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A Guide to Makeup Foundation Formulations

Makeup foundations come in a huge variety of formulations, including liquids, creams and powders. Within each type of formulation, there is a huge variety of colours, finishes and coverage. Many foundation products also provide “extra benefits” such as moisturising ingredients, oil control, line-diminishing properties or have a SPF factor. It is quite bewildering! Here’s our look at the different types of formulations used in foundation products.

A good makeup foundation product that has been properly selected for your skin type and tone should create a lovely, flawless base for the rest of your makeup application. In a nutshell, a good foundation should:

  • Help to even out the skin tone;
  • Help to cover inconsistencies in the skin’s pigment;
  • Blend seamlessly down the face and neck;
  • Create a decent base on which you use all other makeup products, including eyeshadow and blusher;
  • Last a reasonable length of time without creasing, rubbing off or moving easily.

Types of Makeup Foundation Formulations

Liquid Foundation

This is the main type of foundation to be found on the cosmetics market. They come in a huge variety of finishes, colours and can come with various different benefits. This means that there is one to suit just about anyone’s skin type and tone.

  • Formulation – A creamy liquid product that comes in either a bottle, often with a pump dispenser, or in a squeezy tube. Various types are available, including oil-free, oil-based, silicone-based, mineral-based or water-based.
  • Skin Type – Liquid foundations are made for all skin types. For example, oil-based foundations are better suited to drier skins. Likewise, water-based products contain less oil (and can even be oil-free) so suit an oily, blemished or combination skin better, as do the oil-free foundations.
  • Finish – Products are available with everything from a matte finish to various levels of sheen. To matte down a foundation, use face powder, which also sets the foundation. Some finishes relate to the formulation, for instance an oil-free product is more likely to be matte.
  • Coverage – All levels of cover are available, from sheer to full.
  • Application – Apply with a foundation brush or damp makeup sponge. Blend edges away down the neck and into the hairline. Use pressed or loose face powder to set or matte down.
makeup foundation formulations
Just a tiny example of liquid foundation, which comes in a huge variety of colours and finishes.


  • Formulation – A thin liquid product, as it is designed to be applied with an airbrush gun. They are either alcohol-, water- or silicone-based. They last very well, making them great for film, TV and bridal applications. Airbrushed makeup also does well in humid, hot or wet conditions.
  • Coverage – Airbrushing (when applied correctly) provides a lovely sheer coverage without hard edges, so it great for high definition and photographic work. It can be built up for more coverage.
  • Packaging – Available in small to large plastic bottles with a narrow dropper in the top to control how much product is used. Small bottles are a great size for the makeup kit, as you can carry a wide range of colours in a fairly small space.
  • Application – These products are designed to be sprayed through an airbrush gun, though they can be applied with a brush or sponge too (though bare in mind that some formulations dry really quickly). In an airbrush, only a few drops are needed to cover the whole face, so it can be an economical way to apply foundation. For this kind of application, it is advisable to do a short course on airbrush application, which should cover how to look after the airbrush gun, as well as all health and safety aspects.
Airbrush products come in little bottles and are applied with an airbrush gun.

Cream Foundation

  • Formulation – A thick, smooth cream that comes in a pot or a compact. Can get compacts that have various colours in them – very useful for the set bag or for contouring options. Can be water-based or oil-based. Some products have a cream-to-powder formulation.
  • Coverage – Medium to full. Mix with a primer to sheer it down.
  • Application  – Dot a little onto your nose, cheeks, chin and forehead and blend out using a foundation brush or a damp makeup sponge. Work and blend the foundation outward into your hairline and down onto your neck. Cream foundations usually needs setting with powder, except the cream-to-powder formulations.
makeup foundation formulations
Cream foundations come in compacts, either as individual colours or with various colour options.

