Foundation vs. Concealer: Here’s When (and How) to Apply Each
Have you ever found yourself scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, marveling over the perfectly applied makeup on the people that fill your feeds? While many creators are quick to share their favorite face, eye, and lip makeup, offering everything from specific product recommendations to tailored application tips, something that often gets left out of the conversation is the foundation vs. concealer debate.
While some people are quick to praise concealer and condemn foundation (and vice versa), few actually take the time to explain the difference between and individual benefits of foundation and concealers. The truth is that both are useful products in the right situations, and a little know-how goes a long way. With that in mind, we chatted with a few celebrity makeup artists to get schooled on the differences. Keep reading to learn when to use foundation vs. concealer, how to apply the formulas, and more.
All About Foundation
Foundation is a full-face makeup product designed to even out the overall appearance of skin. It’s sold in liquid, cream, and powder formulas, all of which are available in shades to suit every skin tone under the sun.
How to Apply It
Since foundation is worn over the entire face, it’s important to know how to apply it. After all, as celebrity makeup artist Brigitte Reiss-Andersen points out, nothing makes makeup look more cake-y and less seamless than a thick, heavy coating of foundation. To avoid this, she recommends using a damp sponge (like a Beautyblender, $20) to apply it: “It gives the skin a truly natural, glowy quality.”
Of course, the way you apply foundation isn’t one-size-fits-all. According to celebrity makeup artist Robert Sesnek, it depends on the level of coverage you’re seeking. “A buffing foundation brush and sponge can offer the maximum amount of coverage, a flat foundation brush offers medium to lighter coverage, and fingers and hands can offer the least coverage,” he shares. “Most times when I’m applying foundation for my clients, I will use all three for the best finishes, paying attention to areas that need less coverage and others that need more coverage.”
Finding the Right Formula
Before even thinking about applying foundation, though, it’s important to consider the best formula for your skin type and coverage goals. “Formulas are a personal preference, however, I do prefer to use hydrating foundations for drier and mature skin types, semi-matte for oily skin, and in the middle for normal/combination skin types,” Sesnek says. By tailoring the formula to your skin type, he says that your foundation will not only wear longer but look better, too.
If you don’t feel the need to tailor your formula to your skin type to counteract dryness or oiliness, celebrity makeup artist Diana Shin says to shop with coverage in mind. While matte foundation tends to offer more coverage and longer wear (making it ideal for covering acne, scars, and color irregularities), she says that water-based formulas look more natural on the skin.
Finding the Right Shade
If you were ever told to swatch foundation on your forearm, you’re not alone. But while sampling shades there is certainly more convenient than going to a beauty counter, rinsing off your pre-existing face makeup, and applying a new shade, it’s not always the most accurate. “The best way is to swatch the foundation around your jawline—I always go for the shade that matches my chest, neck, and forehead,” Shin says.
Sesnek, on the other hand, suggests a little lower. “I prefer foundation swatching at the collarbone or lower neck area, as this will be the shade to unify the face to an exact match,” he says. “Most times the face tends to be a half a shade or a bit lighter, as well as the lightness under the jawline which is usually shaded from the sun and appears even lighter than the face.” As such, by matching to the lower neck or collarbone, he says you’ll be better able to find an exact match that will prevent any drastic lines of demarcation from creeping into sight.
All About Concealer
Concealer is also a face makeup product, but instead of being designed to cover the entire face, it’s intended for spot coverage, such as under the eyes or over top of dark spots and blemishes. Concealer is sold in liquid and cream formulas to match any skin tone, as well as to color correct tone irregularities.
How to Apply It
It’s possible to apply concealer in a number of ways, but placement and technique are key. “In my opinion, one has to be quite precise in the placement of the concealer,” Reiss-Andersen says. “A small slanted brush is helpful to place the product right in the groove near the beginning of the eye or any area that needs brightening, for instance.” Once applied, she recommends tapping it into place with your middle finger because the heat of skin on skin contact will help set it.
