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Why Does My Foundation Separate on My Face? It’s Science!

No one likes to look in the mirror five hours after applying their makeup and see their foundation breaking up on the nose, cheeks, and forehead. You worked hard on what is now an embarrassing, splotchy mess. Why is this happening to you?

We’re going to cover it all here, focusing on your skin type and giving you a base knowledge of ingredients so you can be empowered to pick products that won’t separate on your face. But before we cover that, let’s get right to the short answer.

Foundation separates for two reasons: either the ingredients in the foundation clash with your skin type or your primer and foundation aren’t working well together. There are reasons for both these possibilities. Think, for instance, how many makeup removers and first cleanses are made with oils. Oil breaks down most makeup—and that oil includes the kind that your skin produces.

Or think about mixing oil and water. If you have a water-based primer and an oil-based foundation, they won’t live in harmony on your face.

Sound interesting? Let’s dive deeper.

Image of foundation on a table with baby's breath and candles
Source: @mochiel on Unsplash

Introduction to Concepts

Before we get into your individual skin types, I want to cover a few things you should know first.

First off, there are three types of foundation and primer: water-based, oil-based, and silicone-based. They do not mix with each other.

You’ll want to look at the top ingredients of a product to determine which it is. Here’s how.

Oil-Based

Identifying an oil-based primer or foundation is easy. You’ll simply look at the ingredients and look for oils.

Here’s an example of an oil-based foundation’s ingredient deck:

Image showing lot of oils both in the beginning and the end of the list.
An oil-heavy list, both in the beginning and the end. Source.

You see a lot of oils here, but I highlighted your real clue—ones early on in the list, since ingredients are listed in order of quantity in the product. With oils this high up, you know this one’s oil based.

Silicone-Based

Identifying silicone-based products is also pretty easy. You’ll generally want to look for ingredients ending in -cone or -oxane. If there’s a bunch near the top, you’re looking at a silicone-based primer or foundation.

Here’s a silicone-based primer’s ingredient deck:

Seven of the first eight ingredients are silicones. Source.

Silicones have gotten a bad rap lately. If you’re not a silicone fan, I’d encourage you to read this article from Beautiful with Brains, which proves silicones are just fine—even beneficial—unless you pair them with comedogenic ingredients.

Water-Based

Identifying water-based foundations is a little tougher since you’re deciding based on elimination. But you’ll want to look for an absence of the things I mentioned above: oils and silicones. This can get a little tough when, say, you notice an oil as the eighth ingredient or a few silicones in the middle of the deck. But if they’re absent from the top of the list and fairly absent from the list altogether, you can probably assume it’s water-based.

Here’s what a water-based foundation’s ingredients look like.

An ingredient list lacking oils and silicones.
An ingredient list lacking oils and silicones. Source.

This one’s tricky because of the name of the product, which is “Blur Liquid Matte Foundation.” (We’ll talk more about this foundation below, in the normal skin section.) You’d think it would have silicones in it, since blurring and mattifying is the main reason people enjoy silicones. But nope. This is a water-based foundation.

One Last Note…

First off, as you enter the wild and check your own ingredient lists, you’ll find not all products fall neatly into categories.

For instance, one of my favorite primers, the Too Faced Hangover Replenishing Face Primer, appears to be water-based. But it has olive oil near the top-middle of its deck. I’m pretty sure I’d still consider it water-based, but I’m not positive.

Ingredient list that indicates a water-based primer...except with a few oils thrown in the mix
Ingredient list that indicates a water-based primer…except with a few oils thrown in the mix. Source.

Most of us aren’t scientists. I certainly am not. (Oh yeah, disclaimer: I have no background in science, but I love ingredient labels and have a lot of experience reading them.) You’ll have to use your judgment and experiment a bit.

Also, while googling something like “best oil-based foundations” can serve as a great starting point, I would get to know this ingredient trick, too. In my internet travels, I’ve found lists of foundations and primers were not, in fact, in the category implied by the title of the article. Take this article on the best water-based foundations. It starts with Tarte’s Rainforest of the Sea Water Foundation, which sure has a lot of silicones on the ingredient list for a water-based foundation.

If you have the ingredient trick in your back pocket, there’s another benefit, too. When a new foundation comes out that you’re interested in, you’re empowered to know what you’re in for just by turning the box and checking the deck.

Why Foundation Separates on Oily Skin and What to Do About It

Now that we’re done with the concepts, let’s get into the nitty gritty: why foundation separates on different skin types, starting with oily.

We often use oils to break up our foundation and wash it off at the end of the night. Oil is a great makeup dissolver. But that comes back to bite us when our skin is producing a lot of it.

If you have oily skin, the number one reason you’re probably having your foundation break up is because you’re producing a makeup remover on your face!

Also, like any other skin type, it may be that you’re using primers and foundations with different bases (for example, water with oil) in a way that encourages your foundation to break up.

To fix either of these problems, look to silicones.

It’s best to use silicone-based primers and foundations (without comedogenic ingredients!), which will block your oils from coming through. And pairing like with like means they’ll work well together.

You can use oil-based products, which will mix with your oils. But I don’t recommend this, because most oils are comedogenic, and oily folks are more prone to breakouts than other types.

You probably don’t want to use a water-based anything because oil and water don’t mix, encouraging your foundation to break up.

Silicone-Based Products for Oily Skin

I’m an oily gal myself, and here are some silicone based products I can personally vouch for. Disclaimer: I hope they’ll work for you, but everyone’s skin—even those with the same type—is different.

Dr. Brant’s Pores No More is my favorite primer. Plus, if you’re not feeling foundation today, this baby is a great way to look airbrushed without the work of doing a whole base.