Loose Mineral Foundation

  • Formulation – A finely-milled loose powder that comes in a sifter pot. It consists of just a few mineral ingredients and usually has no fragrance or preservative.
  • Skin Types – Good on most skin types. Very dry skin may find it looks too dry on the skin. Mineral foundation is less likely to cause an allergic reaction or create any sensitivity issues. However, bismuth oxychloride is a controversial ingredient found in some brands and is linked to causing issues for those with sensitive skins. Most people won’t be bothered by it, but if you have sensitive skin, it is best to avoid those products that include this ingredient.
  • Finish – Natural sheen or matte. A finishing mineral product can be used over the top of the mineral foundation to matte down the skin.
  • Coverage – Can be used to create various coverage from sheer to full.
  • Application – Applied with a Kabuki brush or square-topped foundation brush. A little powder is put into the product’s lid and the brush swirled into the product to pick a little up. Then, buff and swirl the foundation into the skin – keep working it until you have the coverage required. 
  • Read our in-depth look at mineral makeup.
makeup foundation formulations
Mineral foundation comes in a variety of colours for all skin tones. It is best applied by being buffed into the skin with a kabuki brush.

Mousse or Whipped

  • Formulation – An extremely light and airy foundation that has the consistency of a fluffy, creamy mousse. Feels light on the skin.
  • Skin Type – Suitable for most skin types. Works well for oily skin.
  • Finish – Matte or with a dewy look sheen.
  • Coverage – Light to medium.
  • Packaging – Comes in a pot, in a bottle with a pump dispenser, or as an aerosol spray which foams up as the product is released.
  • Application – Due to the micro air bubbles in the formulation, it is easy to apply with a damp makeup sponge or foundation brush. You can also use your fingers. Some formulations go to a soft powder finish, meaning they don’t need powdering to set or finish.

Pancake Foundation

  • Formulation – A solid, dry product that is activated by water in order to apply.
  • Skin Types – Not so good for dry skin as cake makeup can be very drying.
  • Finish – Matte.
  • Coverage – Heavy, so is used primarily in theatre or in body painting rather than for everyday wear.
  • Application – Spritz the cake with water to activate it and to keep it moist when applying. Then use a damp makeup sponge, and really blend it well on the skin. It can be streaky if not applied quickly and buffed in. Doesn’t need powdering to set.

Pressed Powder

  • Formulation – A solid, dry powder cake that comes in a compact, often with an application sponge tucked away somewhere.
  • Skin Type – Not the best option for very dry or flaky skin as the powder can emphasis the dryness. Good for combination or oily skin.
  • Coverage – Light, medium or full.
  • Application – Apply dry with a powder brush for a light coverage. Use a dry makeup sponge for a medium to fuller coverage. It can also be mixed with a little water to apply it wet, which gives good coverage.
makeup foundation formulations
Pressed powder examples, including a refill and in a compact.

Stick Foundation

  • Formulation – A thick and solid cream foundation that comes in a tube. Hence why it’s called “stick foundation”.
  • Coverage – Fuller coverage. Can even be used as a concealer.
  • Application – Apply with a damp makeup sponge and blend outwards into the hairline and down onto the neck. Usually needs to be powdered to set unless it is a cream-to-powder finish.

Tinted Moisturiser

  • Formulation – A creamy liquid foundation that has emollient (moisturising) properties with a hint of colour. You can also make your own – simply mix a bit of regular liquid foundation into a little moisturiser. There are oil-free versions and some have a SPF rating.
  • Skin Types – Good for dry skin that needs a bit of moisturising without heavy coverage. Good for skin that only needs a little coverage (minor blemishes can be concealed separately). For oilier skin types, go for an oil-free product.
  • Finish – Often has a natural soft sheen, opposed to being matte. Can powder to create a more matte finish.
  • Coverage – Sheer.
  • Application – Goes on really easily just like a moisturiser. Just dab a little on your nose, cheeks, chin and forehead and use fingers, a foundation brush or a damp makeup sponge to blend the product into your skin. You don’t need to 100% colour match to your skin tone, as the product should “disappear” into your skin. Tinted moisturiser is also good for adding a touch of colour if you’re feeling a bit pale. Doesn’t need powdering to set.
Tinted moisturiser examples, including one with a SPF and both are oil-free.

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