How to apply foundation: 3 steps to achieving flawless, even coverage every time

Every step you need to learn how to apply foundation like a professional

how to apply foundation
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The first thing you should know when learning how to apply foundation is that the actual applying of foundation is step number three. Don't be put off, as the first two steps are things you are probably doing anyway, just without realizing their roles in making your base look its best. 

The first thing you need to think about is skin prep, which, to use a rather crude analogy, is like washing and sanding a wall before you paint it. Starting with clean, even-textured, and nicely moisturized skin makes light work of smooth makeup application and can make all the difference in the final results.

The second thing you need to think of is picking the best foundation for you, and more specifically, for the finished look you want to achieve. Do you want sheer or full coverage, and do you know the difference between a luminous, dewy, or radiant base and how to tell which is which? Along with learning how to shade match foundation, giving some consideration to finish is crucial to success.  

Completing three steps just to get a bit of base on your face may sound more complicated than you'd bargained for. But we promise they're all fast, easy, and will become second nature once you know how—this guide has got you covered. 

Choose the right foundation

Get to know foundation texture terminology and pick one of the best foundation formulas that encourages your skin's natural radiance. 

Allow us to translate:

  • Luminous: glowy, sheen-y, hydrated-looking skin
  • Dewy: moisturized, slightly shiny skin; "glass skin"
  • Sheer: translucent, radiance-enhancing formulas with minimal coverage
  • Glowy: sheen-y verging on shiny effect, good for those with nothing to hide
  • Full coverage: more opaque, you will see less blemishes, but also less skin
  • Medium coverage: allows skin to show through, but blurs blemishes
  • Matte: reduces shine, looks polished, but can be aging if applied too thickly

Pick two or three descriptions that appeal most from the above list, narrow down whether you need the best foundation for dry skin or the best foundation for oily skin, then look for your chosen terminology in the product names and descriptions.

Prepare your kit

Foundation-wise, your basic makeup kit should cover everything and anything you might need to cleanse, color, and correct. These might include:

  • A cleanser or makeup remover
  • A nice, lightweight facial spray, like a travel-ready tube of Evian Facial Spray for post-cleansing toning (can also double as a finishing touch post-powder for a more supple finish)
  • Your preferred concealer and/or color corrector (we also like the one-two punch we get from the cult fave Bobbi Brown Creamy Concealer Kit, perfect for on-the-go)
  • A makeup primer or base
  • Moisturizer, especially one with an easily absorbed formula for better layering, like that in Augustinus Bader The Cream
  • SPF (crucial for a day face!)
  • Your foundation of choice
  • A Beauty Blender or sponge of choice
  • Foundation brushes
  • Tissues, cotton rounds, and Q-tips for cleanup
  • Optional: setting spray and loose powder to set

How to apply foundation

Step 1: Cleanse and prep your skin.

Learning how to apply foundation well can enhance what you’ve got, but it’s no substitute for real radiance—so always, always start with the proper skincare routine for your age and skin type. Regardless of either, however, the desire for even, glowy skin and the path to achieving it are fairly universal. This is because a natural glow is a result of two things: a smooth texture that light can bounce freely off, and good old-fashioned moisture. 

Thorough cleansing is key to dislodge old, dead skin cells that can build up and subdue shine. Lather up with lukewarm water and a nourishing oil or balm, like Laura Mercier Conditioning Cleansing Oil, then remove with a washcloth for extra smoothness.

Twice a week, follow up with a glycolic acid toner, which loosens the joins between dead cells so they’re easier to budge. REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic is effective without being aggressive. 

Once your skin is clean and flake-free, it's time to hydrate. 

The difference between looking like you have great skin and looking caked in makeup is down to what you do beforehand, and several light layers of product will always look better than one thick, immovable one. "I’m in love with Sisley Black Rose Skin Infusion Cream," says make-up artist Tania Grier. "It’s the perfect base to add radiance and plump the skin before applying makeup."

Finally, bridge the gap between skincare and makeup with primer. 

