A Primer on Primers

Ah, makeup primers! They are supposed to help blur pores, fill fine lines and wrinkles, create a smooth canvas for applying your makeup, and help improve your makeup’s wear time. The big question is: are makeup primers really worth it, or are they just a scam?

Disclaimer: There are no affiliate links in this post. Any links I include are there for your convenience if you are interested in getting more information on, or purchasing the products mentioned. I get no compensation if you click on or buy something from these links. Also, I am not affiliated with any of the brands or vloggers mentioned in this post in any way. I buy all my beauty products with my own money. And one more thing – there’s a cat at the end of this post!

Once upon a time, there were no makeup primers.

I remember years ago when my friends and I first started wearing makeup, we would just slather liquid foundation on our bare faces with our hands or dry latex cosmetic wedges. That’s right. No primers. No fancy blending sponges. No foundation brushes. We used our BARE HANDS to apply makeup directly on our BARE FACES. We were heathens. HEATHENS, I say!

Then again, in the late 80’s/early 90’s, makeup primers just weren’t available on the mass market for your average makeup consumer. Makeup primers may have been available to professional makeup artists, but it wasn’t something your average makeup enthusiast could run down to the local store and get. I remember you could get eyeshadow base at the drugstore, but that’s a bit different than an eyeshadow primer. (We’ll get to that shortly.)

It wasn’t until around 2000 that Smashbox Cosmetics came out with a face primer for the masses. (Okay, so Smashbox is considered more of a high-end brand, but your average makeup consumer could get it if they knew where to shop for it.) The release of Smashbox’s Photo Finish primer changed everything. Once makeup primer caught on, all makeup brands had to come out with their own version.

Primers, primers everywhere…

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While gathering up my primers to do the photos for this post, I realized that I have a lot of face primers. One might say I have a plethora of primers. 😄

These days you can’t go to the makeup aisle or watch a YouTube makeup tutorial without seeing or hearing about primers. Because makeup primers are so popular, they are available at all price points and in different formulas for different skin types and concerns.

Oily skin? There’s a primer for that. Large pores? There’s a primer for that. Dry skin? There’s a primer for that. Aging skin with wrinkles? There’s a primer for that. Sensitive skin? There’s a primer for that, too.

Seriously, there’s a primer for just about everyone.

That’s cool and all, but do I really need a makeup primer?

The honest answer is no, you don’t need a primer. It’s really about your personal preference.

If you’ve never used a primer and you’re happy with how your makeup applies and wears throughout the day, then there’s no need for you to get a primer. (Unless you want to try one and see what all the fuss is about, of course.)

Do primers really help your makeup stay on and last longer?

That depends. There are several factors that can affect how well your makeup lasts throughout the day.

  • Is your primer silicone- or water-based?
  • Is your foundation silicone- or water-based?
  • Are your using a primer that works with your skin type?
  • Are you using a foundation that works well with your primer?
  • How much primer are you applying? Too much? Not enough?
  • Are you allowing your primer a few minutes to meld with your skin before applying your makeup?

I know that sounds like a lot of things to consider, but primer isn’t that complicated. I promise!

What kinds of primers are there?

There seem to be five main categories of face primers: Hydrating, Serum/Oil, Mattifying, Pore Filling, and Gripping.

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Pictured here are my hydrating face primers. From left to right: Tarte Base Tape Hydrating Primer, Laura Geller Spackle Hydrating Under Make-Up Primer, Yensa Tone Up Primer Essential Glow, and VDL Lumilayer Primer.

Hydrating: These primers tend to be light and lotion-like, and, as the name suggests, hydrating. This type tends to be good for dry skin types and for use with very matte finish foundations. My favorite out the primers pictured above is the Laura Geller Spackle Hydrating Primer.

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Here is a pile of my mattifying face primers. I have far too many to showcase their different textures. The reason I have so many is that I’m still looking for my Holy Grail primer that can keep shine on my face to a minimum all day. Can you tell I have an issue with oiliness on my face?

