Chantelle Bester
3 minute read
26 Mar 2018
3:34 pm

A guide to decoding foundation shades

Chantelle Bester

If 27W Medium Caramel makes you wonder whether you’re buying a cupcake or a concealer, we can help you out.

Picture: iStock

Whether you’re browsing in-store or online, trying to decipher the codes and names on foundation packaging can be a giant pain.

Those numbers can actually be used as standard indicators, so they can help make choosing the right shade of foundation a little easier next time.

1. What do the letters on foundation mean?

The most commonly used letters in foundation shades are N, C and W. This is one of the few standard indicators, and if they’re used on the foundation you’re buying, it’s a great place to start when choosing a foundation shade.

These letters stand for Neutral, Cool and Warm skin undertones, and picking the right one goes a long way to making sure your foundation suits your skintone.

If you’re not sure of your undertone, have a look at the inside of your wrist. Mostly blue veins indicate a cool undertone. If your veins look more green, you have a warm undertone. If you struggle to tell, your undertone is neutral.

Ideally you should match your foundation to your undertone: i.e. warm undertone = warm foundation. If you’re a bit more skilled, you can play around with the opposite undertone. I’m fair-skinned with a cool undertone, for example, but I use a warm-toned foundation to warm up my complexion without having to try and darken it.

2. What do the numbers on foundation mean?

Sadly the numbers used on various foundation brands are not standardised, and some make more sense than others. Most MAC foundation variants, for example, start at shade 15 and the numbers then increase in increments of 5 (with some exceptions, as additional shades have been added) up to shade 50.

So you’ll choose your undertone and shade and there you go, you know you should be NW35 in all MAC foundations!

Not all brands make things this simple though, but you can safely assume that numbered shades will run from light (low numbers) to dark (high numbers).

makeup foundation

3. What about foundation shades with names?

Foundations with names are my least favourite, because they’re the most inconsistent, in my opinion. The equivalent shade of my MAC NW15 foundation colour can be called anything from Vanilla, Porcelain, Nude, Buff, Ivory, Beige or Natural to unimaginative words like Light or Pale.

If a brand consistently sticks to the same shade description for all foundation variants under their umbrella, I can handle the initial frustration – but it’s definitely not the most logical of systems. Try to find descriptive words like warm, golden, medium/dark/light to help you along.

4. How to keep track of your favourite foundation shade

If you find a foundation you love, you don’t want to forget what it was. Take a picture of the shade name and save it in an album that you’ll be able to locate again. Some people prefer to pull off the sticker with the shade name and keep it on a card in their wallet.

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