Foundation vs Concealer, Explained by Makeup Artists (Plus, How to Find Your Shade)

no more guesswork

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foundation vs concealer: a line of tubes of foundation and concealer in a diagonal line
Irina Marwan/Getty Images

Confession time: I only started wearing makeup last year. (What can I say? My job influences me.) In that time frame, I’ve been bombarded by all manners of beauty products. Non-flakey mascaras! Teeth whitening strips! Scalp serums! Retinol sticks! Not to mention new hair trends that pop up faster than my own hair follicles. But at the end of the day, I just want to keep things simple. I’m always wondering how little I can get away with, which got me wondering about the difference between foundation vs concealer. Are they interchangeable? Can I wear concealer and skip foundation? How do I pick the right shade—and what the heck is my undertone?! To answer my burning questions, I turned to two makeup artists who explained the function of each product and shared their tips for getting the most out of both, from application techniques to shade matching.

Meet the Experts

  • Jenny Patinkin is a Chicago-based makeup artist, founder of an eponymous beauty brand and the author of Lazy Perfection: The Art of Looking Great Without Really Trying. Her brand has created an award-winning line of beauty tools loved by the likes of Allure, Cosmopolitan, Oprah and Better Homes & Gardens. Patinkin has contributed her expertise to outlets such as Good Morning America, The Today Show, The Rachael Ray Show and Martha Stewart.
  • Lori Taylor Davis is the global pro lead artist at Smashbox Cosmetics. She has over 30 years of industry experience, working events like New York and Paris Fashion Week and the MTV Movie Awards. Davis has also worked with celebrities such as Sandra Bullock and Bruno Mars.

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What Is Foundation?

In the past, foundation was also known as “base” in makeup artist parlance, Patinkin explains, because it’s meant to serve as the base layer for all your other makeup and it evens out the complexion, Davis adds. There are several types of foundation, including liquid, cream, powder and stick, with subcategories like pressed and loose mineral powders and cushion compacts. Liquids and creams can also have different viscosities.   

What Is Concealer?

If foundation is a cover-all, concealer is a spot treatment. “Concealer is used to target and cover imperfections such as dark circles, blemishes or redness that foundation might not fully diminish,” Davis says. She notes that many will offer fuller coverage than foundation and are often thicker and more pigmented. Similarly to foundation, concealer formulas include liquid, stick and cream and come in various packaging, from wands to compacts and click pens.

Foundation vs Concealer: Which One is Better?

It’s not so much a matter of one being superior to the other, as they serve their own purposes. As Davis and Patinkin explain above, foundation is the base layer for the rest of your makeup, while concealer targets specific areas of the face. While they may share many ingredients, Davis says, concealers tend to be more pigmented with additional ingredients that target certain skin concerns, like dark circles and blemishes.

Can You Wear Concealer by Itself?

Yes, but you’ll want to choose a thinner concealer that spreads easily. “Stick concealer is a bit denser and opaquer [meaning they take] a little bit more effort to blend,” Patinkin says. “Liquid concealer tends to blend a lot more smoothly.” When she does this herself, she will only apply the concealer down the center of her face (between the brows, inner corners of the eyes, nose and chin) and feather it out to correct any discoloration.

Which One Should You Apply First?

The most common practice is to apply foundation first—it’s called “base” after all—to give yourself an even complexion and canvas to work with. Davis is firmly in this camp, but Patinkin shares that it’s also personal preference. Some might even do their eye makeup first, especially if they’re using a dark or a shimmery eye shadow that could cause fallout and require cleaning up after application.

When it comes to technique, you can use a brush, sponge or your fingers. If you’re working with a runny formula, Patinkin says a sponge or your fingers will help prevent any streak marks created by a brush. Meanwhile, denser products like stick foundation will blend better with a brush.

Those with mature skin will benefit from not applying foundation directly under the eyes. “Use the tiniest amount of concealer you can get away with and a very soft brush that doesn’t tug on the skin,” Patinkin says. “The second you release the tension from your finger or from your tool, your skin is going to bounce back to where it naturally wants to rest, and it’s going to take the product with it.”

How to Choose the Right Product

There are a couple things to consider when shopping for foundation and concealer: formulation and shade. When it comes to the former, Patinkin recommends liquids and creams for drier complexions, while those with oily skin might want something more matte. Mature skin should avoid matte and powder foundations, as they have a tendency to settle into dry patches or fine lines. She also says you should keep the finish in mind.

“Finishes can be matte, radiant or satin,” she explains. Patinkin elaborates, saying that some radiant and satin finishes employ emollients, while others have reflective components that provide a dewy illusion without the extra moisture. “Someone with dry skin might want the emollients, but if you have oily skin and want the dewy look, you [should go for] something with more light reflective properties,” Patinkin says.  

As for determining your shade, there are a few tricks. The first is determining if you have blue or green veins. Blue supposedly indicates a cool complexion, while green signifies warm. A better test, Patinkin says, is the type of jewelry you gravitate towards. Wear a lot of silver? Cool. Go for gold? Warm. Mix and match both? Neutral.

And if that all fails, here’s one thing AI is (somewhat) good for. “There are so many amazing technologies out there for foundation finders,” Patinkin shares. In her opinion, the results are pretty accurate and take much of the guesswork out of shopping. But ultimately, beauty is personal, so be prepared to try a few products before landing on the best one for you.

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