Foundation: How to Pick Your Shade, Coverage and Finish

Foundation: How to Pick Your Shade, Coverage and Finish

By Joshua Pierce, Head of Education at Credo

“Shade matching”... It comes naturally to some, and to others, it’s like oil and water. I’m referring to the process of finding a foundation that actually matches your skin. WHY is it so difficult to find a shade of foundation that blends seamlessly into your neck? Why is it such a struggle to find a shade that balances out all the nuances of your skin??? It’s because there are SO many complexion products out there and everyone has a different way of classifying their shades. Simply put, it’s complicated.

One pearl of wisdom that has stuck with me during my makeup career… “Makeup is not a tattoo”. It’s ok to go through some trial and error to find the perfect match for your already fabulous face. At the end of the day, you can always wipe it off and start over.

Let’s get into the easiest and quickest way to shade match yourself and find your perfect clean foundation. I promise I’ll make it as simple as possible.

1. Coverage

Firstly, we need to talk about coverage. Coverage means how “see-through” or opaque you want the makeup to be. The scale ranges from sheer to full coverage. For a little visual reference, I give you the panty hose-tights-leggings analogy: 
  • Pantyhose are your sheer coverage.
  • Tights will be more of a medium coverage. 
  • And leggings will be your full coverage. 
Understanding coverage will majorly affect the shade match, as well as the texture of your makeup. The fuller the coverage, the more spot-on your shade match has to be because you’re essentially creating a second skin. The sheerer the coverage, the more the makeup will take on your natural skin tone. Sheer products are more forgiving because they allow more of your natural skin to shine through.

So, look at what you want to cover and determine what your coverage needs to be. If you want to cover minimal redness like flushed cheeks, pick a sheer coverage. If you’re wanting to cover freckles and redness, you might want a medium coverage. If you have breakouts, hyperpigmentation, bruising, dark circles or anything that still shows through the makeup; then a full coverage could be what you need.

Here’s a simple breakdown of what kind of coverage to expect from complexion products:
  • Sheer coverage comes from tinted moisturizers, BB Creams and CC Creams.
  • Medium coverage comes from most liquid foundations and baked powder foundations. 
  • Fuller coverage comes from some liquids, most cream/stick foundations or traditional powder foundations.
This isn’t always hard and true but for the most part this is the coverage you can expect from these formulas. Also, keep in mind that you can greatly increase coverage by adding a concealer only in the places you want a more intense coverage. And fuller coverages can always be diluted to appear less opaque. Sheer complexion products will only ever be sheer… unless paired with concealer.

2. Finish

Now, consider your finish. This one is super easy. The dewier the formula, the more hydrating it will be or appear to be on the skin. The drier the formula, the more matte it will be. 

If you’re of the dryer skin persuasion, then you will love a more hydrating, dewy foundation. If you’re of the oily skin persuasion, you might love a mattifying foundation. If you’re of the age-conscious persuasion, then you’ll want foundations with a dewy glow. Dewy skin comes across as full of youth and life!

Pro tip:
If you’re testing a new foundation, let it sit on your skin for a minute or two to see what the dry down is. While this is happening, it’s likely the foundation will darken a little to a LOT depending on the ingredients. This is called oxidation. It sneaks up on the best of us, resulting in the foundation shade now being too dark for your skin! ALWAYS test the dry down. Never ever leave a makeup shop with a foundation that you tested quickly on the back of your hand.

3. Shades and undertones

This one we’ll need to break up into skin tones. But first, let’s talk about how to SEE the color in your skin. Right off the bat, I have to say that no one’s skin is one shade all over. It’s impossible. From everyday flush, to sun exposure, to natural highs and lows of melanin, to thinness and thickness of skin- there are peaks and valleys and beautiful nuances to all of our diverse undertones. Knowing that, it’s easy to get confused on what you’re actually seeing in terms of color. 

There are some key undertones that makeup artists will call out when looking at your face. I’m going to avoid using terms like “warm”, “cool”, “neutral” because everyone seems to have a different idea of what each term means. Instead I will just speak to the undertones that are most common in skin. 

Check out these images of the different undertones you may find in your skin! Hopefully they will help train your eye to see these subtle nuances.

You may see some red or pink undertones in your skin...

You will be Red (medium deep to deep skin) and/or Pink (fair to medium skin):

Exa - Fazon 110      
Exa - Jssica 210


Exa - Koko 340       Exa - Dana 430

Exa - Whit 500

Gold or yellow can also show up in your undertone...

We’ll call you Gold (medium deep to deep skin) and/or Yellow (fair to medium skin):

Exa - Nya 140          
Exa - Rae 200

Exa - Brandy 310     
Exa - Stefania 470

Exa- Carolina 510

Across all skin tones, you may find a greenish or olive cast to your skin...

You will be Olive (all skin tones):

Exa- Annette 180   
Exa - Mia 230

Exa- Liam 480

If you think your eyes are playing tricks on you... and none of the previously mentioned skin tones seem that obvious, then you might be a neutral undertone. 

A little bit of every undertone...

