The big problem of finding makeup for darker Asian skin tones – and how to fix it
From Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty to Pat McGrath Labs, is there more diversity in makeup nowadays? Veteran makeup artist Yuan Sng, former beauty queen Colleen Francisca and model Iman Fandi weigh in.
When Rihanna released her Fenty Beauty line with a mind-blowing 40 shades of foundation three years ago, it highlighted an issue many women have long faced and makeup brands have overlooked.
While some of us can find a shade match from the typically limited six-to-12-shade foundation range offered by most mainstream cosmetic brands, there are others who simply find it impossible to get one for their skin tone.
It wasn’t just those with darker skin who struggled with this problem. Those who were pale, or had distinctly yellow or olive skin undertones found themselves having to make do with the nearest shade they could find, or not being able to wear foundation at all.
Veteran makeup artist Yuan Sng remembered how difficult it was to find specific foundation shades he needed when he first started doing makeup professionally 20 years ago.
“We had such limited choices that we had to custom-blend the foundation ourselves when working on models or clients with darker skin tones.”
Thankfully, things have now improved. The demand for diversity and inclusivity where makeup is concerned is clearly felt and beauty brands are seeing the need and feeling the pressure to change things for good.
Many mainstream makeup brands are following in the footsteps of famous black women such as Rihanna and celebrity makeup artist Pat McGrath. Both have launched impressively diverse and highly successful makeup collections.
Brands think that having 50 or 100 different foundation colours means they are doing a good job, but that’s not necessarily true.
Fenty Beauty and Pat McGrath Labs have found themselves legions of fans in Singapore and around the world, since they are both designed to cater to not just black women, but also women from a wide spectrum of ethnicities.
But do they really speak to the needs of Asians, particularly those who are darker-skinned? Are there other brands that are also faring well in this aspect?
Our panel of three – users and expert – share their thoughts.
IT’S ALL ABOUT YOUR UNDERTONE
Former model and Miss Singapore World Colleen Francisca had her fair share of foundation troubles from her years spent walking down the runway.
“When I just started modelling in my early teens and would go to the drugstore to find affordable options, the darker shades – and there weren’t many – would have pink undertones. Some beauty advisors would even assume that I wanted to look fairer, suggesting I go a few shades lighter and pushing products on me that made me look ashy,” she shared.
It was only when she discovered professional makeup artist brand MAC Cosmetics that she found a close foundation match for her skin tone. These days, however, the only foundations she owns are from Fenty Beauty, which “blend like a second skin” for her.
(Makeup artist Yuan Sng) recommends using the “vein test” to identify your skin undertone.
While makeup artist Yuan Sng agreed that these shade-inclusive brands are making foundation selection so much easier for women of colour, he pointed out that there is more to making base makeup work for them than just coming up with a huge shade selection.
“Brands think that having 50 or 100 different foundation colours means they are doing a good job, but that’s not necessarily true. It’s more so about having a number of colours that address each undertone,” he explained.
He recommended using the “vein test” to identify your skin undertone.
“Look at the veins on your wrists. If they’re green, then you have warm undertones (golden, yellow). If your veins are blue, you have cool undertones (pink, peach). Do you see both colours or do they appear to be blue-green? Then you have neutral undertones,” he said. This will help you narrow down the shades that will suit you most.
For model Iman Fandi, the problem lay in her skin tone being, very often, between two foundation shades.
“I would have to mix (two shades) and I don't like the hassle of doing that. But recently, there have been brands coming out with a wider selection of foundation shades, which I love,” she shared.
The effort put into creating fair and neutral tones should also be translated into creating the tanner and darker tones.
“I think what is lacking is the thought about having shades between fair and tan, and tan and dark because not everyone is just those skin tones."
"I personally don't think that I can speak for women whose skin tones I don’t represent, but with the understanding and seeing the lack of colour diversity, makeup brands can improve by having more shades between the neutrals and dark and a larger variety of tones because everyone has different undertones, such as warm or cool. The effort put into creating fair and neutral tones should also be translated into creating the tanner and darker tones.”
Besides Fenty Beauty, Iman has also easily found the right foundation shades for her from Chanel Beauty, Maybelline’s Fit Me collection, Charlotte Tilbury and Bobbi Brown.
If you have tried looking for a foundation from these shade-inclusive brands and yet still can’t find your perfect shade, it could be due to a problem that many darker-skinned beauties face. According to Sng, some people may have several undertones in their skin or multiple different skin tones on their face, which are actually fairly common.
According to Sng, some people may have several undertones in their skin or multiple different skin tones on their face, which are actually fairly common.
“With time, you will learn to customise a formula that works for you, whether it means mixing foundations shades or undertones to create the perfect hue, or playing around between dewy and matte,” he shared.
He recommended experimenting with your base-makeup application.
“You may realise that you like having warmer tones in certain areas of your face and not others, or you may want to add coverage in certain parts of your skin and leave the rest sheer,” said Sng.
“Always get at least two shades of foundation, one that's close to your skin tone and another that's a bit lighter. The skin on your face isn't all the same colour – the centre tends to be lighter and the perimeter is darker – so it's a good idea to use two shades of foundation for the most natural finish.”
Francisca shared a very similar technique – one that she picked up from the makeup pros she worked with in her previous line of work.
“A trick I learnt that is especially useful for darker-skinned women is not to use one colour all over your face,” she said.
"I start with a shade that matches my skin tone in the centre of my face, working to blend inside out. Then, I use a darker shade around my contour points, around the hairline, jawline and under the cheekbones. That adds dimension to your face. I then blend everything at the points they meet with a sponge. This step puts the contour behind the complexion, because contour is a shadow and shouldn’t be done on top of a base. It really was a game changer for me once I learned to do this.”
BEYOND THE BASE
Besides foundation and concealer shades, the colours of other makeup products like eyeshadow, blush and lipstick can be somewhat tricky for women with a darker skin tone.
For Francisca, it lies in the pigmentation of lip colours. “One problem I used to have and sometimes still do is that beautiful shades of lipstick don't look the same on me as they do in the tube.”
The colours of some brands that don’t use enough pigment in their formulas just wouldn’t translate on my lips. It’s a problem many darker-skinned girls have.
She continued: “The colours of some brands that don’t use enough pigment in their formulas just wouldn’t translate on my lips. It’s a problem many darker-skinned girls have. When the lipstick colour sits on top of our lip colour, a new shade is born! So I tend to purchase lipsticks that are highly pigmented. I am a big fan of Pat McGrath lipsticks – the super-pigmented colours transfer accurately onto my lips, which is what I am looking for.”
On top of seeking out makeup with stronger pigmentation, tan-skinned ladies must be savvy about picking their makeup colours. To bring out the best of dark skin tones, Sng recommended staying away from pale, pastel and frosty colours, which can look ashy or chalky.
He also suggested a deep mauve for blush, and rich, jewel tones like emerald green and deep burgundy for eyeshadow, which will flatter dark skin and show up well – all of which can be easily found from the shade-inclusive makeup brands mentioned above.