Skip to main content

Foundation Is Becoming the Most Innovative Category in Makeup

It's all part of the ongoing competition go attract younger consumers.
Photo: Imaxtree

Photo: Imaxtree

As cosmetics go, foundation usually isn't something that elicits quite the same excitement as a new lipstick line or special-edition eye-shadow palette. Like the name suggests, it's the base of your makeup routine, one which you either depend on, tolerate or avoid completely.

In recent years, however, foundation has moved further into the spotlight. Some of this can be attributed to social media — do a search on YouTube for "How to apply foundation" and you'll uncover over 800 different tutorials. Creating skin that looks flawless on camera has become an art form, and terms like blur, filter and retouch are now commonplace.

As consumers have become more knowledgeable about beauty products, they've also become more outspoken about what brands need to do to capture their attention — and their cash. Exhibit A: Shade selection, or lack thereof. After decades with only a limited range of shades to choose from, along comes Fenty Beauty with its inclusive range of 40 shades. Now, every brand is racing to provide expanded shade ranges in an effort to save face.

But skin-tone representation is just the tip of the BeautyBlender. Formulas, ingredients and textures have all had to evolve to keep up with the increasingly discerning beauty shopper. We spoke with industry experts to identify the five most innovative trends in this new era of face makeup. Read on to learn where foundation is headed and who's leading the charge to take us there.

Stick Foundations

In the early days of foundation, when brands like Max Factor ruled the scene, full-coverage stick foundations were de rigeur. But sticks, commonly associated with theater makeup, fell by the wayside as beauty attitudes moved away from the spackled-on coverall into the your-skin-but-better mindset. But, thanks to a mix of indie newcomers and makeup mainstays, sticks are back in style — with a few modern upgrades.

When Linda WellsAllure founding editor and current Revlon chief creative officer, launched incubator brand Flesh, she was adamant that its primary complexion product come in a stick form. "I love their versatility, the way you can use as little or as much as you wish, the way you can use them as concealer and spot touch-up rather than just as a full-face transformation," she says. One thing she didn't love about old-school sticks? Their tendency to look gray, something that was especially problematic for dark skin tones. "We reformulated the Thickstick Foundation several times to get the dark shades right, so they didn't leave an ashy cast on the skin," she explains.

For Maybelline Global Makeup Artist Erin Parsons, versatility is also a key benefit of sticks formulas. "The consistency can mimic the skin's natural texture, while coverage can vary depending on the method of application," she notes. "I love that you can create the coverage you prefer depending on the application technique — sponge, fingertips or brush." She points to Maybelline's Super Stay Multi-Use Foundation Stick, which features a specially designed sponge tip on one end to seamlessly blend to your preferred coverage level.

Buildable Coverage

Speaking of coverage, there's plenty of newness on that front as well. It used to be that foundation came in three coverage options: Full, medium and tinted moisturizer. It was difficult to effectively sheer out a full-coverage formula to make it less heavy, just as it was to try to layer sheer tinted moisturizers to make them more opaque. But brands have recognized that the average consumer doesn't want to buy three different products to meet their coverage-strength mood swings. Which is why formulators are now creating formulas that are specifically designed to build and customize coverage. Notes Leilah Mundt, founder of beauty brand development agency Crème Collective, "We're seeing more adjustable [makeup], which is kind of a big 'no duh.'"

Brands like La Prairie and Dior have recently introduced buildable foundations into their lineups. La Prairie's prestige entry is the Skin Caviar Essence-in-Foundation SPF 25, a cushion compact infused with the brand's signature Caviar Water. It owes its flexible coverage powers to pigments that have been treated with amino acids, which make for easy blending, plus soft-focus powders that give it just enough substance to allow multiple coats that won't look greasy or caked-on.

Dior, on the other hand, has leaned in hard on its runway heritage with the new, appropriately named, Backstage Professional Performance line. Made with runway pro artists in mind, the fluid texture and natural finish allow for building as much or as little as needed. It's already gained the seal of approval from some of the biggest names in the biz, including a certain Duchess' favorite makeup artist. "Since I like to buff foundation onto the skin, this specific formula moves well and is buildable," says Dior makeup artist Daniel Martin (who was also responsible for Meghan Markle's wedding-day beauty look). "I can start with a little amount and work it up to my desired coverage."


