Getting to the Bottom of Undertones

The beauty editors here at Birchbox will sweep on a reverse cat-eye or rock orange lipstick without a second thought. But even we are left mystified by undertones, and how they can make that seems-just-right foundation shade look so, so wrong. We brought you up to speed on the basics, and now we’re taking a closer look at undertones to make finding the perfect foundation match even easier—and to help you identify the ideal concealer, lipstick, and more.

Determining Your Undertone: A Quick Refresher

However light or dark your skin is, its undertones will generally fall in one of three categories: warm (also called yellow or olive), cool (red or pink), and neutral. There are several ways to determine yours: There’s the tried-and-true method of looking at the veins on the underside of your wrist (warm undertones make veins look greenish, and cool tones make them seem purple). You can also wrap a white towel around your face and look in the mirror to make your undertones more visible—a bluefish tint indicates cool, greenish confers neutral, and yellowish means warm. Just make sure your mirror gets natural light, since fluorescent bulbs have a misleading green tint, says Diane da Silva, a freelance makeup artist represented by Jed Root. A quick glance at your jewelry collection can be informative, too: Gold tends to flatter warm undertones, while silver goes best with cool ones, explains Trevor O’Keefe, a makeup artist for Laura Mercier.

Finding the Right Foundation Shade

Now that you’ve deciphered your undertone, it’s time to go foundation shopping. Some brands do the heavy lifting for you, labeling the undertones that work with each color, like Laura Mercier’s Tinted Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 20 Sunscreen. Even when brands don’t label, their word choice can give you a hint, says da Silva: Shades like beige, golden, tan, caramel, and chestnut often have warm undertones, while porcelain, rose, sable, and cocoa often have cool undertones. Ivory, buff, nude, and praline are more neutral. (Check out Jouer’s Luminizing Moisture Tint and Matte Moisture Tint for many of those shades.) Once you choose a foundation shade, don’t simply swipe it onto your face to compare: Your skin tone frequently changes color, but your undertone doesn’t. Test foundation on your jawline, da Silva says, which is truer to your undertone (and has the added benefit of showing how the color will blend with your neck).

Using Your Undertone to Your (Complexion’s) Advantage

Keep your undertone in mind when you contour and conceal, too. Stick to products that match it when you’re looking for bronzer, highlighter, or a bit of extra coverage to hide the occasional blemish. Those products, like foundation, are designed to enhance your natural complexion. But when you’re doing more heavy-duty concealing, consider the undertone of the problem area, and look to its opposite on the color wheel, da Silva says. For purple under eye circles, consider a yellow-toned version like Vasanti Wonders of the World Concealer. If you’re dealing with redness, look for a hint of green to cancel it out, like Smashbox Cosmetics Photo Finish Color Correcting Primer—Adjust.

Picking Your Perfect Red Lipstick (or Peachy Blush)

No need to worry about being too matchy if your BFF borrows your favorite lipstick—as long as you have different undertones: A shade that looks decidedly pink on a woman with warm undertones can take on a rosy nude hue on her cool-toned friend. To make sure a product will give you the color payoff you want—whether you’re looking for crimson lipstick or a peachy blush—it’s time to bust out your color wheel. (Or, you know, Google one.) First, pinpoint the color you’re looking for—let’s say, classic red. Then, if you have cool undertones, go a half step cooler, and look for something in a pink-red shade, like MAKE Silk Cream Lipstick in Maraschino Cherry. If you have warm undertones, on the other hand, go a half step warmer—opting for a red with a bit of orange, like Marcelle Rouge Xpression Lipstick in Delirium. If you have neutral undertones, no need to consult the wheel: What you see in the tube is what you’ll see in the mirror.

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