We Tested 7 High-Tech Fluid Foundations: Here are the Best

Plus: Everything you need to know about applying them — and how they compare to the OG Armani Maestro.
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Plus: Everything you need to know about applying them — and how they compare to the OG Armani Maestro.
A model, who does not need foundation, backstage at NYFW. Photo: Mireya Acierta/Getty Images

A model, who does not need foundation, backstage at NYFW. Photo: Mireya Acierta/Getty Images

Move over, thick, cakey, traditional liquid foundation — there's a new, sleek alternative in town: Meet the fluid foundation. 

If you're one of the many who's helped make Armani Maestro into the cult product that it’s become, then this isn’t a new concept for you. What is new, is that pretty much every cosmetics company out there at every single price point has hopped on the dropper foundation bandwagon and released one recently. We decided it was high time to get out of our BB cream-induced haze and try these suckers out. Chantal and I — who each have our own unique skin issues – tried out a slew of them, and are here to report on our experiences.

But first off, the stats. Fluid foundations generally come in much smaller bottles than traditional foundations — the bottles remind me of the way serums are packaged. You’ll find them with dropper applicators, in bottles with dropper spouts, or in pump bottles. The fluid is watery and often described as a “fluid to powder” formulation. They run on the matte side, and are generally buildable. A lot of them contain SPF, but not all. 

Makeup artist Kirin Bhatty, who has worked with Vanity Fair and V magazine, as well as celebs like Lorde, Alessandra Ambrosio and Kiernan Shipka, gave me a quick rundown on how to use the products:

• You must shake them before every single use. No excuses.

• They are for someone who wants definite coverage. “It’s not for the girl who loves a radiant, completely sheer finish,” Bhatty says. “If that’s you, you want a BB cream or a tinted moisturizer.”

• The formulas are really concentrated, so start with only a few drops. “There’s so much pigment and it’s so concentrated. That product will really move when you start activating it with the brush,” Bhatty says.

• A wet beauty blender isn’t your best tool here. Bhatty recommends putting a drop or two of foundation on the back of your hand, dipping your index finger in it and dotting it onto your face. Move it a bit with your hands, then take a rounded, dense foundation brush (I used this one) and buff it in in circular motions.

• Skin prep is a must. If you run dry, Bhatty suggests using a moisturizing primer. (She likes Smashbox’s Hydrating Primer.) Otherwise, the pigment will stick to every last flake on your skin.

OK: now you, too, are ready to start dripping semi-runny foundations on to your skin! Here, our experience with seven fluid foundations, including our votes for our favorites:

THE TESTERS

Cheryl (wearing Kevyn Aucoin) & Chantal (wearing Laura Mercier). Photos: Fashionista

Cheryl (wearing Kevyn Aucoin) & Chantal (wearing Laura Mercier). Photos: Fashionista

Cheryl: Age: Old enough to school Kate Moss on what it would be like turning 40Skin type: If my skin was the U.S., half would be a Florida swamp and half would be Arizona. With some sun damage, dark spots and fine lines. I generally favor CC and BB creams over standard foundation.

Chantal: Age: One month older than Taylor Swift. Skin type: Persistent acne. Did Accutane once in college, which worked for less than two years before my face started exploding again. Thanks to a drug called spironolactone, I actually have days where my skin is perfect now (though always red and blotchy). Differin also helps, even though it makes my skin really dry. Also, shoutout to my chickenpox scars. 

Armani Maestro Fusion Makeup SPF 15, $64, available at Nordstrom 

Photo: Giorgio Armani Beauty

Photo: Giorgio Armani Beauty

To make it easier, we’re going to compare all the newer versions to the pioneer in this category. Maestro comes in 17 shades and is housed in a glass bottle with a dropper.

Cheryl: It spreads like a dream, and never looks cakey. The coverage isn’t as full as some newer versions I tried, but I like that. (The reason I wear CC cream is that I hate that foundation "look.") It also didn’t last as long as some of the newer long-wear versions, but, to be fair, I used a barely-measurable drop to cover my whole face. My nose needed a bit of powdering mid-day to take care of some shine. But it feels like nothing on the face and is really a miracle product.

Chantal: This product was the first of the group I tried, and it really helped me understand what "liquid foundation" means. In the bottle it's so thin and liquidy, but once you put it on just a tiny drop, it actually looks like powder — like an invisible layer of powder. It feels quite dry on (again, that powder feeling) and it settled into the lines around my nose and mouth at the end of the day. 

L’Oreal Paris Magic Nude Liquid Powder SPF 18 , $10.99, available at Target

Photo: L'Oreal Paris

Photo: L'Oreal Paris

Twelve shades, in a glass bottle with an open pour top. This one came out not too long after the Maestro. (Side note: L’Oreal is Armani Beauty’s parent company, and I once overheard some print beauty editors speculating that this drugstore version is exactly the same as the Maestro. I cannot confirm or deny.)

Cheryl: I have used this in the past, and I’m a big fan of the formula. It’s actually thicker than the Armani, and provides more coverage. This one did settle into some fine lines around my mouth, but a little extra buffing helped. The biggest con is that the bottle opening gets really messy — it needs a dropper.

Chantal: I actually feel like this one was quite different from Armani. It feels softer and silkier on the skin and performed pretty well on my dry, flakey bits. It has less coverage than I hoped it would based on how pigment dense the droplets looked on my hand, but had good staying power throughout the day. I don't mind the lack of dropper, though. Better than some of the other applicator options in this group. 

