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Battle of the Bases: Foundation Primers for Every Skin Type

By Amalah

Ahh, foundation primer. I remember my exact thoughts the first time I looked at the wee sample of Smashbox Photo Finish in my Sephora bag. “This,” I thought, “is a load of horseshit.”
And then I tried you, cynically and with a nasty-looking crease in my forehead, and behold! I loved you. I loved how smooth and even you made my skin look and feel. I loved how fresh and long-lasting my foundation looked and wore over you, and I loved — LOVED — how much you reduced oil and shine.
Yes, it’s been a good ride, foundation primer. But I’ve learned one thing: you aren’t one size fits all. Like every other cosmetic product in the whole fool world, different skin types need different primers. Shocking, I know. I am a geeeeenius.
So now, I present: Foundation Primers for Every Skin Type, Including Skin That Doesn’t Actually Wear Foundation, Like, Did I Just Blow Your Mind?
clarins%20primer.jpgBest Foundation Primer for Dry/Sensitive/Aging Skin: Clarins Instant Smooth Perfecting Touch, $27.50
So I started using this one over the summer, thanks to a recommendation from Sheryl. It took me a few days to get used to the application (hint! ignore the stupid plastic spatula thing; you will totally use too much product with it.). I used waaaay too much at first and whoa, Nelly, I could literally feel the primer and my makeup sliiiiiiiding off my face in the mid-day heat. Once I got the hang of how much to use, I no longer had this problem. But I noticed that while I loved (LOVED, L-O-V-E-D) how the Clarins looked and felt on my cheeks and around the fine lines around my eyes, it was just too much for my oily t-zone. The packaging promises to reduce enlarged pores, but unfortunately, it had the opposite effect on mine.
But there is no denying that it is GREAT on fine lines — better than the Smashbox version with Dermaxyl Complex. It’s also insanely rich and creamy, which is why I think it went on so well on the dry patches on my cheeks. My makeup (liquid AND powder) stayed put, looked even and stayed OUT of my wrink…COUGH…laugh lines.
smashbox%20primer.jpgBest Foundation Primer for Normal/Combination Skin: Smashbox Photo Finish in Original, $36
This remains a love-it-or-hate-it recommendation of mine, for reasons that I now believe have to do with different skin types OR EVEN different moisturizers and foundations. Some other products don’t quite jibe with the ingredients in foundation primers, resulting in a pilly, slippery mess instead of the silky smooth canvas us primer devotees are always blathering on about. So no matter what primer you are thinking of buying, try it out first. Preferably WITH a fresh application of your regular moisturizer and foundation.
Regardless, I stand by the Smashbox. (Hand over heart, bottom lip quivering, taking this all entirely too seriously.) If you’re just looking for that extra bit of help to even out your skintone, or are having issues with your makeup not lasting past happy hour, Smashbox does it up right. Got a little oil/shine problem, but nothing too serious? Smashbox will SUCK UP THAT NONSENSE.
brandt%20primer.jpgBest Foundation Primer for Oily/Congested Skin: Dr. Brandt Pores No More, $45
OK, so this recommendation is a little…off the wall, I suppose, since 1) Pores No More is not marketed OR labeled as a foundation primer, and 2) I have hated hated hated every other product I’ve tried from the Dr. Brandt line. EXCEPT this stuff. Which…I have decided is a foundation primer. And a downright kick-ass foundation primer at that.
I tried this stuff first as a sample, then sacked up and bought a bottle. And at first, I was not super-enamored with it. It suffers from Big Box/Small Bottle Packaging, which I hate. I HATE. And although the bottle does NOT say that you should shake it first, you totally need to shake it first. The first two times I tried to use it, all that squirted out was a separated, oily mess. Once I shook the bottle up, all was as it should be. (But at $45 a bottle, I do not want to lose two whole applications. I will be angry about losing two whole applications. Still. Even now, after 30 problem-free applications.)
But. Dudes. My pores. My blackheads. After one month, they are so, so, so teeny. Since this stuff really ISN’T a primer, it’s a little bit medicated, so instead of just being an extra layer of crap you slather on your face, it actually does some good. But it does produce the same silky-smoothness, foundation-for-your-foundation of the Clarins and Smashbox.
My favorite part, though, is that it’s tinted, so it provides a nice basement-level concealer for your pores and blackheads and really evens out your skintone — way better than the Smashbox tinted varieties, I have to say. You can even wear this stuff by itself. So if you DON’T wear foundation but just want a little something to shrink/conceal your pores, BUY THIS. NOW.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • angeladee

    December 17, 2007 at 10:10 am

    Oh, Amalah! You cost me a lot of money! So far, though, you’ve been pretty right on (Hope in a Bottle, how I love you!), so me and my bank account will be trying Dr. Brandt. I just recently found e.l.f. ($1 lip glosses, OMG!!!), so now I can justify a splurge on some skin care.

