough for her: As long as white, black, red, and a neutral are available, she can create any color. Most look for a minimum range of 12 to 15 shades, though, as long as they are evenly distributed from light to dark.

For a foundation that is medium to full coverage, I look for a range of 12-15 shades. It's important to have shades light and dark enough and in the right undertone; cool, neutral and warm. That way any person can find a good match.

We removed foundations without at least an average 4-star rating across Sephora, Nordstrom, Ulta, and Amazon.

Consumer ratings and reviews aren’t a perfect science (remember, makeup is personal). On the plus side, they are good indicators of which foundations are doing it right. Unfortunately, they are even better indicators of which foundation lines have changed something, be it a formula update or revamping of shades. We tried not to let ratings that compared old with new affect our cuts unless we got a strong sense that a change was truly for the worse.

Foundation Reviews and Testing

The first rule in foundation: Color is everything. The second rule in foundation: Color is everything.

Before we started our hands-on testing, we’d already whittled our list of formulas down to 63. To find our finalists, we consulted with professional makeup artists, cosmetic chemists, and the President and CEO of Focal Point Research, Rob Ross-Fichtner. We also analyzed “Best Of” roundups; combed through user comments; tuned into YouTube for tips; and tested both online and in-person shade matching before trying the formulas ourselves.

Until you land the perfect shade, the other rules of foundation (the right formulation, the right application) can wait. You’ll know your shade is right when your face and chest look like they are part of the same body. Even better: Hold your hand up to your face. Do they look like they belong to the same body?

Armed with products in our exact shade matches, we started test-wearing formulas for normal-to-combination skin. We incorporated them into our daily beauty routines and wore them all day — sometimes even two at once, split right down the middle — to find which effortlessly evened out skin tone, looked natural, and stayed put.

Our Picks for the Best Foundation

Best Sheer to Medium Coverage

The most noticeable thing about MAC’s Face and Body Foundation is its consistency. At first touch, it feels like wiping colored water on your face, which is strange if you’re used to a creamier formula — but it’s also quite refreshing.

It’s water- and silicone-based — and therefore smooth and slippery to apply — and it’s best known for its film formers, the ingredients that help create that “second skin” effect. You can start to feel the film formers set as you work the foundation onto your face, which is why using your fingers to apply (as opposed to a brush or sponge) works best.

Once Face and Body is on, it’s there to stay, through rain, sweat, tears, and turtlenecks. It dries to a satin finish, which in makeup is the closest you’ll get to “natural” — a light sheen, but not full-on dewy. As makeup artist Chelsey Matley put it, “It feels like nothing, but is incredibly long-wearing and photographs so well.”

Who is it best for?

Like with tinted moisturizer, sheer coverage is great for anyone with naturally good skin, or who is prepared to do some extra concealing once it’s applied.

Who should skip it?

There are no ingredients that will exacerbate acne or clog pores, but the level of coverage and satin finish won’t do much for anyone trying to mask skin problems. While you can layer Face and Body to a more medium coverage, it is never going to disguise major blemishes, hide large pores, or block oil. Face and Body also includes parabens, preservative ingredients we feel comfortable recommending, but we’re aware they aren’t for everyone.

Best Medium to Full Coverage

Is there such a thing as iconic foundation? If so, Estée Lauder’s Double Wear Stay-in-Place Makeup reigns: an oil-free, wear-proof foundation that builds from medium to full coverage and lasts — and lasts.

Heavier-coverage foundations have a reputation of going on thick and intensely pigmented. Double Wear doesn’t. With a water and silicone base, it slips on sheerer than you’d expect — you can still see freckles — and it sets almost immediately. That’s where the “buildable” comes in: Smoothing it on with fingers or a brush gives instantaneous medium coverage, while stippling with a flat-top brush or sponge creates increasingly full coverage over blemishes, acne scars, and discoloration. As long as you’re careful to keep blending, cakiness won’t be a problem.

It has a matte finish that’s still realistic — more velvet than porcelain — and the advertised “15 hours of wear” doesn’t appear to be a PR team’s lie. In fact, several reviewers recommend double cleansing because it can be challenging to remove.

Who is it best for?