While natural makeup has seen explosive growth in the last decade, many consumers felt like they had to sacrifice performance in exchange for clean ingredients. Thanks to a wealth of new tech innovations, natural brands can now deliver the same quality of coverage and functionality as the traditional market. Brands have figured out ways to replace key artificial ingredients with botanicals and still provide blendability and coverage.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

One high-profile example: makeup artist Gucci Westman's new Westman Atelier prestige line. Four out of six of the complexion products come in stick form, and each is imbued with skin-care benefits that are, as she notes, "absolutely as clean as they can be this moment," meaning that, for the most part, the ingredient list is centered around plant-derived ingredients, using synthetic ingredients only "where they are the more responsible choice."

And therein lies ones of the biggest challenges around natural: In order to marry performance with nature, there needs to be a broader variety of clean alternatives available for formulators to work with. Mundt notes that consumer demand for natural products that perform equally to synthetics has forced formulators to take a long, hard look at their ingredient lists. "Collectively, these labs are forced into figuring it out," she says. "There are botanical ingredients that can give you slip and give you bounce, there are preservative systems that can work." She admits that it's not perfect yet, but stresses that it's up to formulators and labs to innovate and improve on the status quo.

Farm-to-Table Foundation

Those botanical alternatives Mundt alluded to are part of their own micro-trend, one she's calling "farm-to-table foundation." Yes, we know: Pretty much everything even remotely natural these days is billed as farm-to-table. But, according to Mundt, that concept is especially exciting in the makeup category because it results in completely new ingredients being introduced into our face basics.

She cites Australian natural company Ere Perez as a key example. The brand has just released two new foundations, one which contains quinoa and another centered around oat milk. "We always look for superfoods that nourish and hydrate," explains Perez, the founder and brand namesake. "We chose quinoa for its natural anti-aging properties and vitamins that help to repair skin. Oat milk moisturizes, is soothing and helps remove impurities."

Sheena Yaitanes, founder of buzzy indie brand Kosas, points to the healthy food movement as the instigator for this trend. "The way foundation is formulated today reminds me of food chemistry from the '50s when scientists would chemically recreate flavors," she says, "and it resulted in all this food that didn't taste good. With foundation, it creates makeup that doesn't feel good — it doesn't feel like a part of your skin." 

A New Wave of Clinics Are Making Lasers and Injectables More Accessible

For Major Beauty Companies, Brand Incubation Is the Way of the Future

Recent Makeup Swatching Faillures Highlight the Dire Need for Diversity in Beauty Hiring


Just as fashion has embraced all things athleisure, so too has makeup shifted to a more easy-going approach. "The moment right now is for women to design for women," says Yaitanes. "It's products for our own lifestyles, not having someone else telling us what they believe is beautiful. It's coming from ourselves and comfort is so key."

That means lightweight formulas that are easy to use, feel beautiful, don't compromise skin health, and won't slide off or cake. Accordingly, Kosas' Tinted Face Oil checks all those boxes — it's meant to be the antithesis to artificiality with its blend of skin compatible oils and beneficial minerals powders. Yaitanes (who is also trained as a chemist) uses a blend of botanical oils, mineral powders and pigments to create a long-wearing, medium-coverage foundation that looks and feels like skin. "We use botanical oils of different molecular weights," she explains, so they sink into the skin at varying rates. "The oils absorb pretty quickly, but the pigment molecules are left behind."

While it would be easy to lump the omnipresent skin-care-as-makeup offerings into the comfort category, Yaitanes says that this particular trend isn't about creating hybrids. "I don't need makeup to be skin care, but I certainly don't need it to be damaging to my skin either," she says.

What's clear from these burgeoning foundation trends is that beauty shoppers are more educated — and therefore more demanding — than ever. The complexion category has always been tricky for consumers and formulators alike, with hurdles like shade limitations, coverage discrepancy, and disappointing textures. Now, just like with skin care, there are expectations of customized options that fit individual lifestyles and makeup behaviors. In order to keep pace, brands need to think outside the bottle to create products that women will want to wear all day, every day. Because if you're going to wear something that's entire job is to mimic good skin, it damn well better look, feel, and act like it.

Please note: Occasionally, we use affiliate links on our site. This in no way affects our editorial decision-making.

Never miss the latest fashion industry news. Sign up for the Fashionista daily newsletter.