Laura Mercier Smooth Finish Flawless Fluide, $48, available at Sephora 

Photo: Laura Mercier

Photo: Laura Mercier

Twenty-four shades, in a plastic bottle with a dropper tip that you pour out of directly.

Cheryl: I should not have been so surprised by how much I liked this one, because I’m a huge fan of  Laura Mercier’s tinted moisturizer. It seemed less matte than some of the other options, and had more luminosity to it than Armani’s. (The brand claims it contains “reflective waters.”) It stayed put even through an at-home online yoga session, although by the end of the day I noticed it settling into some dry patches on my chin. I’d call the coverage 'medium.'

Chantal: I'm don't know if I have a negative thing to say about this one. It is so quick and easy to apply because it really blends into the skin in a soft, uniform way without much effort. But it also has enough pigment to cover redness and the majority of my acne scars. It gave me a glow without feeling heavy or sticky. It lost a bit of luster at the end of a working day, but otherwise, I can't complain. 

Nars All Day Luminous Weightless Foundation, $48, available at Sephora 

Photo: NARS

Photo: NARS

Twenty shades, housed in a glass bottle with a pump top.

Cheryl: I saw this newly released formula a lot backstage at New York Fashion Week. I predict it’s going to become one of Nars's bestsellers, because it’s already getting raves. It is, by far, the heaviest coverage of all the fluid foundations I tried here, and for that reason, it was not my favorite. (Remember, I like dewy CCs.) But it did. Not. Move. Plus, my skin was flawless — no lines or dark spots to be seen at all. However, I had to swipe a bit of luminizer on, because it was a tad too matte for me.

Chantal: This one is super dense in pigment, which was great on a day when an "invisible layer" didn't really cut it against a flare up of discoloration and acne. It doesn't feel as weightless as the other products on this list, but that's a price I'll happily pay for the best coverage and staying power by far. It requires more careful application since it is so dense (the first time I used it, I put way too much on and looked like ghost), though it builds up really easily. 

Maybelline Dream Wonder Fluid Touch Foundation SPF 20, $7.11, available at Drugstore.com

Photo: Maybelline

Photo: Maybelline

Twelve shades, comes in a glass bottle with a tear drop-shaped applicator wand.

Cheryl: For the cheapest foundation here, this one felt like a million bucks. Maybelline claims this is medium to full coverage, but it was on the lighter side for me, and is one of the runnier ones I tried. (Which is not necessarily an insult in this category, because runny = light.) But the finish was divine. My nose shininess broke through at the end of the day, but it wasn’t horrible.

Chantal: This one really annoyed me, mostly because of the applicator. It's just a wand that you have to vigorously shake on your hand to get a few drops. It would be fine if you only needed one drop to cover your face, but it's too light for that. The end result is fine, though — just a bit powdery. 

Kevyn Aucoin The Sensual Skin Fluid Foundation, $65, available at Nordstrom

Photo: Kevyn Aucoin

Photo: Kevyn Aucoin

Eight shades, comes in a glass bottle with a dropper.

Cheryl: Bhatty loves this foundation, and so did I. It also has some anti-aging ingredients, so that sweetened the deal for me. It had the most velvety texture of all of them, and really buffed into a beautiful finish. It wasn’t too matte for me, and it held up through a full day of tramping around in chilly weather. My one complaint is that I didn’t really care for the scent, though it’s light. I prefer face makeup to be unscented. Also, the brand needs to offer more shades. 

Chantal: I love the luminosity on this one, too. It blends so easily into the skin and feels very luxurious. The dropper is very convenient and easy to use. I just wish it had a tiny bit more coverage — my attempts to build it up were undermined by a bit of flaking on my dry bits. 

YSL Fusion Ink Foundation SPF 18, $60, available at Bergdorf Goodman 

Photo: YSL Beaute

Photo: YSL Beaute

Twenty-one shades, comes in a bottle with an applicator wand.

Cheryl: This was not my favorite. It seemed like the driest of the bunch, and I didn’t like the strong scent. However, the finish lasted a long time, but I needed to spritz with facial mist several times to soften things up during the day.

Chantal: Another one of the annoying wand things! Why is this even an acceptable method for dispensing product? Otherwise, the foundation didn't stand out to me. It blends easily into the skin, but it somehow feels a bit heavier without actually providing much coverage. Also, the scent is weird. 

The Verdict

coverup 2.gif

Cheryl: In general, I don’t know that I’ll use these on a daily basis. They’re a bit too matte for me, but that’s just my preference. If you hate traditional foundation but want more coverage than a BB or CC cream, you will love them. Good moisturization is a must, though, as well as priming. I got lazy a few mornings and tried to apply a few of these without prepping properly, and it was a mess — streaky and settling into dry patches. I think it will be a good summer coverage option when my skin's swampy tendencies start kicking in. Honestly, they are all pretty similar, so I’d choose based on price, and the amount of coverage you’re looking for. Kevyn Aucoin was my favorite, with Maybelline my choice for best drugstore alternative.

Chantal: I could actually use this kind of foundation on a daily basis, especially as my acne becomes less and less of a problem. For someone with more troubling skin, I would recommend a combination of your go-to concealer with the NARS — it really had an impressive amount of coverage considering how light it feels on the face. But personally, my favorite was Laura Mercier, based mostly on how quickly it blends into the skin and the fact that it has a decent amount of coverage for my scars and redness. The fresh-faced glow doesn't hurt either.