Double Wear has universal appeal. Its non-acnegenic formula won’t clog pores and the gentle matte finish delays oil from breaking through. Buildable coverage feels light and doesn’t wear like a mask. It also convincingly disguises skin imperfections and there are 30 shades to choose from.

Who should skip it?

There’s really no one Double Wear can’t work for. Its biggest downside? The bottle doesn’t come with a pump; you have to pour it out.

Other Foundations to Consider

Best Drugstore Foundation

Boasting an Allure Reader’s Choice stamp of approval, this drugstore favorite includes broad spectrum SPF 17 across most of its wide selection of 33 shades. It claims to be light to medium buildable coverage, but we found it started closer to medium (to sheer it out, try applying with a damp sponge). It has a matte, almost powdery finish that feels lightweight, but will dry already dry skin — if that’s a concern, prep with a moisturizer. Also, if you have strong feelings about parabens, this is one to avoid.

Best Foundation for Dry Skin

A longtime cult favorite, MUFE’s Ultra HD went through a formula change that sent many devotees reeling, but we love the expanded shade selection (40!) and humectant ingredients that help hydrate. Its satin finish keeps drier skin looking dewy and plump, although those with very dry skin will want to pair it with a rich moisturizer. This formula does include fragrance, which Susan Raffy, president and cosmetic chemist at Susan Raffy Consulting, notes “is responsible for 99 percent of reactions.” But we feel comfortable recommending it for anyone with less sensitive skin.

Best Foundation for Oily Skin

A super-mattifier that goes on wet and quickly sets to a powdery finish. It’s infused with cashmere kaolinite clay, so it pulls double duty as both an oil absorber and a full-coverage foundation, and has 16 shades to choose from — although some negative reviews claim a formula change has increased yellowish undertones.

Best Foundation for Mature Skin

Every makeup artist we spoke with shies away from powder foundations for looking too cakey and unnatural, but many do use it to finish off a look. Makeup artist Erin Skipley recommends powders for mature skin, “Powder foundation is not often easy to blend, but when applied sparingly, it can enhance the skin without creasing.” MAC Studio Fix Powder Plus Foundation boasts an incredible 46 shades and a medium-coverage, matte finish.

We also liked Estée Lauder Double Wear Light Stay-In-Place Makeup a lot — it’s the little sister of our top recommendation — a sheerer option with a natural satin finish. Its 10 shades meant it didn’t make our final cuts, but according to Erin Skipley, “a sheer foundation or tinted moisturizer can feel complete with fewer.” Another makeup artist on our panel, Katya Gudaeva, recommended its staying power for mature skin, “It’s light and natural looking, but won’t sweat away — which is especially important if you are having hot flashes.”

Our Research

364 foundations considered
6 experts interviewed
57 makeup remover wipes used
40 hours of research
7 formulas personally tested

What You Need to Know About Foundation

How to Find the Right Shade

Nearly every brand that sells foundation online uses a similar quiz to pair you with a shade: Do you sunburn easily? Are the veins on the insides of your wrists bluish, greenish, or bluish-greenish? Which woman pictured looks the most like you? The results end up being incredibly inaccurate because the questions aren’t easy to answer and aren’t nearly as nuanced as the color of your skin.

Some brands, including Cover Girl and Cover FX, use more robust online shade-matching technologies, inviting you to upload a headshot and virtually try on different colors. This seemed genius until we tried Embrace Your Face by CoverGirl. Whether it was poor photo quality, bad lighting, or technology that’s not quite there, the perfect shade online ended up being a few tones too deep in real life.

CoverGirl’s Embrace Your Face matching program seemed cool, but the shade it recommended was too dark when we tried it on in real life.

In-person shade matching is preferable by far. The best part: If you’re at a department store or beauty shop, you can try on as many brands and formulations as you want.

Sephora adds technology to the beauty specialist approach: its team members have a special camera to take pictures of your forehead, cheek, and neck, and then map them to its Color IQ shade library, a matrix of 110 skin tones. In just a few iPad taps, you can see every foundation Sephora has to offer that fits your skin tone. A Sephora makeup artist will swatch whichever you pick on your jawline to prove it’s a match, and then send you on your way. Fast, easy, accurate.