Dr. Brandt's Pores No More Primer + ingredients
Dr. Brandt’s Pores No More Primer + ingredients. Source.

Next, Tarte’s Amazonian Clay Full Coverage Foundation is great for those days you’re looking for a full beat. This foundation doesn’t ever separate on me, but the coverage is intense. You may want to thin it out by mixing it with a primer or another silicone based foundation. (Look out for that stearic acid though—it’s medium-level comedogenic.)             

Tarte’s Amazonian Clay Full Coverage Foundation + ingredients
Tarte’s Amazonian Clay Full Coverage Foundation + ingredients. Source.

Last, we have Soap and Glory’s Kick Ass All Day Foundation. This is a dupe for the internet-famous C.Y.O. Lifeproof (RIP), and it’s one of the best-looking foundations I’ve ever tried. It doesn’t break up on me, and it’s got a beautiful, skin-like finish.

Soap and Glory’s Kick Ass All Day Foundation + ingredients
Soap and Glory’s Kick Ass All Day Foundation + ingredients. Source.

Why Foundation Separates on Dry Skin and What to Do About It

Next up, let’s chat dry skin.

If you have dry, flaky skin (or you have combo or dehydrated skin), you’ve no doubt seen your foundation get patchy on those dry areas.

Simply put, foundation will stick unevenly in places that are flaking. As for dry spots, products won’t sink in—they’ll just sit on top, making it look separated from your skin.

The best way to address this is with skincare. Get a good, thick moisturizer that feels great going on and makes a difference in the mirror after a few days of use. And exfoliate if you have flaky bits, but be careful not to overdo it. That can result in even more dryness. I suggest AHAs like lactic or glycolic acid (First Aid Beauty’s Facial Radiance Pads has both of these) for light exfoliation.  

The next thing to do, like for all skin types, is make sure your primer and foundation have like bases so they don’t break up. For you dry darlings, I would suggest looking into some oil-based products or some dewy-centered silicone-based products.

Oil-Based Products for Dry Skin

Let’s start with oil based products.

Lawless’ Set the Stage Hydrating Primer Serum is full of oils and shea butter. It has the most moisturizing ingredient deck I’ve seen in a while.

Lawless’ Set the Stage Hydrating Primer Serum + ingredients
Lawless’ Set the Stage Hydrating Primer Serum + ingredients. Source.

As for foundation, Kosas Tinted Face Oil has a beautiful concoction of oils that your skin will drink up. Kosas calls this “the sweatpants of foundation,” implying that it’s a comfortable, light foundation. You be the judge, of course.

Kosas Tinted Face Oil + ingredients
Kosas Tinted Face Oil + ingredients. Source.

Silicone-Based Products for Dry Skin

Last, we’ll talk silicones.

Silicones help keep moisture in, so they’re not a terrible pick for dry skin. But I think silicones will be especially useful for combo skin—for whom oil-based products might be overdoing it. Lean toward products that emphasize that they’re hydrating.

Note that I highlighted things that don’t always end in -cone or -oxane. The rule isn’t perfect, and when I sensed I was looking at a silicone, I looked it up.

Here’s a primer to try: Fenty’s Pro Filt’r Hydrating Primer is loaded with silicones and goes with their hydrating line.

Fenty’s Pro Filt'r Hydrating Primer + ingredients
Fenty’s Pro Filt’r Hydrating Primer + ingredients. Source.

And their Pro Filt’r Hydrating Longwear Foundation is silicone-heavy as well, but if you want to shake things up, try Anastasia’s Luminous Foundation, which combines moisturizing ingredients with silicones.

Anastasia’s Luminous Foundation + ingredients
Anastasia’s Luminous Foundation + ingredients. Source.

Why Foundation Separates on Normal Skin and What to Do About It

And now, for the normal-skinned folks. You beauties are blessed with lovely skin—and you can wear most kinds of foundation and not have it separate on you.

The reason foundation separates on normal skin is that you’re using clashing-base primers and foundations—or the foundation you’re using simply doesn’t work for your individual skin. It happens, especially when you get a poorly formulated foundation.

If you’re dry-leaning normal, try oil based products, and if you’re oily- or combo-leaning normal, go for silicone-based products.

But if you’re truly NORMAL-normal, it’s time for the water-based products to shine!

Water-Based Products for Normal Skin

Milk’s beloved Hydro Grip primer is full of moisturizing and soothing goodness, with hyaluronic acid and tons of aloe on its deck. Beware—the name does what it says, meaning it’s made to grip onto your foundation. That’s fantastic for keeping your foundation from separating on your face, but it will make your face a little sticky before you apply your base.

Milk’s Hydro Grip primer + ingredients.
Milk’s Hydro Grip primer + ingredients. Source.

Another water-based primer that folks love is the Smashbox Photo Finish Hydrating Primer Water.

Now, for foundation. We’ve got another Milk product, and this time it’s the Blur Liquid Matte Foundation. YouTubers like Taylor Wynn claim it doesn’t break down, and it seems like an excellent choice for normal skin.

Milk's Blur Liquid Matte Foundation + ingredients
Milk’s Blur Liquid Matte Foundation + ingredients. Source.

Conclusion

Since all products use different formulas, you may stumble upon a water-based primer that works well with your silicone-based foundation. Or maybe you use a facial oil as a primer and you pop on a water-based foundation and it sits on your face like a dream all day.

But if you’re here asking “Why does my foundation separate on my face?”, I’m guessing that’s not the case. If so, I hope you enjoyed reading about these different ways to think, as far as why your foundation might be breaking up. And I hope my solutions and suggestions make it so you never again look into at the mirror and see a splotchy looking foundation separating on your lovely face.

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