While Sesnek also likes to use brushes and his fingers, he also suggests adding a sponge to the concealer-application process. “I feel that sometimes applying concealer too heavily or too much [at once] can give the appearance of a heavy look,” he says. “Applying concealer in thinner lighter layers [with various tools] allows for a real natural-looking appearance.”
Finding the Right Formula
Generally speaking, liquid concealers are more hydrating and offer less coverage, while cream concealers are more long-wearing and offer more coverage. “If you have very dry under-eyes [or skin in general], I would go for very hydrating formulas; if you have oily skin I would go for long-wear formulas,” Shin says.
That said, Sesnek says a hydrating formula is a universally great choice. “I find that no matter what the age of my clients, I prefer a fuller coverage concealer that is hydrating and blendable,” he explains. “Whether it’s under the eyes or spot-treating on the face, I need a concealer that allows for good coverage and smoothness for a realistic look. If a concealer is too drying on blemishes, the overall appearance can look dry and flaky. A smoother, hydrating concealer will appear more natural. That’s why I prefer fuller coverage, as you can build in thin layers for the most natural of looks.”
Finding the Right Shade
While foundation is matched to your jawline or neck, concealer shades are based on your face color. “Under the eyes, you want it a shade or two lighter and on the face an exact match for the skin,” Sesnek says. While you might think that using the same slightly lighter shade across your face will work, Sesnek reminds us that doing so can actually make blemishes and dark circles stand out, as opposed to blend in.
“Highlighting or going lighter on the face trying to conceal blemishes only draws attention to the blemish, as it will be lighter in tone,” he explains. As such, he says to only use a lighter concealer under your eyes or if you’re highlighting your nose, chin, or cheekbones. “Lightness brings features forward with light,” he explains.
In addition to thinking about how light or dark you want your concealer to be, Shin says to keep your undertones in mind—cool, warm, or neutral. “A neutral concealer works if you don’t have much darkness under your eyes,” she says. But if you do, she says opting for a cool, pink-toned concealer will camouflage darkness on fair, light, and medium skin, while warm, peach-toned concealer works best on tan and deep skin tones.
Foundation vs. Concealer
Whether to use foundation, concealer, or both is not a hard and fast rule—it all depends on your desired coverage and goal end look. “I prefer both concealer and foundation in almost all situations,” Sesnek admits. “It can be sheer and incredibly natural or more polished and fuller coverage, depending on your needs and wants.” The trick is knowing how to pick the proper formula and apply each with your desired coverage in mind—which you now know how to!
As Reiss-Andersen points out, concealer is designed to color-correct dark circles and spots, as well as blemishes, while foundation works to enhance the overall skin tone. “It’s great to combine both concealer and foundation to make the skin look as radiant as possible,” she concurs.
Which Should You Apply First?
Yet again, it’s a matter of preference. Where Sesnek and Shin prefer applying foundation first, Reiss-Andersen opts for concealer to start. “I find that by doing a very small amount of foundation, I can sometimes use far less concealer than I would normally need to, and much of the redness or discoloration can be corrected by this application,” Sesnek says. “However, if I do need more color correction for under the eyes, darker circles, or deeper discoloration, I will do color correction and concealer first.”
As for Reiss-Andersen, she prefers to begin with concealer to neutralize anything you want to cover before going in with foundation. “If the under-eye area is quite dark, for example, you’ll need a thick/rich concealer, which is best applied first to neutralize the issue,” she explains. “You can then follow up with a sheer foundation applied with a damp sponge (tap, don’t drag) in order to blend the two in a seamless way.” That said, if you use concealer to brighten, as opposed to cover up a color irregularity, she says to apply it atop your foundation. “It will blend naturally,” she assures us.
The Final Takeaway
At the end of the day, foundation vs. concealer, and all of the subplots within the debate, comes down to personal preference. It depends on the level of coverage and length of wear you’re seeking, whether you’re hoping to camouflage certain areas or brighten your complexion, and so on. That said, if the products and techniques you’re currently using are leaving something to be desired, perhaps it’s time to switch things up.