If you aren't an avid beauty girl, it's likely that you've heard of "undertone" in passing, but you aren't entirely sure of what it means. It's also likely that you've been struggling to find the correct shade of foundation and determining which colors look best on you. You are not alone. Women of color in particular have a hard time finding the proper shade of foundation leading them to mix various shades together hoping to create the perfect balance for themselves. We had a chat with celebrity makeup artist and International Director of Artistry for Cover FX, Derek Selby, to take the mystery out of undertones and (hopefully) solve all of your foundation woes. But first, a few quick facts you'll need for the read ahead.
- There are three categories that undertones are classified under: cool, warm and neutral.
- Cool: Base tone of your skin is pink, red or blue. The veins on the inside of your wrist look blue
- Warm: Base tone of your skin is yellow or gold. The veins on the inside of your wrist look green.
- Neutral: Mix of cool and warm undertones. It's difficult to tell whether the veins on your inner wrist are blue or green. Makeup is typically true to tone on your complexion.
- Undertones don't change.
ESSENCE: What is it important for women of color to be aware of their undertones?
DEREK SELBY: [Until recently, the shade spectrum in relation to women of color has been vastly overlooked in the cosmetic industry.] Some cosmetic companies just take a Caucasian shade and add black [or red] to appease this segment of the market. As a result, women of color are sometimes left with foundations that causes their skin to appear grey and ashy.
ESSENCE: Is it true that discovering your undertone helps you to determine the base color needed in your foundation, which in turn helps you find your perfect shade?
ESSENCE: Aside from potentially having skin that appears ashy after applying foundation, how would I know whether or not I'm using a foundation that doesn't compliment my undertone?
SELBY: There are really only four things that can go wrong with color when choosing a foundation; it's either too light, too dark, too pink or too gold. In some instances, it's easy to identify your undertone. For example, Beyoncé has [warm] undertones—this is more evident because she's a lighter woman of color, but it is possible to be a few shades richer and still fall under the warm category. The way undertones work in foundation, is your skin will accept the color that compliments it, and [reflect] the shade that doesn't. So, If I put a neutral color on someone who is gold/warm like Beyoncé, her skin will like the gold and throw off the red, and the foundation will actually appear pink or bit red on their skin instead of matching it perfectly. The rule of thumb is, if it looks chalky or ashy then you need to go darker, and if it looks dirty or muddy and doesn't look clear, then you need to go lighter.
ESSENCE: In going deeper or darker, you aren't changing the undertone, right? For instance, you wouldn't change from pink to gold.
SELBY: No, not at all. Although, a lot of brands do [transition between undertones within the same shade family] because it isn't clear what the undertone is. For example, a product may go from a "mahogany" to a "caramel" or a "sand" within the same shade range. The names are ambiguous and do not say much of what the undertone is and in some companies, as shades get darker, the undertone changes. That makes it really difficult for the consumer to figure out their shade. But, you should never switch from a warm foundation to a cool.
ESSENCE: When you're matching foundation, where is the best place to test the shade on your skin?
SELBY: You want to match on your jaw and blend down into your neck so tht you have a uniform color on your face down into your neck. One of the things that's really challenging for women of color is that a lot of them have hyperpigmentation around their mouth so the color is darker and sometimes it's kind of greyish. So be careful to match where the skin is clean and clear and there is no discoloration. For the areas with hyperpigmentation, you'll build the coverage to create a flawless finish. You also want to match your foundation in natural light, like in front of a window.
ESSENCE: What about mixing foundations? Is there a right way to do it if I have warm undertones, but I think I need something with a little more red?
SELBY: Yes, you can mix your foundations to blend the perfect color. It's less of a matter of whether you'll screw up the color and more a case of trial and error.
ESSENCE: Just to clarify— as you tan in the summer, your undertone stays the same, correct? A red will always be a red, you'll just go deeper into your undertone shade.
SELBY: Yes, exactly! Your undertone does not change. What happens is sometimes people will confuse their surface tone and they'll go way too dark. You stay within the same undertone family; you just increase or decrease by a shade.