Foundation is a skin coloured makeup applied to the face to create an even, uniform colour to the complexion, to cover flaws and, sometimes, to change the natural skintone. Foundation applied to the body is generally referred to as "body painting."
The use of cosmetics to enhance complexion reaches back into antiquity. “Face painting” is mentioned in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 23:40). Ancient Egyptians used foundation. In 200 B.C., ancient Greek women applied white lead powder and chalk to lighten their skin. It was considered fashionable for Greek women to have a pale complexion. Roman women also favoured a pale complexion. Wealthy Romans favoured white lead paste, which could lead to disfigurements and death. Men also wore makeup to lighten their skin tone. They used white lead powder, chalk, and creams to lighten their skin tone. The cream was made from animal fat, starch, and tin oxide. The fat was rendered from animal carcasses and heated to remove the color. Tin oxide was made out of heating tin metal in open air. The animal fat provided a smooth texture, while the tin oxide provided color to the cream.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, it was considered fashionable for women to have pale skin, due to the association of tanned skin with outdoors work, and therefore the association of pale skin with affluence. In the 6th century, women would often bleed themselves to achieve a pale complexion. During the Italian Renaissance, many women applied water–soluble lead paint to their faces. Throughout the 17th century and the Elizabethan era, women wore ceruse, a lethal mixture of vinegar and white lead. They also applied egg whites to their faces to create a shiny complexion. Many men and women died from wearing lead-based make-up.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Victorian women wore little or no makeup. Queen Victoria abhorred make-up and deemed that it was only appropriate for prostitutes and loose women to wear it. It was only acceptable for actors or actresses to wear make-up. In the late 19th century, women would apply a whitening mixture made out of zinc oxide, mercury, lead, nitrate of silver, and acids. Some women stayed out of the sun, ate chalk, and drank iodine to achieve whiteness.
Modern foundation can trace its roots to Carl Baudin of the Leipziger Stadt theatre in Germany. He is the inventor of greasepaint. He wanted to conceal the joint between his wig and forehead, so he developed a flesh-coloured paste made of zinc, ochre and lard. This formulation was so popular with other actors that Baudin began producing it commercially, and, as such, gave birth to the first theatrical makeup.
This would be the standard for theatrical make-up until 1914, when makeup artist Max Factor created Flexible Greasepaint that was more reflective under the lighting on movie sets. Although make-up would evolve dramatically from Baudin’s invention, theatrical make-up is, to this day, not too far removed from the original blend of fats and pigment.
The first commercially available foundation was Max Factor’s Pan-Cake. Originally developed for use in film, actresses were so taken with the results that Max Factor was overwhelmed with demand for the product for their personal use. The breakthrough in his formula was the first “foundation and powder in one”; traditionally, an actor was made up with an oil/emollient-based make-up, which was then set with powder to reduce the reflection and ensure it would not fade or smudge. Pan-Cake used talc—rather than oil or wax—as the base, and, applied directly to the skin with a wet sponge, it offered enough coverage (it could be layered without caking on the skin) to eliminate the need for a foundation underneath. This was considered significantly more lightweight and natural-looking on the skin than the standard method, hence people's eagerness to wear the item in public. Although foundation make-up was widely available and used within the film industry, the use of cosmetics in general was still somewhat disreputable, and no one had tried to market foundation (although lipstick, blush and nail polish were popular for daily use) as an everyday item. Factor had the product patented in 1937, and, despite the economic turmoil of the era, Pan-Cake became one of the most successful cosmetic launches of all time. By 1940, it was estimated that one in three North American women owned and wore Pan-Cake. As of February 2009, Procter and Gamble, the brand’s current owner, confirmed that the original formula Factor developed and used himself is still sold today.