Mattifying: This type of primer tends to feel more silicone-like than hydrating primers. They can be clear or cloudy, liquidy or creamy. As the name would imply, this type of primer best for oily skin. My favorites out of the mattifying primers in the photo above are the L’Oréal Infallible Matte-Lock Primer, the Ulta Beauty Mattifying Face Primer, and the e.l.f.+ Matte Oil Control Primer.

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These are my serum and oil primers. From left to right: Wet N Wild Photofocus Rose Primer Serum, Makeup Revolution Baking Oil, and Ulta Beauty Youthful Glow Primer Serum. You might be thinking, “Wait a minute… you said you have oily skin. Why would you want an oil primer?” Because some matte foundations can be a bit drying, and using an oil primer can help those foundations not look so dry, even on oily skin.

Serum/Oil: This type of primer tends to be a pearly liquid or an oil blend in a bottle with a dropper, and many tend to be fairly hydrating. They can be applied by warming a few drops between your palms and then pressing it on your face, or you can drop the primer directly to your face and then smooth it into your skin. Most of these leave the skin with a nice glow and can be used for all skin types. My favorite of the serum/oil primers I have is the Ulta Beauty Youthful Glow Primer Serum. (I promise I’m not affiliated with Ulta, I just really like their house brand primers.)

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These are my workhorse primers – the pore fillers. From left to right: TonyMoly Egg Pore Silky Smooth Balm, Benefit Pore-fessional, Innisfree No-Sebum Blur Primer, Nyx Pore Filler, and e.l.f. Poreless Putty Primer. Whiles these primers don’t completely vanish the large pores on my nose, they do a great job of keeping the Dreaded Polka-Dot Nose at bay.

Pore Filling: These primers tends to be a bit thicker and have more of a paste or putty consistency than other primers. Many are a beige color that turns translucent upon application. This type of primer is best if you have large pores that tend to collect makeup over the course of the day. My favorites in this category have to be the Nyx Pore Filler, the e.l.f. Poreless Putty Primer, and the TonyMoly Egg Pore Silky Smooth Balm.

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If you want your makeup to stay put no matter what, gripping primers are where it’s at. From left to right: Nyx Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Matte Primer, Becca Ever-Matte Poreless Perfecting Primer, and e.l.f. Lock On Face Primer. These particular primers definitely have a learning curve for use. I find these tend to be a bit drying, as well as difficult to use, so these are primers I only use once in while for performance or stage makeup.

Gripping: These types of primers are the latest entry on the market. Some people say they’re like glue for your makeup. They come in cream, gel, jelly, or stick form. They dry down to a tacky finish that “grips” your makeup for longer wear. Probably not an everyday primer, but useful for special occasions when you really need your makeup to stay put.

And then there’s under eye primer…

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Both of my undereye primers are from e.l.f. – e.l.f. Hydrating Undereye Primer and e.l.f. Sheer Blurring Under Eye Primer. Both are super affordable and work well. As you can see, my Sheer Blurring Under Eye Primer is very well loved.

Undereye primer: As the name indicates, these primers go under your eyes. They come in varying consistencies from gel to lotion to putty. Many are formulated to be light and hydrating. Most claim to help keep your concealer from creasing under your eyes. If you have trouble keeping your undereye concealer from creasing, traveling or fading away, you might want to give an undereye primer a try.

I like both the e.l.f. Sheer Blurring Under Eye Primer and the e.l.f. Hydrating Undereye Primer, which sadly may no longer be available.

Keep in mind that while practically every makeup brand out there has a primer or two, not all primers are created equal. A primer that works great for me may not work all that well for you. A primer you love might end up in my Give To Friends bag.

Also, just because a primer is expensive, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better. I have an expensive Becca primer that has several reviews saying it’s a Holy Grail product, but I can’t figure out how to use it and get good results for the life of me!

What kind of primer do I use?

There are two main things to consider in choosing face primer(s): your skin type and the type of foundation you will be using with it.

If you are mostly oily with large pores, you may want to choose a mattifying primer for most of your face, and a pore filling primer to take care of the large pores.

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Oh, look! Here’s a photo of a few of my mattifying primers with texture samples. From left to right: L’Oréal Infallible Matte-Lock Mattifying Primer, bh Cosmetics Studio Pro Mattifying Face Primer, e.l.f.+ Matte Oil Control Primer, and Laura Geller Spackle Mattifying Oil Control Under Make-Up Primer.

