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A Guide to Makeup Foundation Formulations

Makeup foundations come in various formulations, including liquids, creams and powders. Each type of formulation has a huge 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:

  • Help to even out the skin tone.
  • Help to 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

This is the main type of foundation to be found on the cosmetics market. 

It comes in a huge variety of finishes and colours. This means it is fairly 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 made for all skin types. An oil- or water-based foundation is good for drier skins. Water-based products contain less oil (and can even be oil-free) so 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. Work 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, so it great for high definition and photographic work. It 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. However, they can be applied with a brush or sponge too – though bear in mind that some formulations dry really quickly. This makes it an economical way to apply foundation, as only a few drops are needed to cover the whole face. 
  • 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 that comes in a pot or a compact. Can get compacts that have various colours in them – very useful for the set bag or contouring options. Can be water-based or oil-based. Some products have a cream-to-powder formulation.
  • Coverage – medium to full. You can mix it with a little primer or moisturiser to sheer it down.
  • Application – firstly, dot a little 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 very dry skin may find it emphasises the dryness. Mineral foundation only has a few ingredients, making it less likely to cause an allergic reaction or sensitivity issue than other types of foundation. However, bismuth oxychloride is a controversial ingredient found in some brands and is linked to causing issues 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. A little powder is put into the product’s lid and the brush swirled into the product to pick it 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 Foundation

  • Formulation – an extremely light and airy foundation that has 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, 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 further powdering to set.

Pancake Foundation

  • Formulation – a solid, dry product that is activated by water to apply.
  • Skin Types – not so good for dry skin as cake makeup can be very drying.
  • Finish – matte.
  • Coverage – gives a heavy coverage, so it 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. It doesn’t need powdering to set, as it dries to a powder finish.

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 emphasise the dryness. However, it is good for combination or oily skin.
  • Coverage – light, medium or full. You can build it up as required.
  • Application – apply dry with a powder brush for light coverage. Use a dry makeup sponge for 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. It 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 powdering to set unless it is a cream-to-powder finish.

Tinted Moisturiser

  • Formulation – a creamy liquid foundation that has emollient (moisturising) properties and 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 an 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, 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.
  • Application – goes on really 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. You can also use a foundation brush or damp makeup sponge, but fingers work really well. You don’t need to 100% colour match to your skin tone, as the product should absorb into your skin. Tinted moisturiser is also good for adding a touch of colour. It doesn’t need powdering.
Tinted moisturiser examples, including one with a SPF and both are oil-free.

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