At department stores, you’re typically relying on the expertise of whoever is manning the beauty counter to pick the right shades to swatch (although the Estée Lauder counter has started using the same camera and matching system as Sephora). In our experience, they are usually spot-on, but horror stories of pushy salespeople with pancake-batter foundation do exist.

Once you have a solid shade match, websites like Match My Makeup, Temptalia, and Findation can potentially help find equivalent shades in other brands and formulas, but we find them finicky: Their databases can be outdated; they don’t have matches for certain lines; or their recommendations aren’t guaranteed. Take a look at Temptalia’s recommended equivalent of MAC Face and Body Foundation in N2: the paler, cooler L’Oréal True Match Super Blendable Makeup in Classic Ivory. Our take? Not quite, Temptalia. Not quite.

Not a match: MAC Face and Body Foundation in N2 vs. L’Oréal True Match Super Blendable Makeup in Classic Ivory

This makes getting shade matched with drugstore foundations sound impossible: How many Walgreens have a makeup artist on staff to swatch you? The good news is drugstores are surprisingly accommodating about returning used cosmetics. Just remember to keep your receipts.

How to Choose Your Level of Coverage and Finish

Finding a foundation is a lot like finding a favorite pair of jeans: There are lots to choose from; everyone has an opinion on what looks best; and it ultimately comes down to what makes you feel confident.

Choosing a finish is a personal preference, although a good baseline rule is to combat oily skin with a matte finish and give drier skin more radiance with a dewy finish. Natural, satin, and luminous finishes are all pretty synonymous — a light sheen halfway between dewy and matte — although luminous foundations might also include skin-brightening ingredients.

Coverage comes down to how much of your real skin you want to mask. The heavier the coverage, the more natural texture and radiance (what makes skin look like skin) you’re losing.

Foundation vs. Primer vs. Concealer

Foundation should even out skin tone. That’s it. Depending on the formula, you will also get help disguising blemishes, for example, or adding radiance, but that’s really the job of primers and concealers.

Makeup primers act just like paint primers: They fill in lines, gaps, and holes to create a smooth surface to apply foundation. For a long time, moisturizers performed this role, and very much still can if you have a routine that works. The plus side to primers is that they can act as the first line of defense for specific problem areas. Are you super oily? Grab one that creates a mattifying base. Too dry? Find one that seals in moisture.

Concealers come in two forms, but both are designed to cover imperfections that are still visible after your foundation is all set. Some work by brightening dull or dark skin, like under-eye shadows, while the rest are basically super-pigmented, intensely full-coverage foundations that you dot on to further mask blemishes, spots, and redness.

6 Tips for Flawless Foundation

  • Pick your tools. Brush, sponge, or fingers? It’s up to you — just keep one clean for blending.
  • Prep your skin. The goal: smooth, but not slick. If you’re oily, that might mean using a mattifying primer. Dry skin? Try a light moisturizer.
  • Find the light. Doing foundation in bright light helps prevent splotches, missed bits, and an unblended jawline.
  • Start in the middle. Blending from the center out means your foundation will be lighter and look more natural around your hairline.
  • Mind your brows. Cakey eyebrows are a foundation faux pas. Save the skin around them until the end when your brush is almost dry — and proceed with caution.
  • Blend. A lot. Grab a dry kabuki brush or use the clean side of a sponge and keep blending. Pay special attention to your hairline, jawline, and eyebrows. Your foundation should be imperceptible.

Take Action

  • Learn your skin. Finding foundation is less overwhelming when you know exactly what your skin looks like — and what you want it to look like. Examine your skin close up in really bright light and be honest about its strengths and weaknesses. Is your acne all over or just in certain spots? Is your face darker or lighter than your chest? Use this knowledge to determine what “perfect skin” means to you.
  • Find your shade. Whether you head to the nearest department store for help or buy out the corner drugstore and try a bunch at home, nailing your color is critical. Good luck!
  • Start testing formulas. Drugstore or prestige? Liquid or powder? Sheer or full coverage? Your foundation options are endless and the best way to find what works for you is to try more than one. Our tip: Ask for free samples.