How to Determine Your Skin Tone

In This Article:

Skin tone is so important in choosing the right makeup, but you may be wondering just how to go about identifying your own skin tone. What should you look for? What if your skin tone seems neutral but has areas of mild discoloration or redness? The good news is that identifying your skin tone doesn't have to be difficult.
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Skin Tone Test

The skin's undertone is the warm, cool, or neutral hue that shows through the surface color of skin.  Although the surface color of skin changes depending on sun exposure and other skin conditions like rosacea and acne, the skin’s undertone remains consistent.  

Knowing whether your undertone is warm, cool or neutral is the key to ensuring that your foundatoin matches your skin and color products look natural, not contrived. When foundation doesn’t properly match skin’s undertone, the color stands out as orange to copper, pink to rose, or ashen. If makeup looks like the right color in the package but looks odd once applied, you’ve likely purchased makeup with the incorrect undertone for your skin.

There are several ways to determine your skin tone, but here are some quick methods to keep in mind:

  • If you tan easily and do not burn, your skin's natural melanin (the pigment that gives skin its color) level is higher, and you most likely have a yellow-to-olive, warm undertone. This is true for most African-American and women of Indian descent. Some African-American women with deep ebony skin tones may actually have a cool (bluish) undertone, so dark copper shades look off but espresso-type shades match perfectly.
  • Those who burn and either tan minimally or not at all have significantly less melanin, which results in a pink, bluish-red, or ruddy cooler undertone. In addition, look for telltale signs: a ruddy skin tone has obvious signs of redness or is one that tends to flush easily. Some neutral skin tones fall into this category, particularly if rosacea is a factor, so experiment with cool to neutral tones to see what works best for you.
  • Olive skin tones tend to look somewhat ashen or gray, from the combination of the natural yellow undertone everyone has and the greenish hue that’s unique to olive skin of any depth. Neutral tones tend to work best, but experiment with warm tones as well, as you may fall somewhere in between.
  • Neutral skin tones are those with no obvious overtones of olive, sallow, or pink. People with this skin tone tend to have the easiest time finding foundation, concealer, and powders that are just right for them. In fact, those with neutral skin tones may find they can easily wear more than one shade in any given foundation lineup.
  • The shortcut test: Some people like to rely on the color of their veins: Look at the veins on the inside of your wrist. If your veins appear blue/purple you are in the cool-toned (bluish) spectrum. If your veins appear green, you are in the warm-toned (yellow) spectrum. Those with neutral undertones will have difficulty discerning the blue/green.

These categories hold true for all women, including women of color; your underlying skin color will always relate to one of these skin tones. You may have been told that you are a particular “season” and your wardrobe and makeup colors should be a specific undertone, either cool (blue or pink tones) or warm (yellow or sallow/olive tones). Unfortunately, the rampant misinformation surrounding skin tone can be misleading when it comes to choosing your most flattering makeup shades.

Shopping for Foundation

When you’re testing foundation shades, it is critical to identify your underlying skin tone and find a foundation that matches it. This can be tricky because your underlying skin color may not be what you see on the surface. For example, you may have a ruddy (red) or ashen (gray) skin tone on the surface but your underlying skin tone is actually slightly yellow to beige. You want to neutralize whatever overtones are present with a neutral- to slightly yellow-toned foundation, thus matching the skin’s natural undertone.

Why a slightly yellow undertone? Because skin color, more often than not, always has a yellow undertone: that’s just what the natural color the predominant form of melanin (skin pigment) tends to be. For the most part, regardless of your race, nationality, or age, your foundation should be some shade of neutral ivory, sand, neutral beige, tan, dark brown, bronze brown, or ebony, with a slight undertone of yellow but without any obvious orange, pink, rose, green, ash, or blue. Adding those colors to a foundation is never flattering and can look obvious and contrived.

There are a few exceptions to this guideline: Native North American or South American women, a tiny percentage of African-American women, and some Polynesian women do indeed have a red cast to their skin. In those instances the information about neutral foundations should be ignored. Because their skin has a slightly reddish cast, they need to look for foundations that have a slightly reddish cast to them—but that’s only a hint of brownish red, and not copper, orange, or peach.

Regardless of which of these categories you fall into, trying foundation on and making it sure it matches your skin exactly (especially in daylight) is the best way to get a color that looks natural, not like you’re wearing foundation or, even worse, a mask.

Choosing Makeup Colors

Flipping through the pages of a fashion magazine is great way to determine which colors work best with your skin tone.

  • Redheads with fair to medium skin tones like Susan Sarandon, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore tend to wear corals, salmon, browns, ambers, bronze, and other earth tones.
  • Blondes with fair skin to medium skin tones like Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Stone, and Kirsten Dunst favor a range of pink shades.
  • Brunettes with fair to medium skin tones like Julia Roberts and Jennifer Garner are often seen in light rose and soft red shades.
  • Women with dark brown hair and fair to medium skin tones like Demi Moore, Sandra Bullock, and Penelope Cruz wear more vivid shades of rose and cherry.
  • Black hair and deeper skin tones such as Halle Berry and Zoe Saldana or Oprah Winfrey wear soft natural tones such as nude pinks, soft browns, and corals.

It is also easy to see that there are exceptions to the rule and as a change of pace all kinds of color combinations (not to mention changes in hair color) are typical. In other words, choosing color can be as diverse and versatile as changing your clothes. To be safe, stay with the basics listed above, but in truth, anything goes as long as it is worn in balance and the colors work together.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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