What’s the difference between foundation, concealer and powder?

What’s the difference between foundation, concealer and powder?

I’ve been asked soooooo many times by friends, family and clients about foundation, concealer and powder. Questions like, “What’s the difference between them? What are they for? Do I have to use each one? And other similarly surprising questions. So I figured I’d answer those questions for you by breaking down each one and explaining what they’re for, the various formulas and how to use them.


Foundation is normally used all over the face to even out the skin tone, cover imperfections and overall create a nice flawless canvas for the rest of your makeup. But it also protects the skin from the elements, dirt and the sun, bonus! So do you NEED to wear foundation? No! You don’t NEED to do anything you don’t want to. When it comes to makeup anything goes. But if you want the opinion of a professional makeup artist, applying makeup without a flawless base is like painting an old scuffed up wall without primer. I’m not saying our skin is old and scuffed, it’s just a similar concept. But of course there are those “no makeup makeup looks where you might only apply a little concealer, mascara, brows and lip balm, in which case you can totally skip foundation. But if you’re going for that “all done up” night out or going to a work meeting or family pictures it will look a lot better and more polished if you apply a base of foundation.

There are lots of different types of foundations for different skin types and different levels of coverage so lets go over some of the most common and basic types of foundations.

Liquid Foundation: This is one of the most commonly used foundations. They are usually water based from sheer to full coverage. This foundation is good for any skin type, especially normal to dry skin. It can be used for oily skin but keep in mind it is liquid so as your face begins to sweat the makeup can break up and move around on your face. So if you do have oily skin be sure to set the makeup with powder, liberally. Personally I like this type of foundation for my clients because it’s the most versatile. I can apply one layer of liquid foundation for a more sheer coverage or I can apply a second coat for those who need a little more coverage. One of my favorites is Makeup Forever HD Foundation

Application is also very simple. You can use a flat foundation brush and kind of paint it on (this application is usually a bit on the heavier side and a little harder to perfect), you can use a dome shaped buffing brush and starting with the center of the face and working your way outward, working in small circles, buff the foundation into your skin. Then lastly you can use a damp beauty sponge and sort of “pounce” the foundation into your skin. This gives you a nice even sheer coverage. Some people even use their fingers but it’s a little too unsanitary for my liking.

Stick Foundation: This is a foundation that comes in little sticks and is swiped onto the face and blended in with either a sponge or a brush. You can get a similar finish from sheer to full coverage. I personally haven’t used much stick foundation but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it and it’s definitely becoming more popular these days. The thing I like about these is that they can double as contour and highlighters as well if you have a range of colors.

Powder Foundation: This is my favorite type of foundation for oily skin. It usually comes in a compact but you can also find a loose powder foundation as well. Using a powder foundation makes your makeup routine a little faster as you can skip setting everything with powder because it’s already powder! Application is pretty simple, just use a fluffy brush, dome shaped is best, dip it into your product and buff it all over your face until you have the desired coverage. Powder foundation is also very buildable so start with less and build it up. Don’t forget though that powder won’t stick to a dry unmoisturized face, so cleanse, moisturize, apply your primer if your using one and then your foundation.

BB Creme: A BB Creme is sort of a foundation. It’s more like a moisturizer with a tint of color and very sheer coverage. So if you’re in your early teens with amazing skin, or you just have amazing skin, or if you’re looking for very sheer coverage, a BB Creme may be the way to go. You can smear it on with your fingers if you want but it’s a bit messy. My advice would be to apply it all over the face using a damp beauty sponge then give it a light dusting of powder to set and viola!

Note: When searching for a foundation read the ingredients and try to avoid anything that has “petrolatum” or “mineral oil”. This chemical is a by-product of petroleum and is often contaminated with cancer-causing substances, plus also clogs pores. 


Conceal means: to cover something and make it unable to be seen. So naturally that’s exactly what concealer is for. But it’s also used to highlight the high points of the face (under the eyes, middle of the forehead, bridge of the nose and cupids bow) and enhance certain features and give the face some dimension (see diagram to the right). I personally like to have at least 2 different shades of concealer; one that matches my foundation exactly, used for covering imperfections and areas on the face that needs a little more coverage and a lighter one for under the eyes and the high points of the face as mentioned above. But that’s just my preference. You can have just one concealer, but if you’re going to use if to cover imperfections and/or blemishes, make sure it matches your foundation! A lighter concealer applied to a blemish will only make it stand out even more and you definitely don’t want that.!!!!!

