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What’s the Difference Between Foundation and Tinted Moisturizer?

Tube of foundation, women with clear complexion, tube of moisturizer
Almay, Milani, PUR

If you’re a makeup-wearer, you’ve probably wandered down the aisles of Ulta and Sephora at one point or another in search of a product to perfect your complexion. But if you’re a makeup novice, you might be wondering if you should opt for tinted moisturizer or foundation.

But what’s the difference between foundation and tinted moisturizer anyway?

We talked to Lucy Halperin, a celebrity makeup artist who has worked with Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Jared Leto, and Jenny Patinkin, an award-winning beauty expert, professional makeup artist, and author, to get run down everything you need to know about foundation and tinted moisturizer.

What is Foundation?

Foundation bottles, woman with clear skin

According to Patinkin, foundation is a product made up of a combination of pigments, oils, and water to even out the tone of your skin and give a smoother appearance. If chosen correctly, the right formula can help minimize the appearance of blemishes, even your skin tone, and create a smooth, blurred canvas.

When it comes to the many forms, buckle in because there are plenty to choose from! From stick to powder and liquid, there is a foundation out there that works for every skin’s needs.

  • Liquid Foundation: Liquid is the traditional form many people opt for, and it’s exactly what it sounds like—liquid. The coverage can range from light—a sheer wash of pigment to even skin tone—to full—a more pigmented option designed to create cover everything from blemishes to tattoos. Liquid foundations are often made in different formulations to fit all skin types.

Milani Conceal + Perfect 2-in-1 Foundation

Available in 45 stunning shades.

  • Stick Foundation: Stick foundations are packaged in a tube-like compact and are usually swiped directly on the face to give a quick, flawless application. According to Patinkin, foundations that come in a solid texture, like sticks or pans, typically provide the fullest coverage.

Dermablend Quick-Fix Body Makeup

This stick body makeup is also great for the face.

  • Powder Foundation: Powder foundation is, well, a powder. It’s often designed to be buffed into the skin and some iterations blend into a cream-like finish. With this option, though, users will want to exercise caution as, according to Halperin, too much powder can lead to a cakey appearance (and nobody wants that).

Covergirl Clean Pressed Powder Foundation

Get ready to buff and blend.

What is Tinted Moisturizer?

Tube of makeup, women holding makeup
Wet n’ Wild

So, what about tinted moisturizer? Well, according to Patinkin, tinted moisturizer is actually a form of foundation. The difference is that it’s typically water-based and lighter on the skin, often providing sheer coverage for a more natural look and acting as a substitute for heavier-coverage makeup.

“Tinted moisturizer is great if you want light coverage on the skin,” Halperin said. “I love using tinted moisturizers because they make skin more breathable and provide a more natural look.”

EltaMD UV Elements SPF 44 Tinted Moisturizer

Those with dry skin might prefer a tinted moisturizer.

Typically, you’ll find tinted moisturizers in liquid form that give a “your skin but better” finish with a bit of a dewy look. Many also often have some form of SPF protection (but you should still be using a separate SPF).

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that many people believe that because the word “moisturizer” is in the product’s title, it can replace a traditional moisturizer, but that’s not true. Tinted moisturizers typically do not have enough hydrating properties on their own to forgo that step of your skin care routine.

Wet n Wild Bare Focus Tinted Hydrator

Infused with Hyaluronic acid.

How Do You Apply Foundation?

Woman applying foundation, bottle of foundation

Now, that you know what foundation is, how do you use it?

You can apply foundation using your fingers, a beauty sponge, or a makeup brush (or any combination of the three!).

Before you start applying, though, Halperin recommended prepping the skin with a moisturizer and primer beforehand. This will not only provide a healthy base for the foundation to melt into, but it will also help with the longevity of your makeup’s wear as well.

NYX Marshmellow Smoothing Primer

Smooth your skin before application.

Once you’ve prepped the skin, the fun part begins!

Those who prefer a full coverage makeup should opt for a densely packed brush or a damp sponge. Then, stipple and tap (don’t drag) the foundation onto your face.

“This will prevent the product from spreading on the skin and becoming more sheer,” Patinkin said.

