Even though beauty brands have been putting out makeup primers for what feels like forever, it still remains one of the more mysterious and puzzling base products on the market. There’s such a vast array of different primer options available — hydrating, mattifying, blurring, luminizing, and more — it can be very confusing to figure out which type of primer will work for you. Oh yeah, and then there’s the application factor. Yes, apparently there is a wrong way to apply primer. If confusion and frustration are the main reasons you’ve been avoiding primer, we’re here to change that. Ahead, find professional advice on how to properly use it, recommendations for every skin type, and what you should never do when it comes to this pre-base product.
1. What is primer and what does it do?
Put simply, primer is exactly what its name implies: It’s a preparatory product that’s applied after your skin care to create an ideal canvas to hold onto whatever makeup comes afterward — like foundation, tinted moisturizer, or concealer. Your primer might come in the form of a hyaluronic acid-spiked facial serum that boosts hydration, a sunscreen that protects and softens the appearance of pores, or a traditional silicone-based primer (looking at you, Smashbox) that smooths and blurs.
It’s worth pointing out that the newest primers don’t just smooth skin, keep makeup in place, and blur pores to near invisibility. They can also brighten, fade fine lines and wrinkles, target acne, and add tons of moisture. Some can even give skin a temporary face-lift, all without feeling heavy.
The bottom line: If you’re wondering whether or not you need a primer in your life, just ask yourself how happy you are with the overall look, feel, and finish of your face makeup. If there’s something off or missing — maybe you want to add more overall glow or trim shine from your T-zone — a primer could be precisely what you need.
2. What’s the best way to apply them?
Unlike products that lock your makeup in, like setting powder or setting sprays, primers are almost always applied after your last skin-care step and before your makeup. In regard to application, makeup artists Allan Avendaño, Mary Phillips, and Robin Black all recommend using fingers to apply primer, as they say it’s the best and easiest way to blend everything and get a seamless finish. “A makeup brush will just drag the primer around,” says Phillips, who adds, “If you’re a germophobe, you can always use a slightly damp Beautyblender sponge.”
Phillips also recommends giving primer a full minute to dry before layering anything on top in order to avoid disturbing the makeup. “The trick with any primer is to make sure it’s applied in a small dime-to-nickel-size amount and it’s fully blended in first [before going in with foundation],” says Avendaño, who explains that this is why he likes to use his fingers to control the spreadability and make sure the primer doesn’t pill-up or gather anywhere on the skin. “Apply lightly and sparingly is my go-to rule for primers,” he adds.
A tip from makeup artist Vincent Oquendo, who, like Avendaño, also advises starting off small, is to tailor the amount of primer you use based on your skin type. For example, he says that someone with extremely dry skin that tends to absorb makeup more quickly can handle a quarter-size dollop of primer, whereas someone with oily skin should stick to the bare minimum because it sits on the surface longer. Once you get into half-dollar territory, however, you’ve gone overboard. A little goes a long way with primer, and too much can sabotage your makeup look before you ever get to create it.
In certain cases, you can use primer after foundation, too — but it has to be the right formula. Charlotte Tilbury’s Wonderglow Instant Soft-Focus Beauty Flash Primer, for example, is one that can be worn underneath or on top of makeup, as it’s a hydrating, slightly shimmery formula that doesn’t interfere with makeup. Tap it onto the high points of your face after foundation and you’re good to go.
Finally, if you want to disguise wrinkles, pores, or the odd blemish or two, then you can just use primer on the areas you want to cover. Squirt a pumpkin-seed-size dollop on the back of your hand, and dab it on with your fingers using a light patting motion, or try applying with a foundation brush to fill deeper wrinkles.
3. How do you know which primer to use?
If you’re hoping to reduce redness or boost radiance, you’ll want a color-correcting primer (more on those here. If you’re looking to fade the appearance of fine lines, you’ll want one with a smoothing effect, such as Hourglass Veil Mineral Primer. The editor-favorite elixir expertly plumps the skin while blurring imperfections.
Two universal primer options that could potentially work on anyone regardless of skin color or type are Yves Saint Laurent Beauté All Hours Primer and J.One Jelly Pack, both of which come recommended by makeup artists who work with primers on a regular basis. “The Jelly Pack is essentially a hydrating mask, skin tightening serum, and primer in one,” says Black. “I’ve used it on very deep complexions and very fair complexions because it’s completely translucent [and] also works well on oily, combination, normal, and dry skin,” she adds. Avendaño says the YSL primer is amazing at smoothing all skin types. “It has a silky texture that’s lightweight and never looks cakey,” he says.
If you’re still unsure of when or why you should use a primer, check out this guide to makeup primers for every skin concern imaginable. You’re bound to find one (or a few) that will suit your needs.
4. What are the most common primer mistakes?
One of the main missteps people make when it comes to priming is applying makeup too soon afterwards. As Phillips mentioned, you want to wait a full minute or more to allow the primer to dry completely before going in with makeup, as this will help to curb pilling or patchiness. Another mistake people make is choosing a primer that’s wrong for their skin type. You’d never use a mattifying moisturizer on dry or mature skin, would you? Well, the same goes for primer. “[They’re not] all created equally,” says Avendaño. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that certain primers do specific things. It’s about evaluating what issues you have with your skin and then finding primers that address them,” he adds. Makeup artist Elisa Flowers recommends hydrating or illuminating primers for dry and combination skin and mattifying formulas for those who struggle with too much shine.
Black also brings up the importance of finding a primer that’s a good match for your foundation. “When they don’t work well together, you often wind up with very thick, cakey-looking makeup or patchy spots,” she explains. That’s why it’s generally a good idea to test primers in person so that you can see how the two products will mesh (or if they don’t at all). Just bring your favorite foundation with you to see how they jive or use a similar formula in store to see what happens.
Another way people tend to mess up their primer is by applying too much. “I recently watched a YouTube video showing an influencer applying a moisturizer followed by a primer, followed by a shimmering oil, followed by color corrector, followed by contour and finally, a full-coverage foundation,” Black says. “Not only do those layers cancel each other out but they also leave an incredible amount of product on your face.”
5. But do you really need primer?
Whether or not you feel using a primer is necessary, it’s 100 percent up to you. You may find that primers don’t make a marked improvement in your face makeup, and in that case, skip the step. However, it could also mean you haven’t found the one. While some makeup artists and editors swear by it and have several favorites, there are other experts who feel quite the opposite, believing it to be an unnecessary extra step that doesn’t make a difference in the appearance and longevity of face makeup. Regardless, before choosing a primer do your research, get recommendations, and try different formulas in store.