“Setting powder” is one of those beauty buzz words right now, and the best finishing and setting powders can be a total lifesaver. But what really is setting powder, officially?
An excellent question! Setting powder is an essential step in anyone’s makeup routine—not only does it stop you from looking (and feeling) like a greasy slice of pizza, it also seals your makeup and provides a smooth surface on which to apply products like blush, bronzer, highlighter and eyeshadow.
But actually finding the best finishing powder? Ah, the struggle. While the right setting powder can make your skin look as smooth and perfect as porcelain, the wrong one can make you look unfortunately cakey—not to mention the fact that the marketing around powder can be really confusing. Here’s everything you need to know about powder, as well as our five favorite products ever—some are even from the drugstore!
Defining the terms
“Finishing powder,” “setting powder” and “HD powder” are often used interchangeably from brand to brand, which can be confusing. However, they do all mean different things.
Setting powders are the powders that go directly on top of your foundation. These are either tinted or translucent, and are designed to set and mattify makeup. Generally if you have a compact in your bag for touch-ups throughout the day, there’s a setting powder inside. The downside with these is that they tend to be a little heavier, and therefore not as natural looking on skin.
Finishing powder is supposed to go on top of your setting powder to smooth and blur skin even more. These powders are white and become translucent on skin. They’re also pretty serious makeup, and are best for situations where you’ll be photographed a lot—like contouring, you should save them for big events, rather than considering it a daily essential. The major problem is that unless you blend your finishing powder really well, you can end up with weird white marks all over your face in photos. This is called flashback, and is caused by the light from the flash bouncing off certain mineral ingredients in the powder.
HD powders are just finishing powders with a fancy name. They’re called this because film and TV makeup artists find that they look the best on unforgiving high def film. They’re also sometimes called “retouching powders,” a whole new marketing term that has sprung up recently.
Which of these you use really depends on what you’re looking for. Setting powders are best for everyday use, but if you want some additional blurring benefits, a finishing powder could be really useful. Same thing applies to the tinted vs. translucent powder debate—though we have a strong translucent bias, tinted powders often give more additional coverage—so it really does depend on what you’re looking for.
How to apply
Finishing powder is the finishing makeup step. Apply it after your moisturizer, SPF, foundation or BB and concealer. After finishing powder, apply your blush, bronzer, highlighter and eye makeup.
The best way to apply finishing powder is with a good brush. We like to first apply with a loosely bristled powder brush, then blend it in with a stiff kabuki. This effectively prevents any flashback, even under really intense camera flashes, and makes your skin look super perfect.
To touch up throughout the day, avoid the temptation to use a powder puff to reapply. These always apply too much product, and they never blend it properly. Carry a small kabuki brush with you, pressing the powder onto your skin instead of dusting it over. Oil will be effectively busted, and you’ll never look like a powdered doughnut. We love this retractable kabuki from Too Faced for its soft bristles and how easily it travels.
The best products
Now that all of that is out of theway, here are five amazing powders that you’ll love—finishing, setting and otherwise.
Make Up For Ever Ultra HD Microfinishing Loose Powder is a cult classic for a reason: a true finishing powder that blurs pores as it sets your makeup, this will perfect your skin in no time flat. Not only does this translucent finishing powder works on literally every skin tone, it’s so finely milled that there’s no chance of flashback. Absolutely perfect in every way, it’s the closest thing we’ve ever found to Photoshop in real life.
Rimmel Stay Matte Pressed Powder is the undisputed champion of the drugstore powder game. The lightly tinted setting powder is a life-changer. Lightweight and sheer, but still long-lasting and never cakey, it’ll keep your complexion looking amazing and natural all day.
MAC Blot Powder is so sheer and lightly tinted, it busts shine and adds just a hint of extra coverage to skin. We love it because you can apply it multiple times a day, if needed, without ever looking like you’ve overdone it.
We love the versatility of Bobbi Brown Sheer Finish Loose Powder—it comes in translucent and tinted versions, and there are so many shades that you’re bound to find one that matches your skin. The velvety smooth finish that this powder gives your complexion is amazing for those looking to conceal an uneven skin tone or some lines—and the blendability keeps us coming back for more. (Pro tip: the pressed version is also just as good.)
Even though the packaging says that NARS Light Reflecting Setting Powder is setting powder, don’t be fooled: this is a finishing powder through and through. Blended well overtop matte foundation or setting powder, this truly does give you an airbrushed look—with a teeny bit of subtle shimmer throughout to ensure a radiant look. This is almost always in our bag, and it should definitely be in yours.
Originally published October 2015. Updated June 2017.