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Colour may be identified by a name, number, letter or any combination of the three. However, unlike the Pantone or Munsell systems used in the art and fashion industries, commercial cosmetic product names are not standardised. If a make-up artist requests a "Medium Beige" foundation, the result can vary drastically from brand to brand, and sometimes, within one brand across different formulas. Cosmetic companies can also edit and adjust their formulations and shades at any time, so the Medium Beige foundation a consumer has been wearing for years can, without warning, be made darker, lighter, and more or less yellow than it had been before.
Many companies classify their shades as Warm, Neutral, or Cool. Adding to the confusion is the different color wheels used between the art and beauty industry. The traditional artist's palette places the line dividing Cool and Warm across Primary Blue, whereas the cosmetic palette places the line across Primary Red. Thus, on the artists’ color wheel, Yellow is always Cool, Red is always Warm, and Blue can be Neutral (Primary), Warm (Violet), or Cool (Green). In contrast, the cosmetic palette classifies Yellow as always Warm, Blue as always Cool, and Red as either Neutral (Primary), Warm (Orange) or Cool (Blue-Red). The cosmetic palette is never used outside of make-up, and is very common in the industry — though a handful of professional lines, such as William Tuttle, Ben Nye, Visiora, M.A.C. and even Max Factor all use the conventional artist's palette. Thus, a Warm Beige foundation may either have a yellow tint or a pink tint, depending on the palette the company's creative director uses. Note that the artist's palette is designed to be used on canvas (which is white) compared to the make-up palette — which is used on flesh (an ivory to brown tone).
Although most artists differ over the significance of selecting an exact match to the wearer's skin tone, intentionally using a mismatch can achieve a desired result. An excessively red complexion can be minimised by using a clear (meaning neither yellow nor pink) beige toned foundation. A sallow or dull complexion can be brightened with a rose to red to tint mature skin that has lost its color and appears pale and dull can be brightened with a tint of clear pink; and olive or ashy skin can be brightened with a shot of peach. A crucial point in selecting a foundation shade is to recognise that the appearance of the shade in the container may not accurately gauge the colour impact on the skin — a foundation that appears very yellow in the bottle may go on much less yellow, or not appear yellow at all.
Coverage refers to the opacity of the makeup, or how much it will conceal on the skin.
- Sheer is the most transparent and contains the least amount of pigment. It will not hide discolorations on the skin but it can minimise the contrast between the discoloration and the rest of the skin tone. Although pigment technology has evolved dramatically since 2004, the traditional protocol for sheer foundations called for pigment to comprise 8–13% of the finished formula.
- Light can cover unevenness and slight blotchiness, but is not opaque enough to cover freckles. It contains 13–18% pigment.
- Medium coverage can, when set with a tinted (instead of translucent) powder, cover freckles, discolorations, blotchiness, and red marks left by pimples. It contains 18–23% pigment.
- Full coverage is very opaque, and used to cover birthmarks, vitiligo, hyperpigmentation and scars. It is sometimes referred to as “corrective” or “camouflage” make-up. In general it contains up to 35% pigment, though professional brands, designed for use on stage, can contain up to 50% pigment. An example is Colortration.
There are various tools that can be used to apply foundation including your fingers, a sponge, and several varieties of foundation brushes, each providing a different finish. Before applying foundation always start with clean, moisturized skin. Any dry, flaky skin patches will be highlighted when makeup is applied so users should exfoliate their skin first if required.
- Fingers: Using your fingers is great for creating a natural look. The natural body heat in your fingers helps the foundation to melt into your skin and it’s easy to blend in a sheer layer of makeup. Using your fingers isn’t recommended for applying full cover makeup though as streaks and finger marks can occur.
- Sponge: Using a sponge to apply foundation is great for creating a sheer to medium cover look. A triangular sponge is good for blending in liquid foundation and concealer, whilst a rounded sponge is best for powder foundations. Wet a clean sponge with water first: the moisture will help prevent the sponge from absorbing the makeup and will also assist in blending. Reusing sponges can be unhygienic, so sponges should be washed and dried thoroughly after every use.
