Makeup 101: How to Apply Foundation, Concealer, and Powder

OK, I’ve said it before, but I’ve gotta say it again: Sonja is my Makeup Mentor. She has literally taught me everything I know about cosmetics and how to utilize them. Now, I realize that I am still a major noob who can’t apply eyeshadow, but I am excited to report that that’s all about to change. Sonja has agreed to do a series of Makeup 101 post right here on Already Pretty!

Those of you who fear looking positively clownish on applying rouge will find her writing style accessible and engaging. Those of you who could apply a full face in your sleep will still be enchanted with this refresher course, guaranteed. This is the good stuff, my peeps, and I’m beyond excited that Sonja has agreed to share her expertise with us.

So, without further ado, let’s dig into the first lesson: Foundation, concealer, and powder. Take it away, Sonja!

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I’ve been so into makeup since I was in my early teens that I sometimes forget there are plenty of women out there who could use some basic pointers in makeup application. When Sally asked me to write some posts about makeup basics, I was only too happy to help, because I love showing women how to do their makeup. Obviously, I can’t sit down with you personally. But I’ll do my best to guide you via the Interwebs.

Since Makeup 101 could fill an entire book, I’ll break this down into a few parts and start with foundation, concealer, and powder because it’s important to begin with a beautiful canvas. If your skin looks blotchy and uneven, it detracts from any other makeup you apply.

Skin Prep
Before I apply a drop of foundation or concealer, I prep my skin.

  • Moisturizer. Apply a good moisturizer first. Otherwise, makeup won’t go on smoothly and will highlight dry patches. If your skin is oily, opt for something light or something that controls oil so your makeup doesn’t just slide off (love that).
  • Primer. An optional next step is to apply a primer to help makeup last longer. A good one will also help even out skin tone, and reduce the look of imperfections and pores. I really like shu uemura’s UV Under Base. It’s a foam that goes on nice and light and provides SPF 10 for a little sun protection boost.
  • Brightener. Another optional step is to apply a brightener to reflect light, minimize imperfections, and neutralize darkness. This is really helpful if you have under eye circles, like me. I really like Benefit Ooh La Lift. Even though this is designed for the under eye area, I also swipe a little along my laugh lines. Guerlain Precious Light is another excellent option. It’s pricey but gives a lot of bang for the buck, because it’s a brightener, primer, and concealer in one.

Some people apply concealer first, but I prefer to apply foundation first so I don’t wipe away the concealer when I apply the foundation. This also prevents me from overdoing it with concealer. If you have a nice, even complexion and only want a little coverage, opt for a tinted moisturizer.

  • The right color. Using the wrong color of foundation is one of the most common makeup blunders, says Guerlain’s top makeup artist Marcus Monson. (Love him! You must try to get an appointment with him if he visits your town.) To choose the right shade, he recommends applying two or three stripes of foundation along a clean jaw line and letting it dry one to two minutes. Waiting is important, because foundation changes color a little as it dries and oxidizes. The color that seems to disappear on your skin is your perfect match.
  • Time of year. Remember that your skin color varies throughout the year. A color that works in the dead of winter will probably be too light in summer, when skin is darker and gets more sun – and vice versa.
  • Application method. I use a sponge for a very smooth, even finish. If I’m pressed for time, I just use my fingers. Want more coverage? Try a brush.
  • Portion control. I put the foundation on the back of my hand and pick up color as needed. If you slap on whatever comes out of the bottle, you’ll likely end up with too much on your face.
  • Less is more. Just because you’re applying foundation, it doesn’t mean you have to look like you’re wearing foundation. Try to use as little as possible for everyday wear to keep skin looking natural. Use a little more for a more polished look. But you never want someone to notice your foundation.
  • Where to apply. There’s usually no need to apply foundation to every inch of your face, since outer areas of the face usually look fine without any foundation at all. Focus on areas that need to be evened out. Start by applying around the center of the face. There’s usually redness around the nose and mouth, and on the eyelids.
  • Blending. Blend outward to avoid having any tell-tale lines.
  • Trouble spots. For any areas that need more coverage, like dark spots or blemishes, dab on a little foundation with your finger or a small, concealer brush. If more coverage is needed, hit ‘em with concealer.
  • Favorites. My favorite foundations are Bobbi Brown Skin Foundation SPF 15 for every day and Guerlain Parure Gold when I want a bit more coverage. Both perfect skin beautifully and look quite natural.

I tend to feel naked without concealer, because of my under eye circles. Concealer can really lighten up the darkness and make you look fresher and more awake.

