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A Guide to Makeup Foundation Formulations

Makeup foundation comes in many types of formulation, including liquids, creams and powders. Each type of formulation has a massive variety of colours, finishes and coverage. Some foundations can also provide extra benefits such as moisturising ingredients, oil control, line-diminishing properties, or an SPF. It is quite bewildering! Here’s our look at the different formulations used in foundation products.

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

  • Even out the skin tone.
  • Cover inconsistencies in the skin’s pigment.
  • Blend seamlessly over the face and down the neck.
  • Create a smooth 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

The most common type of makeup foundation available on the cosmetics market. It comes in a massive variety of finishes and colours – meaning it should be relatively easy to find the right one for your skin. Some liquid foundations also offer further benefits like an SPF.

  • Formulation – a creamy liquid product that comes in either a bottle, pump dispenser, or a squeezy tube. Various types are available, including oil-free, oil-based, silicone-based, mineral-based, or water-based.
  • Skin Type – liquid foundations are for all skin types – it is about selecting the right ingredients. For example, an oil- or water-based foundation is great for drier skins. Water-based products contain fewer oils (and can even be oil-free), so they also suit an oily, blemished or combination skin, 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. Start in the middle of the face and blend outwards to the hairline and down the neck. Buff the foundation into all the nooks and crannies of the face. 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.

Airbrush Foundation

  • Formulation – a thin liquid product that is designed to be applied with an airbrush gun. It comes in alcohol-, water- or silicone-based formulations. Whatever the formula, they last very well, making them great for film, TV and bridal applications. Likewise, airbrushed makeup does well in humid, hot or wet conditions.
  • Coverage – airbrushing (when applied correctly) provides a lovely sheer coverage without hard edges. It is great for high definition and photographic work. Airbrushed foundation can also 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 released. In particular, small bottles are great for the makeup kit, as you can carry a wide range of colours in a compact space.
  • Application – these products are designed to be sprayed through an airbrush gun. This makes it an economical way to apply foundation, as only a few drops are needed to cover the whole face. They can also be applied with a brush or sponge – just bear in mind that some formulations dry quickly.  
  • Get some training – it is advisable to do a short training course on airbrush application. This 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 product that comes in a pot or compact. Compacts with various colours in them are handy for the set bag or contouring options. Cream foundation can be water-based or oil-based. Some products have a cream-to-powder formulation.
  • Coverage – medium to full. Mix it with a small amount of primer or moisturiser to sheer it down.
  • Application – firstly, dot a little product on your nose, cheeks, chin, and forehead. Then blend out across your face using a foundation brush or a damp makeup sponge. Work and blend the foundation outward into your hairline and down under your jaw onto your neck. Cream foundation usually needs setting with powder, except for 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 – though people with very dry skin may find it emphasises the dryness. A loose mineral foundation only has a few ingredients, making it less likely to cause an allergic reaction or sensitivity issue than other foundation types. However, bismuth oxychloride is a controversial ingredient found in some brands, linked to causing problems for those with sensitive skin. Most likely, people won’t be bothered by it, but if you do have sensitive skin, it is best to avoid those products that include this ingredient.
  • Finish – natural sheen or matte. A finishing mineral product can also be used over the top of the mineral foundation to matte it down.
  • Coverage – can be layered up to create coverage from sheer to full.
  • Application – apply with a Kabuki brush or square-topped foundation brush. Put a small amount of powder into the product’s lid, and swirl the brush into the product to pick it up. Then, buff and swirl the foundation onto 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 Foundation

  • Formulation – a light and airy makeup foundation with the consistency of a fluffy, creamy mousse. Therefore, it feels light on the skin.
  • Skin Type – suitable for most skin types. In particular, it works well for oily skin.
  • Finish – matte or with a dewy-look sheen.
  • Coverage – light to medium.
  • Packaging – comes in a pot, 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 further powdering to set.

Pancake Foundation

  • Formulation – a solid, dry makeup foundation that is either activated by water to apply or used dry. Some products can be used both ways.
  • Skin Types – not so good for dry skin as cake makeup can be very drying. Can look floury or dry, especially around the eyes and on dry skin.
  • Finish – matte.
  • Coverage – sheer to full coverage. 
  • Wet application – spritz the cake with water to activate it and keep it damp when applying. Then use a damp makeup sponge to pick up some of the product, and blend it well on the skin. It can be streaky if not applied quickly and buffed in. It doesn’t need powdering to set, as it dries to a powder finish. However, if you want to powder, wait until the foundation is completely dry first.

Pressed Powder Foundation

  • Formulation – a solid, dry powder cake that comes in a compact, often with an application sponge tucked away somewhere. Handy for on-the-go application.
  • Skin Type – not the best option for very dry or flaky skin as the powder can emphasise the dryness. However, it is good for combination or oily skin.
  • Coverage – light, medium or full. You can build coverage as required.
  • Dry application – apply dry with a powder brush for a lighter coverage. Use a dry makeup sponge for medium coverage. 
  • Wet application – use a damp sponge to apply. A dry application can go over the top of this is required, but do not apply wet over dry.
makeup foundation formulations
Pressed powder examples, including a refill and in a compact.

Stick Foundation

  • Formulation – a thick and solid cream foundation in a tube. Hence, why it’s called stick foundation!
  • Coverage – medium to full coverage. It can also be used as a concealer.
  • Application – you can apply a stick foundation with a damp makeup sponge or your fingers. Fingers work well, as the heat from them helps to soften the foundation. Either way, apply a little product to your cheeks, nose and forehead, then pat and blend outwards into the hairline and down onto the neck. Usually needs powdering to set unless it is a cream-to-powder finish.
  • Tips – use a lightweight moisturiser before applying a stick foundation. Allow the foundation to warm a little before patting it over your face – it is a thick product, so warmth can help it move better.

Tinted Moisturiser

  • Formulation – a creamy foundation with a hint of colour and lots of emollient (moisturising) properties. They offer enough tint to correct colour imbalances in your skin. You can also make your own – simply mix some regular liquid foundation into a little bit of moisturiser. Some products have an SPF rating. 
  • Skin Types – good for dry skin that needs a bit of moisturising. Good for skin that only needs a little coverage (you can conceal minor blemishes separately). For oily skin, go for an oil-free product.
  • Finish – often has a natural soft sheen, as opposed to being matte. Can powder to create a more matte finish, but it doesn’t need powdering to set.
  • Coverage – sheer. Gives a light and natural look. Tinted moisturiser is also good for adding a touch of colour.
  • Application – goes on easily, just like a moisturiser. Simply dab a little on your nose, cheeks, chin and forehead. Then use your fingers to blend the product into your skin. Fingers are the best way to apply tinted moisturiser, but a foundation brush or damp makeup sponge can also be used. It doesn’t need a 100% colour match to your skin tone, as the product should absorb into your skin. It doesn’t need powdering to set.
Tinted moisturiser examples, including one with a SPF and both are oil-free.

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