The Difference Between Warm, Cool & Neutral Foundations

By Michelle Powell-Smith

Choosing a foundation requires a bit more than simply grabbing a bottle labeled porcelain or mocha from the store shelf. While foundations are available in a spectrum from very pale to quite dark, you need to match not only the shade of your skin, but also the undertone. Learn how to recognize and select the perfect foundation for your complexion and skip those costly cosmetic counter blunders that leave you too yellow, orange or pink.

Woman applying foundation
credit: Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images
Picture-perfect skin requires a flawless foundation match.

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Understand Undertones

The undertone of your skin doesn't have to do with whether it's light or dark, but with your overall coloring. Your undertone may be warm, cool or neutral. Warm undertones are golden, yellow or peach. Cool undertones are red, blue or pink. Neutral undertones may appear greenish or have elements of both warm and cool tones. To determine your undertone, look at the inside of your wrist in natural light. If your veins appear blue, you have a cool undertone. If they are green, your have a warm undertone. When your veins are in-between, showing tones of both blue and green, your undertone is neutral.

Warm Undertones

Foundations with a warm undertone will have a peach or yellow tone, suiting women who prefer warm, glowing colors. If your natural undertone is golden, peachy or coppery, a yellow toned foundation will blend into your skin. Warm foundations for pale skin should be very pale peach or slightly yellow ivory, moving into shades of golden beige, deep tan and a range of golden brown tones. Warm foundations pair well with cosmetics in shades of coral, peach, brown, orange, gold, and rust.

Cool and Collected

Cool-toned foundations, while still skin-toned, should have a pink undertone, rather than a golden one. Golden beige should be replaced by a pink-toned beige and deep coppery brown by a softer rosy chocolate. These shades can be harder to find and you may realize you're cool-toned if you've bought bottle after bottle of foundation and found it read as orange on your skin. If your foundation shade is cool, pair it with shades of pink and rose blush and lipstick, opting for grays for neutral eye shadow.

Nice and Neutral

Neutral foundations lack a golden or pink tone. If you have a neutral undertone, warm and cool foundations will appear too yellow, orange or pink on your face; however, many foundations are formulated to be neutral, rather than warm or cool. If you have not been able to find a warm or cool foundation that matches your foundation, you may be able to wear a neutral version successfully, even if you do not have a neutral undertone. Neutral foundations are likely to have names like ivory, beige, tan or ebony.