Neutral (all skin tones):

Exa -Julie 130         
Exa - Soraya 220

Exa - Michelle 300   
Exa - James 410

These hues can be seen across all skin tones of the world. The best way to identify what undertones are in your skin is to throw on a white t-shirt and make sure your hair is away from your face. Stand in front of a white wall with a mirror in hand. Turn on a bright white light and have a look at your face and neck. Doing this will allow your true undertones to pop out and not be influenced by surrounding colors or altered by the shades you’re wearing. 

Here’s a breakdown of skin tones with celebrity references to help you visualize undertones. These aren’t every skin tone in the book, but it will work as a general guide.

Deep Dark

Let’s start with our deepest and richest skin tone. You may find similarities between your skin and Alek Wek, Lupita Nyong’o, Djimon Hounsou or Grace Jones.

Kosas Tinted Face Oil

With skin tones above the medium range, it’s common to see some brightness or lightness around the eye area. And even some darker dimension around the mouth and perimeter of the face. However, this skin tone has a rich plummy undertone to it that doesn’t have quite as much natural highlight throughout the eye area. Typically, you can just use one shade across the entire face or wherever you like to wear foundation. It’s rare that you would need a yellow-based foundation for your main shade. Putting a yellow/golden foundation on skin with more red in it will come across as ashy.

Dark to Deep

Moving onto “dark to deep”. Look to the stunning faces of Michael B Jordan, Janelle Monae, Iman, Issa Rae, Yara Shahidi, H.E.R.

Ilia Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40

Dark to deep skin tones can see some incredible brightness around their eyes that is a different undertone than the rest of the face. Potentially, you’ll see more golden/yellow through the center of the face (T-zone and eyes) and deeper, richer red undertones as you move to the perimeter. Caution! As with deep skin, if you put a yellow-based foundation on areas where you have more of a red undertone, it will definitely show up ashy.

You could also see a monochromatic effect in a golden/yellow undertone. Meaning, you’re yellow or golden from ear to ear, lacking the red undertone in the deeper contours of your face. In which case, you would just need two yellow-based foundations. One lighter shade around the eyes and a deeper yellow shade for the rest of your face.


Medium skin tones are found in the faces of Sofia Vergara, Priyanka Chopra, Megan Markle, Michelle Yeoh, Jason Momoa, Jessica Alba. 

Westman Atelier Vital Skin Foundation Stick

This skin tone will also see hues of yellow/gold, olive or even red. Pay close attention to the area around your eyes. It’s where our skin is the thinnest and can appear more yellow or gold. In the contours (under cheekbones, around the mouth and jaw) and the perimeter of the face, you may see more red or olive/green in your skin. It’s important that you match the shades in those areas. If you place an olive or red-based foundation across your yellow/gold high planes, you will lose a lot of your natural dimension. It’s best to have multiple shades on hand to enhance all the wonderful dimensions in your skin.

Fair to Light

For visual reference, imagine the skin tones of Gwen Stefani, Ed Sheeran, Bette Midler or Eva Chen. 

RMS "Un" Cover Up Cream Foundation

In these skin tones, you’ll likely see hues of pink and/or straight up yellow. And sometimes a very faint touch of green/olive in fairer skinned Asian, Mediterranean and Middle-eastern faces.

If you are in the fair-light skinned family and would like to even out redness in the skin, it’s best to reach for a foundation that has a touch of yellow or faint olive/green. This will help counteract the pink/redness. Otherwise, you can match directly to the shades you see. 

If you see a little bit of everything pink and yellow, then my advice is to go with a yellow-based foundation and balance out the pink with blush or a pink-based bronzer.

Fair warning, I am as light as they come. And it’s very easy for me to reach for a pink-based foundation because I turn red very easily. When in fact, I am yellow yellow yellow. To recreate a more polished look for my skin; I throw on a tinted moisturizer with a yellow base. Then I bring back some natural flush with a pink-based bronzer/blush in the contours of my face. That combo enhances my natural undertone without turning my skin Big Bird yellow.

Trying Out Foundation

A great rule of thumb for trying on shades is to pick three. One that you think is an exact match, one that is slightly lighter and one that is slightly darker. Swipe all three next to each other on your jawline, extending down to your neck. Whichever one matches closest to your skin is your winner! Always remember to let the foundation sit on the skin for a minute or two to see if it oxidizes or deepens as it dries.

To summarize

Foundation can be simple when you look at all the things that go into a proper shade match. Coverage, finish and shade. Looking at shade alone simply will not cover all your bases. 

Find a line that boasts a diverse and inclusive shade range like Exa. The larger the shade range, the more likely you are to find your perfect match! Exa has a robust offering of 43 shades… in fact, it’s the first clean foundation to be able to make that claim. It’s loaded with skincare ingredients that boost your skin’s defense against air pollution, sun damage and other environmental aggressors. Keeping your skin full of healthy youth while giving you fantastic coverage!

If you’re ever in doubt and need a helping hand, check out Credo Live. This is our live chat platform where you can chat and get shade-matched with one of our Clean Beauty Experts! You can video chat, send selfies/photos of your skin tone and get immediate foundation recommendations from any of our brands.



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