Cream vs. Liquid vs. Powder Foundation: When to Use Each One

Makeup artists break down how to know which one is for you.

This Clean Foundation Makes My Skin Look So Flawless
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We are beyond blessed to have so many makeup options available to us. But sometimes the market presents us with the paradox of choice and we can be all sorts of confused about what to use. A perfect example of this is foundation. Cream, liquid, powder — how are we supposed to know what will look best on us? 

The good news is that there is no wrong answer; it really is a personal choice and you should do just what feels best for you and your skin. “The form of foundation you choose will depend on personal preference,” M.A.C. Cosmetics Senior National Artist Fatima Thomas tells InStyle. “Whether you prefer liquid, cream, or powder, there may be options across formulas that can work for your skin type and coverage needs.”

But if you don’t want to be indecisive like Goldilocks and are looking to find the perfect fit foundation-wise, the experts are here to help you out. Below, Thomas and celebrity makeup artist Sean Harris dive deep into the differences between cream, liquid, and powder foundation and give their tips on how to apply each one.

Read on to discover what they had to say. 

What is cream foundation?

According to Harris, a cream foundation is a formula that is either wax- or oil-based and mixed with skin-toned pigments to give you coverage. Thomas adds that they are pliable solids that can come in stick or compact form, and because most cream foundations contain solid emollients, they have a balmy and creamy feel to them and leave a satin-to-dewy finish with buildable coverage. 

Harris says the biggest benefit to a cream foundation is that it can provide fuller coverage compared to powder and liquid foundations as the pigment load is stronger. He says you’ll want to reach for this when you want coverage to last a really long time. 

If this sounds like something you want, try a cream foundation like the KVD Beauty Good Apple Full-Coverage Cream Foundation Balm or the Huda Beauty #FauxFilter Skin Finish Buildable Coverage Foundation Stick

What is liquid foundation?

Thomas says that liquid foundations are water-based blends of emollients and pigments. Because most liquid formulas contain water, she says they provide hydration to the skin. These also provide buildable coverage, which Harris says makes it a great option for any occasion. He says that liquid foundation looks the most natural compared to powder and cream, so it’s also the easiest to create that skin-like appearance for that no-makeup-makeup look. 

Thomas’s personal pick, especially for dry skin, is the M.A.C. Cosmetics Studio Radiance Face and Body Sheer Foundation for its hydrating properties. You can also try something like the NARS Light Reflecting Foundation or the Fenty Beauty by Rihanna Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Liquid Foundation

What is powder foundation? 

Powder formulas don’t contain water, says Thomas. Instead, they're made of pigments, binders, and other emollients that are blended and pressed into powder. She says they offer a natural matte finish (they can give a radiant finish if they contain reflective particles) and many offer oil-controlling properties. 

She adds that they offer flexible coverage and provide shine control. You can also use a powder foundation as a setting powder ontop of a cream or liquid formula. Harris recommends using a powder if want to create a matte finish. 

To get that matte look, try something like the Estée Lauder Double Wear Stay-in-Place Matte Refillable Powder Foundation or the BareMinerals Original Loose Powder Mineral Foundation SPF 15

What are the downsides of cream foundation?

Cream foundations tend to be heavy and can clog pores, which is a big concern for those who have oily skin and are prone to breakouts. While Thomas says she has found clients with oily skin who enjoy cream formulas, she says that those with normal and dry skin benefit most from this type of foundation because of its rich moisturizing effect and dewy finish. Harris adds that he likes to use it on mature skin or whenever fuller coverage is needed. 

What are the downsides of liquid foundation?

The downsides to liquid foundation are minimal. Both Thomas and Harris say that liquid foundations work for all skin types. “It has a universal appeal due to its ability to glide onto the skin,” says Harris. “You can also get varying amounts of coverage depending on what brand you choose.” 

What are the downsides of powder foundation?

Because powder foundation doesn’t contain any water, they have no moisturizing properties. While Thomas says that any skin type can use a powder formula if the skin is prepped and primed strategically, those with dry skin are more likely to opt out of using it because it won’t offer any hydration. 

How do you apply cream foundation?

For maximum coverage, Thomas uses a damp sponge to put a cream foundation on. For the undereye areas, she’ll use her ring finger for targeted placement and blending. Harris likes to use a dense brush first and then a sponge to diffuse the product accordingly. 

How do you apply liquid foundation?

Thomas says that with liquid foundation, what tool you use depends on the results you want. Sponges, for example, are great for layering on product and diffusing texture. Different brushes can also yield varying finishes depending on the size, shape, density, and fiber material. You can also use your hands if you’d like. 

Harris likes to use a brush to put liquid foundation on. He recommends a dense and fluffy brush to get product into the skin seamlessly for a more natural look and to finish blending in with a sponge like the Beauty Blender

How do you apply powder foundation? 

Harris recommends using a fluffy brush to apply powder foundation and adds that the denser the brush you use, the more intense coverage you’ll have. Thomas says if you’re looking for a softer, more sheer coverage that lets your skin show through, use a soft rounded brush like the M.A.C. Cosmetics 182 Synthetic Buffer Brush. If you want more opacity, she says to use a large sponge to spread and layer. 

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