While some makeup mavens swear by starting your look with just a base of moisturizer, sunscreen, foundation, and concealer, we here at The AEDITION respectfully disagree. Long seen as an (arguably unnecessary) extra step, face primer is an underrated step that can benefit anyone’s routine. Forget what you think you know about the overly drying, mattifying, or mask-like formulas of yesteryear, today’s face primers bridge the gap between skincare and makeup – leaving your skin smooth, hydrated, and ready for whatever you’re planning to put on top. Don’t wear makeup? Primer can still have a purpose, with options formulated with both skin prep and protection in mind.
Whether you're a primer newbie or a devotee looking to try something new, this guide will change your skincare and makeup routine forever. Read on for everything you need to know about face primer.
What Are the Benefits of Face Primer?
In a nutshell, face primers prep and smooth the surface of the skin before foundation or other complexion products are applied. They come after skincare but before makeup, essentially functioning as a hybrid step. Depending on your skin type and beauty goals, face primers come in an array of textures and are formulated with an array of both skincare and makeup ingredients that allow them to function in different ways.
Generally speaking, there are four main categories face primers fall into, says Fiona Co Chan, founder of makeup brand Youthforia. She breaks them down in this way:
- Blurring Primers: Typically made with silicones, their purpose is to fill in pores to create a smoothing, filter-like blur effect.
- Putty Primers: Similar to blurring primers, they also usually have a silicone base that is meant to fill in pores. The difference is that they are usually presented in a cake-like format (which is not always the most sanitary), though you sometimes see them in a tube as well.
- Gripping Primers: These are usually water-based and formulated with denatured alcohol to help makeup stay in place. Think of them as a setting spray in a primer format.
- Protective Primers: This type of primer first rose to prominence in Asia and special effects makeup to shield the skin from potential irritants. It has three distinct benefits: (1) the formula is usually emollient and occlusive to seal in your skincare (think of this as daytime slugging, which helps prevent transepidermal water loss); (2) it helps your makeup last longer by preventing your skin’s sebum from touching your base (oil can oxidize makeup or dissolve it); (3) it creates a barrier between your skin and your makeup. This gives hard-to-remove makeup something to bind to. So, not only does it help your makeup last longer, but it allows it to wash off more easily.
The Best Candidates for Face Primer
Similar to toner (another under-appreciated beauty product), there is a face primer for every skin type. The most important part of choosing the right one is ensuring that the formula and consistency work for any potential skin concerns (i.e. dryness, oiliness, etc.) you may have. “Primers are great for oily skin because they prevent the skin’s sebum from touching your makeup,” Co Chan explains. “And they’re also great for dry skin because a lot of ingredients in makeup can be drying – especially formulas that are long-lasting or waterproof.” If you are experiencing breakouts, be mindful of what’s in the formula. “For acne-prone skin or skin prone to clogged pores, I would recommend looking at the specific ingredients per product and avoiding products with comedogenic ingredients or silicone-based primers,” she shares.
With that in mind, below are eight primers to try based on your skin type and concerns:
For Everything: Youthforia Pregame Primer
No matter your skin type, the power of this protective primer lies in the fact that it's both makeup and skincare. The emollient and occlusive formula protects your skin by creating a barrier between your skin and any aggressors (think: pollution, irritating makeup, etc.). It also features the brand’s patented Sebum Control Complex that Co Chan says “helps prevent sebum from dissolving your makeup or oxidizing it” and plant-based elastomers that “flex to the skin’s unique features, which is great when you want your makeup to be flexible and move with you.” If you need further convining, Co Chan slept in the formula throughout the product development process to ensure it truly benefits the complexion. $38, youthforia.co
For Mattifying: Smashbox Photo Finish Control Mattifying Face Primer
Smashbox is a primer favorite for a reason. This mattifying option backs up its name with a mixture of skincare favorites – witch hazel, salicylic acid, and zinc, to be exact – that mop up excess oil and keep your complexion shine-free all day long. A cocktail of antioxidants, hyaluronic acid, probiotic extract, and algae, meanwhile, helps to defend against environmental stressors like pollution and blue light. $39, sephora.com
For Hydrating: e.l.f. Cosmetics Power Grip Primer
A popular dupe for Milk Makeup’s Hydro Grip Primer, this budget-friendly pick offers all of the moisture and staying power for half the price. This hyaluronic acid-infused formula has a gel-like texture that instantly plumps and hydrates dry skin, while also offering the ‘grip’ you crave for longer-lasting makeup. $10, ulta.com
For Color Correcting: Make Up For Ever Color Correcting Step 1 Primers
Combine your color correcting and prep steps into one with this multitasking primer. Available in five different shades, including this redness-reducing green hue, there is an option for evening out every skin tone. And, if you still want a primer to combat any texture or another concern, this formula layers well. $37, sephora.com
For Sensitive Skin: First Aid Beauty Hello FAB Coconut Skin Smoothie Priming Moisturizer
Part moisturizer, part primer, this dermatologist-tested formula is vegan, non-comedogenic, and gluten-, nut-, nano-, and soy-free, making it gentle enough for sensitive skin. Coconut water hydrates and revitalizes the complexion, while quinoa protein and a mineral blend support skin repair and health. Finely milled micro-pearls give the lightweight lotion a subtle luminosity that can be worn alone or under makeup. $32, firstaidbeauty.com
For Blurring: Hourglass Vanish Airbrush Primer
This translucent primer will give your skin an airbrushed look, which is especially beneficial for anyone with acne, fine lines, or large pores. The magic comes from microspherical powders set in a weightless gel formula that gives the complexion a filter-like finish. The best part? It boasts a physical SPF 15 for UV protection. $56, sephora.com
For Smoothing: Tatcha The Silk Canvas
Makeup artists swear by this balm-like primer that features glycerin, squalene, and the brand’s signature blend of Japanese superfoods like rice, tea, and algae extracts that lock in moisture to ensure the skin stays supple all day. A little goes a long way – the velvety texture means you’ll be able to cover the entire face with just a rice-sized dollop. $52, tatcha.com
For Brightening: NYX High Glass Primer
A great option for those looking for that glass skin effect or a radiance boost, this primer will help you create the perfect base for all-day illumination. Wear it solo, under foundation, or on the highpoints of the face for a dewy (read: not shiny) glow. $17, nyxcosmetics.com
How to Use Face Primer
As with many other makeup products, there are a variety of ways to apply primer. Some people slather it on with their fingers, while others prefer to use a makeup brush or sponge. Co Chan is a fan of the former and recommends using your hands to warm up the product. “It varies by primer, but, in most cases, apply as you would with a skincare product,” she says. She turns the application process into a self care ritual, giving herself a facial massage by “focusing on lymphatic drainage points at the edge of your neck and outward from your brow bones.” “This will help plump your face in the right areas and sculpt in the right places, by increasing blood flow and depuffing where necessary,” she explains.
Timing wise, some experts advise you to apply your primer and then wait a few minutes before continuing with makeup. Others say it's fine to continue to your makeup application right away. By messaging the product into the skin, Co Chan says “you’ll notice that it’s less film-like and sitting on top of the surface skin,” though she still gives it a beat. “It’s important to wait one minute between each skincare or makeup step to allow your skin to soak up the formula and minimize any pilling,” she notes.
As for where sunscreen fits in, it can go under your primer (after your last skincare step). The exception is if you are using a complexion product with SPF, like a tinted moisturizer — though we still recommend fortifying your protection by applying a standalone sunscreen as well.
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
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