What Does Makeup Primer Actually Do? And Do We Need It?

Makeup artists explain the best uses of this beauty product and what you can try instead.

Makeup primers that promise to smooth your skin, seal in your moisturizer and cement foundation to your face have proliferated in the past decade, but among consumers and makeup artists alike, they’ve always been met with a certain degree of suspicion. What does this expensive tube of something that’s not quite moisturizer actually do? And do we really need it?

As their name suggests, primers “prime” or optimize the skin surface before foundation is applied. Think of them as double-sided tape for your makeup, or even spackle. For skin with large pores, a primer can smooth the surface and prevent foundation from creating dots across the T-zone. For skin that’s either oily or too dry, the right primer can offer an added bit of mattification or moisturization (but rarely both at the same time).

So primers can improve the look of foundation. But far too often, they’re billed as a complexion panacea. Based on feedback from makeup artists, most primers haven’t earned that billing.

“For a long time, I thought that I had to use primers,” said Tim MacKay, a makeup artist based in New York City. “I think that I stopped when I realized that if you prep the skin a little bit better with the right moisturizers and whatever the skin needs ... you don’t really need a primer.”

How the primer craze started

The runaway success of Smashbox Cosmetics’ Photo Finish Foundation Primer, which debuted more than a decade ago, showed other brands there’s a market for primer.

Lauren Goodsitt, global beauty analyst at Mintel, a cosmetics industry market research firm, sees a link between the growth in primer sales and the habit of posting photos, often close-up photos, online.

“As consumers’ presence on social media grew, so did the popularity of foundation primers. Social media created an expectation that skin appear flawless, poreless and smooth both in photos and in real life,” she told HuffPost.

According to Goodsitt, 43% of U.S. women ages 25-34 ― those most likely to be heavy social media users ― use primer compared to only 23% of U.S. women ages 45-54.

For better or worse, many women now view primers as an essential part of making themselves up, often on the seemingly reasonable assumption that primers will help makeup last longer. The reality, as makeup artists note, is a little bit more complicated.

When primers are worth it

“If you have really dry or oily skin, it’s great to use primers to help combat this,” New York makeup artist Ashley Rebecca told HuffPost.

For those with truly oily skin ― skin that glistens with sebum from ear to ear (not just in the T-zone) almost constantly ― a primer can absorb excess oil from beneath foundation and prevent the foundation from separating as quickly.

For those with drier complexions, a primer can create a barrier to prevent skin from “drinking” the water contained in most foundations ― again, with the goal being that the foundation will not separate and become “cakey.” In this sense, a primer is similar to a moisturizer. But it’s thinner and floats on the skin, whereas moisturizer sinks in.

Primers also tend to have an optical element. Whether blurring or illuminating, they adjust the way that light hits the skin.

And as Rebecca said, “If your skin tends to be uneven in tone or red, primers can help calm that down.” This last benefit is one that makes primers a particularly attractive choice for men.

Sephora carries 190 varieties of face primer.
Sephora carries 190 varieties of face primer.

Although gender expectations are shifting around wearing makeup, most men still prefer to wear as little as possible. That’s why Smashbox’s trend-setting colored primers, which debuted in the 2000s, caught the eye of makeup artists like Michelle Spieler, who relied on primers for making up male talent at ESPN.

“Smashbox changed primers in that they target[ed] certain primers for certain skin types,” Spieler told HuffPost by email. “[I]f men had red/ruddy skin, we used the green primer. If a guy was super dry, we used the blue primer. If someone was too sallow, the peach,” she added.

In fact, Spieler noted that she uses primer increasingly on men ― and less on women, for whom products like CC (color correcting) creams eliminate the need.

That said, primers remain valuable to those who want to approximate perfect skin with as little foundation as possible.

What to watch out for

If a foundation primer claims to make your makeup last longer, you should be suspicious, according to makeup artists. Note that some primers actually do the opposite: A primer that is mostly silicone, for example, will cause a foundation that is mostly water to slide off the skin.

Overall, the interaction between a primer and a foundation is difficult to predict, as it depends so much on the cleansers, serums and moisturizers applied to your skin before the primer even comes out of the bottle. Theory rarely translates seamlessly into practice here, but as a general rule, for long wear, minimize the amount of product between your skin and your foundation.

MacKay’s experience is that primer doesn’t really deliver on the long-wearing promise. He said the value of primers comes from their ability to help conceal large pores and other texture on the skin and to address oiliness ― a view shared by Dr. Angela Lamb, director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice.

“I am neutral about primers or rather, it depends on what is in them or what purpose they are trying to serve,” Lamb said. “Some primers are for mattifying, which can be good for people with larger pores or who feel their skin looks oily after some time.”

But don’t expect primers to be a final solution to oiliness, according to MacKay. “Everyone, at the end of the day, has to be a lady and powder their nose,” he said.

What about other options?

Should you decide to skip primer entirely but enjoy the feeling of something between your skin and your makeup, some moisturizers are known to work well under makeup. Cult favorite Embryolisse Lait-Crème Concentré creates a smooth and dewy canvas, as does Weleda’s Skin Food. Both are quite thick, however, and contain ingredients like mineral oil and lanolin, respectively, that can clog pores.

Non-comedogenic alternatives praised by beauty enthusiasts include Sunday Riley’s Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment and Charlotte Tilbury’s Magic Cream.

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