Learning how how to use face primer isn't a pointless extra step (we promise!): The best ones grab hold of your foundation and give skin a smooth, blurred texture that’s as natural-looking as it is naturally impossible to achieve. 

"For an all-over glow, use a radiant primer straight after moisturizer, applying all over to enhance the skin," says Tania. "Alternatively, using your fingers, apply to specific areas: bridge of the nose, cheekbones, middle of the chin, above the brow, and on the Cupid's bow."

Step 2: Apply with a brush and work outwards.

Now that your skin is prepped to perfection, the last thing you want to do is smother it in heavy pigment or product. Check out the video below for a quick application how-to:

Step 3: Build up coverage, then set.

3a. Use a brush. 

Blenders and fingers have their merits, but most experts agree that a brush is usually best when it comes to learning how to apply foundation that has a smooth, pro-worthy finish. 

The type of brush you use depends on the finish you want, explains MAC Senior Artist Dominic Skinner. "A duo-fiber brush, like MAC 188, will whip the foundation onto the skin lightly and evenly, so it's ideal for glow. Whereas a flat synthetic brush like MAC 190 will lay the foundation on the skin with a fuller finish, and will suit if you have oilier skin or need more coverage. You can use fingers to apply foundation if you prefer, but always go over with a brush to finish off and add finesse."

3b. Build up gradually.

Once you've got your product and tools figured out, the key is building it up in small layers. 

"Some common mistakes I see women making with foundation is applying far too much product," says Val Garland, L’Oréal Paris Global Makeup Artist. "To achieve a healthy, glowy skin look, start with a thin layer and only apply to areas that need coverage, such as around the nose and any areas with pigmentation." 

As a general rule, begin applying foundation in the center of the face first and work your way outwards. This tends to give the most opaque coverage where you need it and the sheerest in areas you don't want to overload, such as the cheeks and sides of the face.

3c. Check and set.

When you've buffed in your first layer of foundation, take a good look in natural light before applying any more; you want as much skin as possible to show through for a natural, radiant look. 

After that, it's up to you how you finish. If you have oily skin, a dusting of loose powder can help set your foundation in place. Some women like to use setting sprays for extra hold, or if you have dry skin, you may want to add a bit of extra glow. 

"A great trick is after you have finished your makeup, use a little bit of moisturizer on the palms of your hands and gently press onto the high points of your cheekbones," says Val. "This is my secret to achieve a hyperreal glossy skin finish, and help your makeup appear natural."

For even more glow, you could consider finishing with highlighter. If you’ve tried these before and ended up looking more C-3PO than J-Lo, don’t blame yourself. They’re often billed as all-over glow boosters, when in reality they look far better as an eye-catching dab here and there, creating a flattering flash where light naturally hits. Cream is generally more flattering than powder, as are champagne, peach, and rose gold shades compared to silver, which can look grayish in the wrong light.

Vita Liberata Blur Luminosity comes in Rose and Gold shades, with skincare ingredients like vitamin E and hydrating aloe vera. 

Pump it onto the back of your hand, then use your ring finger to pick up tiny amounts and lightly tap onto the high point of your cheekbones, just below the arch of your eyebrow, and Cupid’s bow. Blend quickly, and try to catch yourself in natural light via a window to see if you need any more. Good luck!

woman&home thanks Tania Grier, Dominic Skinner, and Val Garland for their time and expertise.

Fiona McKim
Fiona McKim

 As woman&home's Beauty Channel Editor, Fiona Mckim has tried more products than she’s had hot dinners and nothing makes her happier than raving about brilliant finds on or her instagram grid (@fionamckim if you like hair experiments and cute shih-tzus). Fiona joined woman&home as Assistant Beauty Editor in 2013 under industry legend Jo GB, who taught her everything she needed to know (learn about ingredients and employ extreme cynicism). She has since covered every corner of the industry, from interviewing dermatologists and celebrities to reporting backstage at Fashion Week and judging the w&h Beauty Awards.