What Does Makeup Primer Actually Do? And Do We Need It?

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Makeup primers that promise to smooth your skin, seal in your moisturizer and cement foundation to your face have proliferated in the past decade, but among consumers and makeup artists alike, they’ve always been met with a certain degree of suspicion. What does this expensive tube of something that’s not quite moisturizer actually do? And do we really need it?

As their name suggests, primers “prime” or optimize the skin surface before foundation is applied. Think of them as double-sided tape for your makeup, or even spackle. For skin with large pores, a primer can smooth the surface and prevent foundation from creating dots across the T-zone. For skin that’s either oily or too dry, the right primer can offer an added bit of mattification or moisturization (but rarely both at the same time).

So primers can improve the look of foundation. But far too often, they’re billed as a complexion panacea. Based on feedback from makeup artists, most primers haven’t earned that billing.

“For a long time, I thought that I had to use primers,” said Tim MacKay, a makeup artist based in New York City. “I think that I stopped when I realized that if you prep the skin a little bit better with the right moisturizers and whatever the skin needs … you don’t really need a primer.”

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