The other day, I caught myself in a ridiculous lie. While engaged in a beauty-related conversation with a friend, I heard myself telling her I use tinted moisturizer “to, like, even out my skin or whatever.” I fucking hate tinted moisturizer. I use—and love—straight-up foundation. But for some reason I felt weird about admitting it.
I know I’m not alone. I recently read a story on another women’s site in which each editor choose their go-to foundation. I eagerly clicked in—as a beauty obsessive, nothing’s better than hearing what other women around my age use—and almost started laughing: Nearly every single pick was prefaced by some variation of “I’m not really a foundation girl, but…” I’m not saying my editorial comrades were lying like I did, but it was hard not to notice the throat-clearing preamble before presenting their picks.
Why is foundation—an integral part of the country’s $60 billion beauty industry—so taboo among young women? Probably because most of us had an unfortunate experience with the stuff or never really learned how to apply it correctly. I can relate.
I’ve been wearing makeup since I was 12 years old. I wasn’t going full-face back then—just some shimmery pink lip gloss I’d hijack from my mom or an awkward swipe of rust-brown eyeshadow. I didn’t really know what foundation was; I was more concerned with the idea of playing with makeup than using it for a purpose.
Then, at 15, found myself dealing with a rapid outbreak of cystic acne. Like any adolescent who suddenly is forced to face the world with angry red marks all over her face, I was deeply distraught. At that age, I had no idea how to buy makeup so, traumatized, I made a trip to the drugstore and grabbed the first bottle of Revlon ColorStay foundation I saw, not bothering to check the shade. It looked white, and I was white. That’s how it works, right?
I slathered it all over my face every day, praying it would mask my flaws until the Accutane kicked in. I’ll have you know the bottle was about four shades too light for me but it never occurred to me to match my face—I just wanted my acne masked—so I lived out part of my teenage existence looking like a malnutritioned ghoul.
Plus, even though I had awful skin in places, I was still a kid—no wrinkles, no dark circles, great skin tone—so I didn’t need thick, full-coverage foundation spackled on with the heaviest of hand. (I can laugh now—a particular photo of me at 15 with a sheet-white face and tan arms while on vacation has become a family joke—but I took my bottle of ColorStay very seriously back then.)
Even as I got older and my acne subsided, I considered foundation my security blanket—it had become a rote part of my daily routine. Wake up, brush teeth, apply foundation. Instead of sticking with ColorStay, I’d use whatever my mom had lying around—a terrible idea given she’s naturally quite a few shades darker than me. So I went from looking like I was auditioning for “Flowers in the Attic” to looking like a Jersey Shore expat, all the while not realizing my face should match the rest of my body’s coloring.
It wasn’t until 1998, when the first Sephora opened in my hometown of New York City, that I was introduced to the wide world of color matching. I knew department stores were able to match you but, as a kid, sauntering up to a makeup counter felt weird. At Sephora, I was able to test out whatever I wanted on my own terms, free of cosmetic yentes analyzing my face under the bright lights of Saks or Bloomie’s.
Nearly two decades later, I can say with authority that I consider foundation to be my most-prized product; my desert island go-to. I’m not 100 percent loyal to any one brand, but I am loyal to the idea of knowing what formula works for me—hydrating mixtures to suit my dry skin—and I’ve learned how to apply it. I know so many women still think of “foundation” as a thick cakey product that’s the opposite of the “I’m so French” cool-girl look we’re all obsessing over right now, but I promise—most days, you can’t even tell I’m wearing it. But you can tell I look more awake, slightly more dewy, and generally better.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell my teenage self to choose a foundation with light to medium coverage—Max Factor Pan Stick isn’t necessary for anyone not auditioning for the part of Marilyn Monroe in a “Smash” remake, let alone a kid. Next, I’d tell her to make sure she never applies it dry or with her fingers—always use a damp high-quality sponge, like the Beauty Blender. I’d also make sure to let her know that if her skin is feeling particularly dry that day, mixing a drop of moisturizer or a pearly highlighter like MAC Strobe Cream, Charlotte Tilbury Wonder Glow, or NYX born to Glow Liquid Illuminizer. And finally, I’d drill into her that it’s always—always—key to step outside when trying on foundation to gauge the shade in daylight. Oh, and blending is her BFF.
I’m happy to wear no makeup at all on some days—I’m thankfully free of acne now—but without foundation, I’m definitely plagued with fairly uneven skin that tends to look tired if I am. Nothing makes me feel more done than a light application of face makeup, especially on my eyelids (my one trick to look pulled together.) Instead of thinking of it as a way to cover myself up, I use it to draw attention to my face—a concept that I’ve become more comfortable with as I age.
Speaking of aging, I’m pretty sure I’ll never feel the need to hide behind makeup ever again. If I’m not happy with the way my skin looks, there are plenty of plastic surgeons in this city—but that’s another “In defense” story for another day.