  • Color. I try to get my concealer to match my skin tone as much as possible. A color that’s too light can give a reverse raccoon look.
  • Application method. With concealer, I apply with a brush or my finger. I find that sponges are too big and don’t allow enough control.
  • Under the eyes. To counter darkness in the eye area, apply concealer in the inner and outer corners, as well as under the eyes all the way up to the lash line.
  • Less is more. Since it’s thicker than foundation, you can easily end up with a cakey look. Apply a thin layer first and build up as needed.
  • Pat, pat, pat. Blend by gently patting with your fingers. Don’t rub or you’ll just end up rubbing it off.
  • Favorites. My favorite concealers are Guerlain Precious Light and Tarte Dark Circle Defense. They conceal well and don’t settle into fine lines.

For most occasions, I prefer a fresh, natural look so I tend to use just a little powder to set the foundation and concealer.

  • Application method and where to apply. I recommend applying powder with a fluffy brush along the t-zone, where the face can get oily. A brush gives the most natural finish. Under the eyes and on trouble spots, I pat the tiniest amount of powder with a powder puff to keep concealer in place.
  • Less is more. Use a light touch when applying powder. If you use too much, it can look cakey and fake, and make you look old in an instant by accentuating wrinkles.
  • Loose vs. pressed. Loose powder will look the most natural. But it can be messy and impractical for touch-ups during the day. I love Jane Iredale Brush-Me Matte Loose Powder, because it absorbs oil, looks very natural, and has a built-in brush so I don’t end up making a big mess and can throw it in my purse without worry.
  • Photos. If you know you’re going to be photographed – at a wedding or whatnot – powder is not optional, unless your skin is dry as the Sahara. Any bit of shininess is highlighted bigtime in photos. I recommend using a powder that has a matte finish and offers good coverage, like Benefit “Hello Flawless!”, and applying it with a sponge or puff.

Video Lesson
Of course, it’s often easiest to learn when we see something demonstrated. I recommend watching Marcus in action. He’s such the makeup master. He gives a great foundation and concealer lesson in my Guerlain fall collection video.

On a tight budget?
As a beauty writer, I have the luxury of using some of the best makeup around, because I get sent samples to review. If you’ve got the cash, I definitely recommend trying the stuff I’ve mentioned. But times are tough and many budgets are tight, so if you need less expensive options, give Neutrogena or Physician’s Formula products a try. Their formulas won’t be as sophisticated. But in general, I’ve found them to be the best drugstore options. Lavera is a very good choice on the more affordable side at health food stores. It’s more expensive than drugstore fare but worth the price.

Hope this info helps! Do let me know if you have any questions. I’ll be back with more posts about how to do eyes, cheeks, and lips. You can also find various beauty tips and tricks in my YouTube videos and on my blog, Hello Beauty.

XO, Sonja

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Sonja will be back in a couple of weeks with another installment of Makeup 101. Stay tuned!

Images courtesy DC Digital Photography, Vincent Boiteau, Vincent Boiteau.

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26 Responses to “Makeup 101: How to Apply Foundation, Concealer, and Powder”

  1. Erin

    I also picked up a recent tip for a face primer: Monistat Anti-Chafing Gel. Yep, vag cream. But oh my the silkiness of your face after you apply it.

  2. Nina (Femme Rationale)

    great tips..and i agree w/them. def. concealer after foundation and changing foundation colors during different seasons. you can also use a powder foundation which is a 2 in 1. i've been using shiseido's powdery foundation for almost 10 yrs now. apply concealer then brush the powder on and i'm good to go. never felt the need to use anything else and when i do, it's never as good.

  3. All Women Stalker

    This post if chock full of useful info. Bookmarked. 🙂

    Off to update my makeup shopping list 🙂

  4. Chelsea

    What a great post! The more I read about primer, the more I want to use it. I have the most trouble with under-eye concealer. I can't explain it, but somedays (I wear it anytime I wear makeup) it ends up just looking a bit cakey and/or settling into my barely there fine lines (I'm 26!) making them look more pronounced. Maybe primer is the answer? Or it could be that I need a new product (I use Clinique all about eyes concealer).

    I, like Nina (Femme Rationale), use a powder foundation, which I love. Clinique's "almost makeup", which is a mineral powder and has SPF built right in. I love it and TOTALLY recommend it 🙂

    Thanks for the tips, Sonja (and thanks, Sal, for inviting her!). I can't wait for the next lessons!

  5. Kelly

    Ooo I liked this, looking forward to more makeup posts!

    Chelsea- I have the SAME problem. I feel like I have to choose between having dark circles and little fine lines, or cakey concealer and deep lines.

  6. eliza

    Thank you thank you, ooh, and by the way:THANK YOU!