There are soooooo many different types of concealers these days that it can get a little confusing. When choosing a good concealer it will take some trial and error because everyone is different. I have yet to find my perfect concealer, but when I do I’ll be sure to let you all know! For now I’ve been using MAC Pro Longwear concealer and I quite like it. I’ve used it on hundred of clients and it work on all skin types. I’ve also tried several drugstore brands and one that I really like is Maybelline Fit Me Concealer which is a good dupe for Urban Decay’s Naked Skin Concealer.

There are numerous ways to apply your concealer. You can use a damp beauty sponge, a small fluffy brush, a flat dense brush or even one of those little white makeup sponges (don’t reused these). Try it out and find something that works for you.

As a note, if you have really good skin and no dark circles under your eyes, you can probably skip the concealer, possibly even the foundation too and just use a sheer BB Creme.


Powder is a very vital step to you foundation routine that a lot of people tend to skip and then they complain that their foundation doesn’t last long enough and melts throughout the day. It’s simply because they’re not applying a powder after the foundation to set it so it lasts all day. I can apply my makeup at 8:00am and at midnight it looks like I just put it on. It’s because I use POWDER! When you use any kind of creamy product on your face it will melt and break up as your face warms up and moves throughout the day. But if you “set” it with a generous application of powder you have a much, much better chance of your makeup lasting all day.

There are many different types of powders and different formulas. There are setting powders, finishing powders, translucent powders, powder compacts, mineral powders, etc and if you get the wrong kind you may be disappointed.

Setting Powder: A setting powder is just that, it’s used after your foundation and concealer to “set” it in place, take away the shine and help to make your makeup last. There are loose setting powders and compact setting powders. For someone inexperienced with makeup a loose powder can be a hot mess! That’s why I’d suggest a compact setting powder, it’s a lot easier to apply and a lot less messy.

Finishing Powder: A finishing powder is usually an extremely finely milled powder used as the very last step in a makeup application to smooth out lines, fill in pores and overall create a polished and flawless look. It’s usually more applicable to makeup for film and TV or photography and not something you’ll need in your makeup kit. I never use it myself nor do I use it on my clients. I prefer a setting spray after the makeup and a primer before.

Translucent Powder: Translucent powder is exactly the same at setting powder but without any color, therefore it can be used on any skin tone from very fair to dark. Like setting powders they come in loose and compact formulas. This is a very good product to have in your makeup kit, especially if you’re just starting out as a makeup artist because of it’s versatility. But be sure to find one that’s very finely milled and won’t go on chalky. My personal favorite is RCMA No Color Powder. It does the job and is super affordable. I also love MAC Prep + Prime Transparent Finishing Powder, I know it’s a finishing powder but I use it as a setting powder and it’s awesome!!!

Powder Compacts: Anyone who wears makeup should have a powder compact in their purse. They can be used to “set” your makeup when you first apply it and they’re super handy to throw in your bag for touch-ups later on. But take my advice and please don’t use that little sponge that comes with it! If you reuse that little sponge or puff over and over it will trap all kinds of nasty dirt and oils and when you put it away and close it up the dirt and oil fester and grow bacteria and germs, which can cause breakouts. So do yourself a favor and toss it! Buy a nice powder brush or retractable powder brush for your purse and clean it every once ‘n’ a while. See my article here for details on makeup brushes and how to care for them.

Mineral Powders: Mineral powders can come in many different formulas. Some can be simply a setting powder, they have mineral powder foundations, finishing powder etc. Mineral powders tend to have a nice sheen to them which gives you a natural, soft glow. They’re really nice for every day use and photography and bridal makeup as well. MAC Cosmetics has an amazing line of mineral setting powders called Mineralize Skinfinsh that I’ve used for years and LOVE!  You can’t go wrong with this powder, it’s amazing!

That about sums up this article, I hope I answered a few of your questions and that you learned something of use. Feel free to let know in the comments if you have any questions! Happy blending!