There are essences, toners, serums, ampoules, moisturizers, masks — endless “essential” skin care products with highly debatable levels of importance. And while sunscreen is likely the only skin care product that dermatologists, makeup artists and other experts agree on as the most important for your skin, there’s one product that can make or break your makeup: primer.
While many of our base products — foundations, contours and bronzers — went on hiatus over the last couple years as many people started to work from home, the best primers are formulated to keep your makeup in place for long hours and under unpredictable conditions, like a long in-office workday or a sweaty night spent dancing. But what exactly makes a good primer, and what are the best primers for your skin type? We turned to the experts for up-to-date intel on the hero product.
What is makeup primer?
“A primer is a product designed to prime the skin, which means it gets the skin ready for the rest of your skin care routine,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “The type of primer that you use really depends on your particular skin needs. Primers can help reduce shine, hydrate or even balance color or irregular skin tone.”
Marisa Plescia, the in-house research scientist and cosmetic chemist for NakedPoppy, adds that primers aren’t just for your face: They’re often used under all makeup, including “eye shadows, lipstick and even mascara to help prepare the skin and impart a smooth surface for coverage.” While a primer’s primary purpose is to act as a base, they can also help makeup stay on the skin longer, keep makeup from creasing, boost the effects of foundation and concealer, as well as curb transfer and rub-off, Plescia adds. They’re typically applied after any serum or moisturizer but before any base makeup like foundation.
“When applying a primer, a little should go a long way,” says Krysta Lewis, founder and CEO of Aisling Organics, who warns that more doesn’t always mean better. “Portion out a dime sized amount on the back of your hand and then disperse it by putting a few dots all over the face before buffing it out with a brush,” she advises.
Makeup primer for oily skin
“If you have oily or acne-prone skin, look for a primer that minimizes shine, blurs the pores and prevents breakouts,” says Zeichner. “Salicylic acid is a go-to ingredient because it keeps the pores clear and removes excess oil from the skin.”
“Usually oily skin needs just as much hydration as our dry-skinned clients,” says editorial makeup artist Ashley Ysabelle. “People with this skin type tend to produce more oil in the sebaceous gland, which can be caused by genetics, hormone changes and even stress. I like to use this primer to help combat that.”
“Mattifying primers contain sebum-absorbing ingredients such as clays and powders that are used to absorb the excess oil on the skin,” says Plescia. This oil control primer has a soft powder finish that’s earned tons of glowing reviews.
“The Jori Acne and Oil control primer is dermatologist-formulated specifically for people with adult breakouts and oily skin,” says Zeichner, who helped formulate the product. “It contains maximum strength 2% salicylic acid along with a blend of botanicals that address the needs of adult skin. It can be worn on its own for a silky complexion or under makeup to help it go on smoother and stay on longer. Most importantly, it treats pimples and prevents future breakouts.”
“For people with rosacea, red marks or fresh hyperpigmentation, primers with a green tint can help neutralize the discoloration,” says Zeichner. “Green and red are opposite colors on the color wheel so they balance each other and make it much easier to apply makeup over it.”
“Peach primers can be used to correct blue tones, such as dark circles,” says Plescia. “Fitglow Correct+ is a corrector in multiple colors with a creamy consistency to blend effortlessly for smooth makeup application.”
Makeup primer for dry skin
“If you’re looking for a hydrating primer, these formulas are often rich in humectants such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin,” says Plescia. “These ingredients help plump the appearance of the skin while providing essential hydration for a smooth makeup application.” And Zeichner agrees, noting, “For people with dry skin, a primer that contains hyaluronic acid can help pull in hydration to the skin for extra moisturizing benefits.” He also recommends prepping the skin with a hydrating serum, such as Roc’s Multi-Correxion Hydrate and Plump Night Serum Capsules, as the first step of a morning routine for those with super-dry skin.
One of Sephora’s top-rated primers, this pick has hyaluronic acid to plump and niacinamide to lock in moisture. Its proprietary Silkscreen Complex has algae and probiotics to protect skin from environmental factors like pollution too.
Our beauty editor Sophie Shaw also loves the Photo Finish Control mattifying version, which contains the same Silkscreen Complex, plus salicylic acid and witch hazel to manage oil and breakouts.
This top-rated primer from Burt’s Bees boasts avocado oil to keep skin hydrated all day long.
“A thin layer of this primer works wonders,” says Ysabelle, who calls this primer her holy grail. “It performs well when lightly rubbed into the skin, then patted into more porous areas to finish it off. This primer has SPF 15 and is water repellent — it’s saved me and my clients from the rain and tears.”
“Primers rich in emollients can also help provide essential moisture and a smooth appearance of skin for even makeup application,” says Plescia. This one is formulated with glycerin, a moisturizing emollient.
If you have dry skin and need your makeup to last all day, Ysabelle says this cult favorite is a great pick. The gel formula contains hyaluronic acid and niacinamide to keep skin hydrated and dewy.
Shaw also loves this silicone-free gel primer that blurs pores while protecting and hydrating the skin with Indian ginseng root extract and peptides. Whether she’s wearing makeup for the day or not, she applies this for its smoothing effect.
Face primer for mature skin
“UV radiation accounts for around 80% of extrinsic skin aging,” says Plescia. “Photoaging, aka manifestations of skin aging caused by UV radiation, that can appear as wrinkles, sagging skin and hyperpigmentation is caused by damage to cells and DNA.” For mature skin, SPF helps protect the skin from any further damage, photoaging, skin cancer and inflammation and is essential for daily use. To simplify your routine and reduce the need for multiple products, incorporate a primer with SPF.
“It has a velvety texture and provides the perfect base for makeup while non-nano zinc oxide provides clean and effective sun protection,” says Plescia.
“Mature skin and dry skin have a lot in common,” says Ysabelle. “With that in mind, a lot has to happen on the skin preparation. This product isn’t necessarily a primer, but it brings such a beautiful glow to mature skin.”
This drugstore favorite is infused with honeydew and marshmallow root extract to plump and smooth fine lines.
“This helps smooth out fine lines, but the application of the product is crucial,” says Ysabelle, who recommends you pat it into the skin rather than rub or swipe.
Another favorite of Ysabelle’s, this cult-favorite primer smooths skin, blurs pores and fine lines and keeps foundation from creasing for hours.