    How do you always manage to know just what I need? 😉

  7. lisa

    This is such a great post! I've been using Clinique Sheer City Block in SPF 25…it has sun protection, a slight tint, and moisturizing and oil-control properties so for me it's kind of an all-in-one miracle product (sunscreen/foundation/primer). And I definitely second the Physician's Formula recommendation.

  8. Vanessa

    I hardly ever use foundation. Part of the reason is probably that my boyfriend can ALWAYS tell when I'm wearing it and it annoys the heck out of me. I'll try some of these tips, though, and see if I can do a better job next time!

  9. Charlotte

    Any thoughts on mineral foundation/concealer? I've been using Everyday Minerals for nearly a year now & can't believe how good it is.
    It seems very forgiving and never looks like make-up. It's a tad messy to apply, but that's probably just me.
    Great post!

  10. Maria Ontiveros

    Great post! I also use a little blush(just a swipe with a big fluffy brush on the apples of my cheeks) to complete my routine. Wonder if you recommend it?

  11. futurelint

    Hooray! I am so terrible w/ make-up so I'm excited for the guest posts! hmm, I still don't think I'll ever wear foundation though – can't cover up my freckles!

  12. rb

    GOod post, and this is coming from a makeup devotee.

    My personal favorite combo product is Clinique City Block SPF 25. I wear it every day and I swear it does not break me out. Gives a tiny bit of color (less than most tinted moisturizers), a tiny bit of moisturizing, and a great physical sunblock.

    After I apply that, I usually only have to apply the tiniest bit of foundation on my nose and chin. (for this, and most other makeup products, I like Trish McEvoy.)

  13. E

    Foundation is a technique I have never quite mastered, so I always love reading these tutorials and hoping one day that they sink in!

  14. Winnie

    Aw I love make up sooo much, but I actually don't use much anymore apart from foundation and eyeliner!

  15. Sonja

    Hi ladies! So glad you found the info helpful! Love reading all your interesting comments!

    Erin, I would imagine some primers and the anti-chafing gel have similar formulas. Many of them rely a lot on silicone to make them silky. But I never would've thought to try that. Too funny!

    Chelsea and Kelly, it would probably be helpful to just get another concealer. I haven't found a primer that makes a huge difference in averting the fine lines.

    Lisa, wow, that sounds like a total wonder product! Score!

    Charlotte, I have to say I don't have that much experience with mineral makeup, because I'm not a fan of loose powder. I always end up making a mess with it. But there are many women who swear by it. If it works for you, definitely stick with it.

  16. Sonja

    Maria, thank you! I wholeheartedly recommend using a bit of blush. It's an often overlooked, underestimated product that can really wake up the face and give a healthy glow.

    futurelint, girl, don't even try to cover up your freckles. They add to your unique charm. Foundation, concealer, and powder are simply aids to creating a more even look but shouldn't be used to mask everything. Heck, I don't even bother trying to cover most of my plethora of spots.

    E, it just takes a bit of practice. Less is more is probably the most important thing to remember. 🙂

  17. The Raisin Girl

    Great tips, but there's one thing I wonder about…

    I have NEVER been able to only apply foundation in some places because my skin is so pale. I had an albino friend once with more color than I have, and I'm not being rhetorically sassy, it's the truth. Most foundations just don't approach the color of my skin. Any suggestions on how to address this problem?

  18. Ekatherina

    Does sunblock count as a moisturizer too? I'm pale (not quite as pale as Raisin girl – and I am jealous chick, pale is the new tan!) and I burn super easily, wear SPF 60 every day. I don't even bother with makeup most summer days cause I'll just have to reapply my sunblock every 2 hours. 😉

    Thank you so much for this post and all of the recommendations as it is easy to get lost when trying to get back into makeup!!

  19. Christina F.

    Thanks Sal, for this guest post and thank you, Sonja, for the wonderful advice. I'm going to pass it on to my daughter since she is beginning to experiment with makeup. I'd like to know what Sonja recommends when one doesn't have time for all the steps she included. I think we all have days when we oversleep, don't have the energy etc. to complete a full-on makeup routine. My 5-minute fix is: SPF moisturizer, under eye concealer, mascara, a bit of blush and lipcolor (I love Clinique's Almost Lipstick in Black Honey). Better than nothing at all! I'd also like to know what she recommends for moisturizers and Retinol-type treatments. Thanks again!

  20. Eternal*Voyageur @ Venusian*Glow

    My question is: My foundation always seems to make my pores more prominent, especially around the nose. Is that the fault of my foundation ? Or should I not apply it there ? I do cleanse befor but I don't exfoliate (I can't since I've got quite fragile capillaries).