- Brush: For liquid foundation, a brush with a synthetic bristle is recommended as the brush won’t soak up too much of the liquid. Alternatively, a natural bristle which is more porous works best for powder foundations such as mineral makeup. A densely bristled brush is best for foundation as it is less likely to leave tell-tale streaky brush marks. As with all tools used to apply makeup to the face, brushes should be soft and gentle, as anything too stiff will scratch and irritate the skin. 
- Airbrush: Liquid foundation is applied with an air stream. The airbrush mixes the foundation with a controllable stream of compressed air. It adheres with the skin as millions of tiny droplets of foundation. This technique can create an even, sheer, natural appearance to the skin that, if applied properly for a natural look, can appear natural and non-heavy like traditional makeup. Airbrush makeup application is also frequently used in special effects makeup.
The formula refers to the ingredients blended together, and how the makeup is formulated.
- Oil and emollient-based are the oldest type of make-up. An oil (usually mineral oil) or emollient (such as petrolatum, beeswax, or lanolin) is used as the main ingredient, with pigment added to it. The texture and application is extremely thick and dense, most closely resembling modern lip balms or lipsticks. The extremely emollient nature stays moist and will not cake, is moderately waterproof, and provides the most opaque coverage; but it can smudge, fade, and change colour (darkening or oxidising) during wear. Since the 1970s, synthetic wax has also been used, which is less greasy and more reliable than other emollients. Used professionally, it is sometimes referred to as Greasepaint. Examples: Pan-Stik (Max Factor’s follow-up to his Pan-Cake make-up), Elizabeth Arden Sponge-On Cream, Mehron, Dermablend.
- Oil-based shakers are different from traditional oil-and-emollient-based makeup in that they were liquid foundations developed before emulsifiers and binding agent were available, and thus separate in the bottle, like the alcohol-based formulas mentioned below. Once shaken, this is akin to applying coloured oil to the skin, with a smooth texture than can provide medium coverage with a moist finish. Liquid foundation is applied using a damp makeup sponge and is especially effective around the eye. It was a marked improvement in application, stability and finish over the tradition oil bases, but improvements since then have rendered these nearly extinct. Examples: Alexandra de Markoff Countess Isserlyn, Frances Denney Incandescent.
- Alcohol based uses a blend of water and denatured alcohol as the base, with pigment added to it. Developed by Erno Laszlo for problematic skin, it eliminated emollient and binding agent that could clog pores, and needs to be shaken before use. Alcohol-based foundations have the most lightweight, “nothing on my face” feel, and nearly impossible to clog pores, but provide only the sheerest coverage and can be tricky to apply and blend. They work better with cotton balls or pads, instead of latex or sea sponges. Examples: Erno Laszlo Normalizer Shake-It, Clinique Pore Minimizer.
- Powder-based began with Max Factors’ Pan Cake, using powder — usually talc — as the main ingredient. Pigment is added, along emollients, skin adhesion agents and binding agents to the formula before it is pressed into pans. The difference between this type of foundation and pressed powder is that this provides more coverage (due to more pigment), and contains more skin adhesion agents (to help it stick to the skin – because pressed powder is lighter weight, it requires less). Some formulas — such as Pan Cake — also contain wax, and can only be applied with a wet sponge; others, such as M.A.C. StudioFix contain no emollient, and can only be used dry; the last group, such as Lançome Dual Finish, contain a smaller amount of oil and can be used either way. This provide a “finished” look and can blend from sheer to nearly full coverage, but can look too floury and dry, especially around the eyes, or on drier/mature skin. They can also flake and trickle down as they are applied and blended.