  • Olivia

    December 17, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    I’ve been wondering what primer is supposed to accomplish that foundation doesn’t. I guess I don’t know if I need it or if would improve the look of my skin and/or makeup. I don’t really have any complaints with just foundation and concealer. So, I’m curious as to what primer can do for me?

  • mollyawesome

    December 17, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Awesome, this was totally my question. I’ve been using Smashbox Color Correcting primer for about a week (the green one for redness), and I’m not totally in love with it yet because I have SUPER dry skin from a medicine that it doesn’t seem to help. It’s like, on the one hand, if I don’t use primer, my skin is less dry but it’s more red and bumpy. If I do use it, I don’t look like a tomato from far away, but close up it’s just really gross patches of dryness. I’m afraid of that Clarins though, because I have a big pore problem but no fine lines, so even though it might help with the dry skin, it might not help with the bigger problems and the solution would just seem to be to just go primer-free.
    Sigh. I wish I could just take you shopping with me, Amalah!

  • jodifur

    December 17, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    I just saw Amy and she looks fabulous and I could not figure out what the difference was and I think it’s the last primer.
    I love the Bare Escentuals primer, but I know Amy has issues with Bare Escentuals.


    December 17, 2007 at 7:39 pm

    I’m really liking Dr Brandt’s products right now so I’m really happy to see you found one that works for you, too. It’s interesting how different products work for different skin types because I can no longer use anything Philosophy other than Purity – everything else Philosophy literally burns the skin off my face. Switching to the Dr. B line, while expensive, has been well worth it for my super duper fair, sensitive skin. My pores are smaller and less clogged and I rarely have breakouts anymore – yay! Other than that, I’ve found that the Sephora brand primer is an excellent substitute for Smashbox and a few bucks cheaper… just fyi.
    My skin thanks you for all your wonderful advice this year – while all the products you love do not necessarily work for me you did at least get me to switch to some ‘better’ brands and my skin is in much better shape than at the beginning of ’07!

  • ihopeyoudontmind

    December 17, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    Just out of curiosity…for those of you who use that little $45 bottle of Dr. Brandt’s…how long does it last? Because the only way that I can convince myself that it’s worth the buy is if it lasts for a good while.


    December 17, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    ihopeyoudontmind – I actually don’t use the Dr. Brandt product that Amy likes. It seems as though while we have the same first name (AJ is for Amy Jean – 1972 Baybee!) and what would seem to be similar skin types, it’s become quite apparent that our skin needs different products. I’m currently using all the products in Dr B’s Poreless Essentials Kit which lasted me about 3 months before I had to buy full size. Again, this stuff is pricey, I fully recognize that, but for me, it works and that makes it worth it. I also took a calculated risk and bought from Sephora knowing I could return/exchange if this, too, made my face burn and peel like Philosophy and DDF. When I started using the Poreless line I was at my wit’s end with big sores on my face – honestly – it was seriously the worst my skin has ever looked and I was starting to think there might be nothing that would help it. Granted, I probably should’ve gone to a dermatologist and that was my next step if Dr B failed. In answer to your question – I expect the full size bottles to last me quite awhile – it only takes a very small amount even to cleanse and I’m finding that the pumps on his products dispense small amounts so there’s no waste. Anyway, that’s my experience – am not sure it will be the same for you – best of luck.

  • ihopeyoudontmind

    December 18, 2007 at 1:50 am

    AJ – thanks! It’ll have to wait until after Christmas, but I’ll definitely try it out. Thanks to you too, Amalah, for suggesting it! I’ve tried going to Sephora so many times only to walk out empty-handed due to the overwhelming amount of products and the less-than-helpful salespeople.

  • Meredith

    December 20, 2007 at 12:53 am

    Has anyone tried the primer from Clinique – called City Block Oil-Free Daily Face Protector? I was very curious because is costs only $17 AND includes sunscreen. Seems like a win-win to me.

  • Isabel

    December 27, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    But what if you don’t use foundation?! I use powder, but would love something to even out my face prior to powder application. Would primer still work?!