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What is Makeup Primer?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated May 21, 2024
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Makeup primer is a cosmetic designed to smooth and conceal fine lines and uneven skin texture. Much like primer for painting, it ensures that a person has a smooth, even, uniformly colored surface on which to apply cosmetics, and helps them adhere properly to the skin. It's generally made from materials such as waxes, polymers, and silicone, and often contains extra ingredients for SPF protection. There are a variety of area-specific and problem-specific primers: for instance, one for lips can keep lipstick from feathering, and a tinted one can make a splotchy complexion look better. Though makeup can look fine without using these products, it generally won't last as long and may not have quite as polished a look.

Formulas for Different Skin Types

Lightweight, silicone-based makeup primer is usually the best choice for acne-prone or oily skin. It doesn't usually contain irritating ingredients and has the consistency of a smooth gel. It's usually labeled “oil-free.” Heavier primers that contain waxes, lotions or emollients often work well for dry or aging skin. The emollients keep skin supple, while the waxes help hold in moisture.

Color Choices

There are both tinted and transparent varieties of makeup primer. The tinted kind comes in a variety of colors, and is used to cover subtle age spots or discolorations on the face. People should choose tints about one shade lighter than their natural skin tone, since the product can look too thick or mask-like when combined with a foundation of a similar color. Some primers feature bold colors like lavender, green, blue, and yellow. When used under foundation, yellow tints help conceal blue shadows under the eyes, while green shades hide red marks. Lavender and blue liven up yellow skin.

Transparent primers don't affect the color of skin as much as tinted ones, but can improve its appearance by moisturizing it and filling in wrinkles. People who like a very light layer of makeup often wear transparent formulas under a light dusting of powder and blush for a casual look.

Application

Users should start by prepping the skin with a gentle cleanser followed by a moisturizer. After the moisturizer dries, the makeup primer can be applied either with the fingers or a sponge. Many people start by gently spreading a thin layer over shiny areas like the forehead, nose, and chin, and then covering the rest of the face. Using a gentle swiping motion helps prevent big splotches of color and uneven application. After the primer dries for several minutes, any other makeup, such as foundation, blush, eyeshadow, or lipstick can be applied as usual.

Precautions

Those who have contact dermatitis, allergies, or milia — tiny cysts around the eyes — may not want to use makeup primer, as it could exacerbate these conditions. It may also cause breakouts in people with sensitive or acne-prone skin, especially when combined with layers of other products. This can clog pores and irritate skin. Additionally, ingredients like silicone may lead to allergic reactions in those with latex allergies, as silicone-containing products often come into contact with latex when they're being manufactured. Those who have an allergic reaction or serious breakouts should seek medical attention.

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Discussion Comments

By anon319776 — On Feb 14, 2013

My skin is usually really dry and flaky even when I use moisturizers. I also have real bad dark circles under my eyes, and I also have freckles on my nose and cheeks. This primer has made my face feel so silky smooth, and sort of leveled out my skin a little.

I look good with this primer even without makeup. When I do use makeup, my foundation goes on smoother than before. And it looks more natural. I love it. I wish I had known about primers back in the day. It has really boosted my confidence.

By myharley — On Dec 02, 2012

I am reluctant to use a makeup primer because the first time I tried one my face broke out. I have sensitive skin so have to be very careful with the products I use.

I am looking for something to help cover up the shadows under my eyes though. Has anyone had good results using a makeup primer to do this? I would be willing to try this again if I could find an organic or hypo-allergenic primer that wouldn't make me break out.

By bagley79 — On Dec 02, 2012

Whether you wear a makeup primer or not, I think using a good moisturizer first is the key. This gives you the smooth foundation you need to make sure your makeup primer or foundation goes on smoothly.

Personally, as I have aged, I like to use both a primer and a foundation. I use a tinted makeup primer to cover up a few age spots I have. Using a foundation alone would never do this.

I like using a heavier primer that has some lotion in it. This seems to keep the moisture in longer, and my face feels much softer when I use a primer every day.

By andee — On Dec 01, 2012

I don't like to wear a lot of makeup and prefer more of a natural look, but I like to keep my skin tones even. I always feel like the makeup foundations are too heavy, but using just a loose powder wasn't quite enough. Since I started using a transparent makeup primer, I have been very impressed. I apply this on my face and follow up with a light dusting of powder. This gives me the coverage I want without feeling like I have a bunch of stuff on my face.

By honeybees — On Nov 30, 2012

@anon247750 -- I also recently discovered makeup primer, and wished I had found out about it a long time ago. I always wondered how women had such smooth looking skin. I always used a foundation, but felt like it was lacking in covering up some of my acne scars.

I tried a lot of different foundations and never found one that I was completely happy with. Using a makeup primer before I apply my foundation has made all the difference. It really helps my skin look a lot smoother which makes me feel more confident as well.

By anon247750 — On Feb 15, 2012

I tried a primer for the first time about a month ago. It makes a huge difference. My makeup goes on so easily, my skin looks flawless and I can't believe I ever went without it.

By anon165426 — On Apr 04, 2011

Moisturising your face will do the exact same thing. Primers are a waste of money!

By anon161855 — On Mar 21, 2011

thanks for the article, i didn't know what on earth primer was until I this! This was very helpful.

By anon147920 — On Jan 31, 2011

thanks for the info, very interested in buying tinted primer.

By anon75197 — On Apr 05, 2010

I have an awful time using the primers that contain silicones! For some reason they always clog my pores and make my skin oiliness worse.

Finally, I found a good makeup primer called Mattify! Loose Powder. It helps hide my pores, but doesn't seem to clog them or cause breakouts. When I apply it before my liquid foundation, I get a nice smooth application that absorbs oil for a long time, and lets my makeup stay in place. I buy it online and it costs about 8 bucks.

It also is helpful at sopping up oil when I apply it over my foundation too! I have major oiliness problems and this stuff has really helped.

By anon66003 — On Feb 17, 2010

Am unsure on how many consumers will use a primer before makeup. won't they expect the product to deliver the properties? This would avoid buying multiple products.

By cactusdream8 — On Oct 01, 2009

thanks for the article. Now i know what it is.

By clyn — On Jul 09, 2009

I've tried makeup primer in the past to help cover some fine lines and scarring, but haven't been convinced that I see a difference in how my skin looks. I've found any facial products that claim to "fill in" scars tend to just look very unnatural on my skin.

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