You can also use a flat or softly domed foundation brush to swirl the foundation onto the skin. Patinkin explained that this technique allows you to build up coverage where needed and blend out the rest to the edges of the face where you likely need less pigment.

The BEAUTYBLENDER Original Pink Blender

BeautyBlender is the makeup sponge holy grail.

The one thing you should never forget to do, though, is blend, blend, and blend—especially down the neck.

“Always make sure to go under the jawline and onto the neck to avoid any lines and give an overall natural glow,” Halperin said.

Almay Clear Complexion Acne Foundation Makeup

Formulated with 1% salicylic acid to treat and help prevent acne breakouts without drying out skin.

How Do You Apply Tinted Moisturizer?

People holding makeup, Face of women smiling

We’ve already established that a tinted moisturizer is essentially another form of foundation. So then, do you apply it the same way?

Yes! You can use any tool you’d like. Whether it be your fingers, a brush, or a sponge.

As we mentioned, you should still apply a daytime moisturizer before adding the tinted moisturizer over top! Even though you may think it’s the tinted product is hydrating enough to work double duty, factors like your skin type, the product, and even the weather can diminish hydrating efficacy.

Once you do have your usual skin care applied, Patinkin recommended using your fingers as an easy tinted moisturizer application technique.

“A sponge can drink up some of the product, and a brush can leave streaks in it,” Patinkin said. “I do like to pat a damp sponge on top of tinted moisturizer just to ensure a smooth, even blend.”

Real Techniques Everyday Essentials Makeup Brush Set

Get everything you need in one kit.

But suppose you prefer to keep your hands makeup-free by using a tool. In that case, Halperin recommended blending the tinted moisturizer in circular motions on your face with a densely packed brush, starting from the T-zone (around the nose, the center of the forehead, and the chin) and making your way outward toward the edges of the face.

When blending tinted moisturizer, the same rule applies. Don’t forget to run it down your jawline and neck. Even though tinted moisturizer provides sheer coverage, you still want a seamless blend. And nobody wants to look like they are wearing a makeup mask!

PÜR 4-in-1 Tinted Moisturizer With SPF 20

Hydrates, corrects, and plumps the look of skin while providing a buildable coverage with a dewy finish.

Is Foundation or Tinted Moisturizer Better?

Woman holding powder, powder and brush
Laura Geller

Decisions, decisions! Should you use tinted moisturizer or foundation?

“There’s really no ‘should’ in makeup anymore,” Patinkin said. “It’s what makes you feel great.”

That being said, certain products work best for specific skin types and textures.

According to Patinkin, typically, people with more fine lines, thinning skin, and other signs of aging will feel happier in a sheer-coverage product like a tinted moisturizer. These formulas are less likely to settle into fine lines and offer a youthful glow.

Erborian BB Cream

Get buildable coverage with this BB cream.

“Matte foundation works best on very oily skin, and full-coverage foundation is good for anybody who wants to cover up scars, blemishes, sun damage, or other imperfections,” Patinkin said.

If that’s you, opt for a stick foundation or full-coverage liquid foundation.

Ultimately, finding the right product comes down to a bit of trial and error, but these guidelines give you an idea of where to start. When you do begin experimenting, Halperin recommended standing back and looking at your skin in different lighting, especially natural lights, so you know what a product will look like in various environments.

As for selecting a shade, you may be torn between two, trying to decide which one will look the most natural on your skin. In that case, Halperin said you should go half a shade darker rather than lighter.

Baked Double Take Powder Foundation

For a full-coverage matte finish.

Whether you want a no-makeup makeup or like to be a bit more glam, there is a product for everyone. Now that you know the difference between foundation and tinted moisturizer, try different products to see which one you like best, and don’t forget to double cleanse at the end of the day.

Lindsay Ray Lindsay Ray
Lindsay is a lifestyle and beauty writer currently living in Arizona. She has several years of experience as a freelance writer and reporter, with a specialized interest in the beauty and lifestyle space. From beauty hacks to DIY home décor and everything in between -- Lindsay has a passion for crafting stories that entertain, educate, and inspire. Her writing has appeared in Thought Catalog, The List, Drink Me Magazine, the Auburn Examiner, and Litro Magazine in the United Kingdom. Read Full Bio »
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