- Mineral makeup most commonly refers to a foundation in loose powder format. The most common minerals used as the base are mica, bismuth oxychloride, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. However, talc is also a mineral, so a talc-based powder could be considered a “mineral makeup” — although most mineral make-up sold makes a point of being talc-free. A “mineral make-up” may be all mineral, part mineral — or contain less than 1% mineral as part of the finished formula. Using this logic, practically all make-up could be considered mineral. Ingredients are required, by the FDA, to be listed on every cosmetic, in descending order of predominance. By examining the ingredient list, and recognising the common minerals, a consumer can see if the minerals are a large or small percent of that product. The term "organic" does not apply to minerals, as they are a mined ingredient, from the earth. Sometimes companies might combine minerals with organic ingredients in their finished product. The terms "natural" and "hypo-allergenic" are not regulated by the FDA and can be used at the manufacturers discretion.
- Water-based make-up appeared after the end of World War II, with emulsifiers that could successfully keep a water-and-oil blended emulsion stable being the key to their development. This creamy liquid provided medium coverage with a far more natural feel and appearance than oil, powder or emollient bases of the time, and became popular with women since then. Examples include: Cover Girl Clean Makeup, Estee Lauder Country Mist. Since then, variations on the formula have expanded the category significantly:
- Water-based cream make-up has a rich, creamy texture that can be sheer to full coverage with a moist, satiny finish. It usually comes in a jar or tube, and is much more comfortable and realistic looking on the skin than the oil or emollient-based predecessors. Examples: Elizabeth Arden Hydro-Light, Guerlain Issima. By Jove Cosmetics, TRU2U Foundation.
- Water-based oil-free eliminates oil altogether, but substitutes an emollient ester or fatty alcohol in the base, and adds a mattifying agent — usually clay — to dry to a flat, non-reflective (“matte”) finish. Oil-free liquids are quite thick and heavy, and the earliest versions took time to pour out of the bottle. They provide solid medium coverage but dry quickly, and can thus set before blended is complete. The result is streaking, which is then difficult to smooth out without starting over from scratch. The usual recommendation is to divide the face into quarter sections, and to apply and blend the makeup over one section (rather than the entire face) at a time. Blending over moisturised skin with a wet sponge can also help compensate for the lack of slip. However, they will last a long time and resist smudging, even on very oily skin. Examples: Clinique Stay-True Oil-Free.
- Water-based transfer-resistant follows the same formulation as oil-free, but uses a film former or polymer instead of (or in addition to) the clay to achieve a matte finish that resists being rubbed off. Transfer-resistant make-up was launched in 1993 by Revlon-owned Ultima II with Lipsexxxy, the first lip-colour that included film former to prevent rubbing off. By 1996, WonderWear foundation and Revlon Colorstay had been launched, using the same technology as the lipsticks. Transfer-resistant (sometimes called transfer-proof) makeup will last on very oily skin, skin that perspires heavily, or in humid climates longer than any other type of foundation, though it is even more difficult to apply than oil-free makeup. The thick texture dries almost instantly, and requires a fair amount of experimentation to master. The most modern versions (such as Revlon Colorstay SoftFlex) have made marked improvements over predecessors in that regard.
- Silicone-based make-up uses a silicone — or a blend of water and silicone — as the main ingredient. The most typical silicones used are dimethicone, polysiloxane and volatile silicones such as cyclomethicone and phenyl trimethicone. The silicone provides lubrication and viscosity (what some artists refer to as "slip") at a level equal to, or often, even better than oil allowing a product to apply and blend over the skin smoothly and evenly. Silicones have a lighter weight and are thus more comfortable on the skin, as well as resisting filling in lines or large pores on the face. Conventional silicones stay supple and smooth, even in dry climates, whereas volatile silicones last long enough to blend over the face, then evaporate (like alcohol), leaving little to no feel behind. Silicone-based makeups are less likely to oxidise or change colour during wear. One of the biggest challenges facing silicone bases is the tendency for the product to break and/or ball up on the skin, something unique to silicones and out of control of the user. Ionizing the silicones (electrically charging the silicone positive) helps it adhere to (negatively charged) skin, although this technology is in its infancy and thus rather expensive. Examples: Maybelline Dream Matte Mousse.
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