Primers — beauty products that create a smooth layer of sealant on skin to help makeup adhere better, and pill less — can be a touchy subject. Skin-care enthusiasts don’t care for its tendency to clog pores (even Strategist beauty writer Rio wrote last year about her reluctance) and busy people tend to find them unnecessary — a rich moisturizer (one that has a slippery, rather than a matte, finish) can double as a primer, after all. Makeup artists tend to be more bullish on them, though, because, they tell me, they’re essential for creating a poreless finish, adding glow, and helping makeup last longer.
You have to use them right to reap all of the benefits, though. They should go on a clean face, after you’ve cleansed and tapped on essences, serums, and a moisturizer, but before any makeup. “A common mistake is using too much, which can lead to makeup slip or product pilling,” says makeup artist Marie Schumacher, who frequently works on editorial and commercial shoots. “A light layer is all you need, and you have to let it absorb for a minute or two between steps.” To find the best primers for every skin type, we polled seven makeup artists on their favorites, below.
Best primers for dry skin
Weleda’s Skin Food is already popular with the Strategist and skin-care people. In Stephanie Danler’s original tribute to it, she noted that it’s a makeup artist favorite, and three makeup artists — Helene Vasnier, Julianna Grogan, and Atelier Management’s Holly Gowers — mentioned it here. It’s not technically billed as a stand-alone primer, but Grogan notes that “unlike silicon primers, which can make foundation look cake-y,” Weleda has a creamy, slightly greasy texture that’s ideal for prepping dry skin. Gowers — whose specialty is glowing skin achieved with minimal makeup — warns that it’s not for the faint of heart, but as a primer, “it’s incredible for creating the ultimate dewy look.”
Instead of applying this stuff all over the face, Grogan prefers rubbing a little bit into dry areas of the face, “like around the nose where skin tends to be chapped.” On extra dry or flaking skin, she even likes to apply extra product and let it sit for a few minutes before gently working it in with a Q-tip.
Schumacher’s aesthetic is all about radiant looking skin, so she always stocks this glow-inducing, cruelty-free Hourglass primer in her kit. She says it works especially well for dry skin types since it “pulls double duty as a primer and serum, and combines skin plumping oils to create a beautiful dewy makeup base.” Makeup artist Kellie Silsby is also a fan, and praises the way this “silky formula helps to plump and soften fine lines while keeping makeup fresh all day.”
If Weleda alone is not cutting it on your dry skin, this Weleda fanatic with very, very dry skin would recommend adding a layer of primer on top of your Skin Food in colder months to make sure your makeup sits well. I like The Ordinary’s extremely budget-friendly silicone one, which I find is gentler on my skin than similar options (Smashbox’s Photo Finish silicon primer makes me break out), and applies very smoothly to skin without pilling.
Best primer for combination skin
Combination, sensitive skin types will want a primer that prevents breakouts and minimizes the look of large pores. Gowers personally uses this “velvety balm primer” from Tatcha on her sensitive skin — one that our beauty writer Rio has raved about — and says it’s her ultimate favorite. “I break out ridiculously easy, and this is the only primer that doesn’t irritate my skin or cause break outs.” After moisturizing and using sunblock, she applies a rice-sized amount of this all over the face or just along the T-zone, and finds that it “creates a blurring effect which keeps makeup from fading throughout the day.”
New York–based hair and makeup artist Shaina Erlich says this Make Up For Ever primer is one of her favorites for smoothing out rough texture and large pores, but says it’s really important that you use it the right way. “You have to warm it up and press it into clean skin, especially in areas where you have enlarged pores or texture.” She adds that it’s one of her favorites for on-location shoots, because it prevents any makeup slippage.
Best primer for oily skin
Oily skin types might want to prevent, rather than create, a slick surface for makeup. It’s why makeup artists tend to remove excess oil with blotting paper before applying makeup, and choose mattifying primers that soak up shine. Erlich praises the DHC Velvet Skin Coat for doing just that. Because it works well at keeping makeup in place for hours, it’s her first choice when she works on film sets. “I love it so much,” she says. “It mattifies the skin perfectly, but your skin never looks cakey or dry.” She recommends warming up a pinch of it in between your palms, and pressing it only where needed — “the T-zone mainly, unless you are oily anywhere else.”
Jennifer Nam, a makeup artist represented by Honey Artists, prefers using the cult-favorite Smashbox Photo Finish Primer on oily skin types — it’s silicon-based, and goes on velvety smooth without looking greasy. “A slightly mattifying primer like this one can tone down the high shine and help makeup sit better,” she says.
Make Up For Ever specifically created its Step 1 Equalizer Primer with oily skin in mind, and Silsby considers it the best mattifying primer for keeping you shine-free for hours — even on a hot summer day. “The lightweight texture makes you feel like there’s nothing on your skin.”
Best primer for normal skin
If you’re blessed with balanced normal skin (not too dry, not too oily), you might not need anything too heavy or oil-free. Vasnier likes to use Kiehl’s ultra facial cream as a primer in these cases, because it has a light, whipped texture that adds hydration without the grease — it’s also relatively inexpensive.
Best primer for men
Embryolisse is another creamy moisturizer that has been co-opted by makeup artists backstage as a primer. It’s on the creamier end, so it’s deeply hydrating, but also very gentle on sensitive skin. Vasnier says it’s her favorite for priming men’s skin (which is thicker than women’s). She likes to mix this with foundation instead of layering one on top of the other.
Best primer for mature skin
For mature skin that needs some smoothing and filling in areas where wrinkles and crow’s feet abound, Nam uses this Clarins primer. “It dramatically fills in and smooths out fine lines and enlarged pores,” she says, but suggests spot-treating this primer only on the specific areas of the face that need it. “A little goes a long way.”
Though this doesn’t qualify as a skin type, many of the experts stock primers that create a luminous effect in their kit — which we’ve included below.
Best primers for extra glow
Becca’s two “priming filters” emerged as favorites, like this backlight option that’s infused with “luminescent, light diffusing pearls.” Silsby says this subtle shimmery primer gets the most use in her makeup kit because “it’s suitable to use either under foundation or alone to create a luminous, dewy finish.” It’s also one of Nam’s “do it all favorites” for creating a “lovely candlelight glow that softly diffuses imperfections on the skin.”
Becca’s First Light priming filter has more of an iridescent strobing effect (rather than a subtle, natural look). Gowers says she uses this primer on clients when she really wants to boost their radiance and make their skin glow, but also notes that it’s color-neutralizing, if you tend to get red easily. Because it’s so glowy, Grogan also considers it ideal for “giving dimension and lift” to dull or lackluster skin — sometimes she mixes it with foundation for added effect.
For a similar strobing finish to the First Light primer, Nam also recommends M.A.C’s strobe cream: “It’s a cult classic that can double as a primer under your foundation,” or function as a highlighter, she says. She even suggests mixing it with your body moisturizer for occasions that call for some body shimmer.
Laura Mercier’s radiance primer is another one that Nam likes for creating a lit-from-within look. She describes the effect as a golden, peachy glow (more so than a shiny or iridescent look) and adds, “the texture is soft and thin, so it blends seamlessly with your foundation.”
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