Some of us are lucky enough to find foundation that always looks natural or mascara that never ever smears. Then there are the rest of us. But with these foolproof tips, you can make sure you love the products you buy—without using testers on your face. (Unless you see them being opened, consider them contaminated with bacteria, says dermatologist Heidi Waldorf.) Here’s what to look for, whether you’re shopping at the drugstore, a department store, or online.
When you can test it at the store: You know how you’ve been testing foundation on your jaw for years? Well, don’t. Your neck has more uniform color than your face, so start there, says makeup artist Troy Surratt. You’ll wind up with the most natural-looking color and avoid any obvious demarcations along the jawline later on.
When a sample isn’t available: Bring a bottle of your favorite foundation with you and look for the closest match. If you’ve already tossed yours, then reading the label is almost as important as looking at the color of the bottle, explains makeup artist Ashleigh Ciucci.
First, narrow down the selection by finish:
• If your skin is oily or combination, look for formulas that say they’re balancing, matte, or cream-to-powder.
• If your complexion is normal or dry, pick satin, cream, or luminous finishes.
Now, choose the shade:
• If your skin has pink undertones, pick shades with names like ecru, beige or cream.
• If you’ve got golden undertones, look for ivory, buff or tan, says Ciucci.
• Rule out anything that looks pink in the bottle—it will look obvious against almost any skin tone. “Almost everyone has some yellow in their skin,” says makeup artist Quinn Murphy.
When you can test it at the store: Try on the shade that you’re drawn to first, as well as the ones that are one shade lighter and darker, says Ciucci. Swipe them on your inner wrist to find your best color match, and wash well afterward. Consider investing in two concealers: peach- and pink-based liquid concealers work on undereye circles but won’t do much for pimples; yellow-based solid ones (the kind that come in compacts or pots) cover blemishes but cake (and accentuate lines) under the eyes.
When a sample isn’t available: Read the label and err on the light side. Most drugstore concealers come in light, medium, and dark, which is a no-brainer. “If the shade is a little too light for you, just dab some of your foundation on top,” suggests Murphy. Look for buttery, yellow-tinted shades to cover zits. Words like “brightening” and “highlighting” signal good undereye concealers, adds Ciucci.
When you can test it at the store: Use a big fluffy brush to try powder formulas on the back of your hand, and your fingers to blend in cream or liquid highlighters. Hold your hand up to the light to make sure there’s no obvious shimmer or glitter—if it looks cheesy on your hand, it will look even worse on your face. Champagne is the easiest shade for all skin tones to pull off.
When a sample isn’t available: Words like “radiant” and “glow” are fine—”glimmering” and “shimmer” should be red flags. Pick a formula without any obvious flecks.
When you can test it at the store: Matte bronzers are the best at mimicking a natural tan, says Murphy, so don’t waste time trying anything with shimmer. Brush bronzer on the inside of your arm—if you can’t see freckles through it, it will look fake.
When a sample isn’t available: No matter how much you love looking tan, never choose a shade that’s darker than you would naturally get after a week in the sun wearing SPF 30. If you’re fair-skinned, that usually means pale beige with pink undertones; if your complexion is dark, look for deep tan with gold undertones.
When you can test it at the store: Use a cotton swab to test shadow on the back of your hand—the oils on your finger can change the shadow’s color. Swipe some on your inner wrist, too. Bend it a few times to see if the shadow will crease.
When a sample isn’t available: If you want an everyday neutral, pick a shimmery pink-y beige for fair skin, and warm brown with gold flecks for medium or dark complexions, says Murphy. “The fairer you are, the sheerer the shades should be,” adds Ciucci, who likes gray on all skin tones for an evening look.
When you can test it at the store: Draw a line on the back of your hand, wait a second, and then rub with your finger. A little bit of smudging is a good sign, but if the liner smears all over, it will wind up migrating under your eyes, says Murphy.
When a sample isn’t available: “Eyeliner is one of the easiest products to buy without testing,” says Ciucci. “Most colors are true to their shade names.” Cream pencil liners usually won’t tug. But if you have oily lids, look for pencils advertised as “firm” or “traditional”—they are less likely to budge. Stay away from waterproof formulas if you have sensitive skin.
When you can test it at the store: Don’t. Even if disposable wands are available, you can’t be sure someone before you hasn’t double-dipped. Instead, look for mascara with a thin wand, which tends not to clump and is able to get close to the roots, says Murphy.
When a sample isn’t available: Pick a formula that’s curling, volumizing, or lengthening (not all three). Black is the safest bet, but if you want to get adventurous, blue and green look pretty against brown eyes, and purple complements green or blue eyes.
When you can test it at the store: Test it on the pads of your fingertips (not the back of your hand, contrary to popular belief) for the truest representation of how the shade will look on your lips.
When a sample isn’t available: Don’t overthink it. Keep in mind that matte shades are highly pigmented, sheer ones are glossy, and satin finish will give you a lot of color payoff with a slight sheen, says Ciucci. Then grab a color you like.
When you can test it at the store: Swipe it on the pad of your fingertip and touch fingers together (like you were pursing your lips) before committing. That way, you can rule out formulas that are too tacky or goopy.
When a sample isn’t available: If you want a lot of color payoff, look for the word “lacquer” on the package, says Ciucci. If you’re in it for the shine, go with a traditional “gloss.”