    Ekaterina most sunscreen is quite moisturising. Just make sure you're patting it on (not rubbing) and using the prescribed amount: 1-1,25 ml for just the face, or 1,5 – 1,8 ml for the face and neck. Wait for it to sink it (15 minutes) before you apply anything else,. Actually applying anything else on top removes a lot of the sunscreen, so it's best avoided.

  21. Ekatherina

    Eternal: thank you for the response 🙂 I never thought that applying something on top removes a lot of the sunscreen, so thanks for mentioning that – especially since I use a physical (zinc/titanium oxide) rather than chemical block (which makes my skin go berzerk). That totally makes sense.

    I'm concerned now though: I remember reading somewhere that most of the time, relying on makeup to provide SPF doesn't work because you'd have to apply SO much makeup to get the amount of protection needed. Does anyone know if this is true? If it is, maybe I should just let sunblock sink in for like a half hour before applying makeup or will it be useless since it's a physical sunblock?

    Thanks 🙂

  22. Sonja

    The Raisin Girl, I have two suggestions for you. One would be to try a line without a wide range of foundation colors, like Bobbi Brown's. The other is to use the lightest shade of a tinted moisturizer. You'll still get some of the evening-out effect of foundation but with lighter coverage. Hope that helps!

    Ekatherina, I would imagine that most companies include some amount of moisturizer in sunscreens to help them smooth on. But if your skin is still feels dry after applying your sunscreen, then you need to get more moisture/hydration by either applying a moisturizer first or using a moisturizer/sunscreen combo (my favorite is from The Body Deli).

    Christina F., when in a rush, I always apply a moisturizer and sunscreen or moisturizer/sunscreen combo. I skip the primer, and slap on a bit of foundation and a few strategic swipes of concealer under the eyes; and I don't bother with powder. Then I put on mascara, some cream blush, a bit of sheer lipstick or a gloss, and, if there's time, a little eyeliner. Unlike most people, I'll also fill in my brows a bit, because groomed brows make a big difference. They really help to frame the face and bring out the eyes.

    I don't use products with Retin-A, because I feel they're too harsh on the skin and I prefer to stick with natural skin care. I'd be happy to recommend a moisturizer. What's your skin type and budget?

    Eternal*Voyageur @ Venusian*Glow, it sounds like the foundation you're using may be too heavy. What are you using?

    I highly, highly recommend exfoliating. It makes a huge difference in helping the skin rid itself of dead skin cells and allows moisturizers to penetrate better and thus work better. If you can't tolerate a scrub, try something with fruit acids. Mario Badescu makes some good scrub-free exfoliating washes.

    If you go to their website, you can fill out a questionnaire online and they will make a recommendation. They can send out samples of most products so you can see if they're gentle enough to for you. They make great skin care at reasonable prices – much better than what you'd get from comparably priced lines.

  23. SweaterFreak

    some budget friendly and excellent mineral make-up option is JLynne Cosmetics – i have been gradually eliminating all paraben/lead cosmetics from my drawer and love JLynne.

    Also tried Lavera concealer and I must say, I am disappointed – for 30CAD I expected more, instead it appears dry and settles into every fine line…..Their lipsticks however, is excellent!

  24. JessicatheMUA

    After years of being a makeup artist. The rule stands true. There are no rules to makeup, only rules of thumb. Nothing called “too anything”.I disagree with telling anyone how to wear their foundation/blush/powder/eyeliner/eyeshadow. Makeup is subjective. Everyone has their own makeup style. Many light people tend to go light/lighter or mix it with a luminzer to make themselves brighter/radiant/porcelin like. A great example of this would be dita von teese, who even stays out the sun to maintain her light skintone and wears light foundation. Others prefer to be dark/darker and darken in the sun or use bronzer all over their skintone. Different people have different preferences. If I spelled “Horse” “Howrse” than there is no “ifs” “and” or “buts” because grammar isnt subjective. What is wrong is wrong!However. Makeup is subjective. I hate nude lips. Does that mean its right to say “dont wear nude lips” ? No.
    I might not like it but someone else might. There is no rule to makeup. Thats the beauty of being a makeup artist. There are soo many different styles.
    I hate bronzer. But maybe there is someone who loves that deep bronzed look. I cant go to them and say “dont go soo deep in the bronzer” and say its “constructive”. There are soo many different styles.who is anyone to tell someone theyre wearing a too light or too dark foundation, because there is no such thing. Nicole and Sam from pixiwoo(huge makeupartists in Britain) sometimes wear paler or darker foundation and it looks gorgeous! as long as people blend it to the neck its fine….some people prefer to look bright and radiant. I also dont agree with the concealer comment for several reasons.
    I would like to thank the blog owner for letting readers get their points across.