If you are dry, choose a hydrating primer.

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Pictured above is the Nyx Bare With Me Hydrating Jelly Primer. I really like this one. It’s hydrating and slightly grippy. The primer itself just doesn’t photograph well. I have a LOT of primer photos, so I’m gonna throw a few more in this post. People love posts with lots of photos, right?

If your skin is pretty much normal (lucky you), use whatever formula tickles your fancy.

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The Nyx Angel Veil is a good all-around primer. Not too matte, not too hydrating, it is something in between. A lot of beauty bloggers say this is a good dupe for the Hourglass Veil Mineral Primer.

Why do some foundations pill up when applied over some primers?

If your foundation pills up or doesn’t apply well over your primer, you may want to try a different primer, or a different foundation.

It could be that your foundation is water-based, and doesn’t play well with your silicone-based primer. However, silicone-based foundations usually apply just fine over a water-based primer. It’s kind of like how you can use oil paint over acrylic paint, but you can’t use acrylic paint over oil paint. (Trust me on that one.)

When possible, you should try to use silicone-based products together, and water-based products together. (I would love to tell you definitively which primers and foundations are water- or silicone-based, but I have a bit of trouble figuring that myself. You would think it would be easy, but it’s not. This video from Lab Muffin Beauty Science has some good info on how to tell the difference.)

Can I use more than one type of primer at the same time?

YES! I do it all the time! It’s called multi-priming. (At least, that’s what I call it. Maybe it will catch on…)

Since my face is Combination Normal/Oily, most days I use a hydrating primer on the perimeter of my face where my skin tends to be normal, and a mattifying and/or pore filling primer down the center of my face where I have large pores and tend to get oily.

I find it’s best to apply the hydrating primer first, then apply the mattifying primer. Once applied, go do something else for a few minutes to let the primers meld with your skin. After that, proceed with your makeup application.

How much primer do I use?

That depends on the type and consistency of the primer and how much area you need to cover with it.

I tend to use about a pea-sized amount of hydrating primer to cover everything but the center of my face. Since the mattifying primers tend to be a bit thicker than the hydrating primers, I use about a lentil-sized dab of mattifying or pore filling primer to cover the center of my face.

There are all kinds of makeup primers on the market! Face primers, eyeshadow primers, lash primers, under-eye primers, brow primers, lip primers… do I need them all?

Goodness, no! Pick the primer(s) that best address the issue(s) you’re trying to tackle and don’t worry about the rest.

In my makeup routine, I use face primers, eyeshadow primer, and under-eye primer.

Do I use under-eye primer every time I put on my makeup? No, I don’t. Most hydrating primers work well on the under-eye area, so it’s kind of a two-for-one deal. Under-eye primer is nice to have, but not absolutely necessary.

What’s the difference between eyeshadow primer and eyeshadow base?

I’m glad you asked!

Eyeshadow base goes on before eyeshadow to give it something to cling to. Eyeshadow bases also tend to be colored to change the look, vibrancy, and/or depth of your shadows’ hues.

Eyeshadow primer also goes on before eyeshadow and gives it something to cling to. They usually help your eyeshadow look more vibrant and stay put longer. They can also come in colors to affect the look of eyeshadows.

The main difference is that eyeshadow primer also tends to help block oils from your skin and prevents your shadow from creasing, prolonging the wear time of your eyeshadow.

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These are the eyeshadow primers I have currently in rotation as of this post. From left to right: Wet N Wild Photofocus Eyeshadow Primer, Milani Eyeshadow Primer, bh Cosmetics Oil Free Waterproof Eyeshadow Primer (apparently discontinued), and Urban Decay Primer Potion Anti-Aging.

Every once in a while I get in a hurry in the mornings and forget to use eyeshadow primer. Halfway through the day, it shows. I will have fading and creasing in my eye look by lunch if I forego the eyeshadow primer.

I have a couple of eyeshadow bases I like to use sometimes, but I always use an eyeshadow primer first.

The Take Away: Primer is worth it… if that’s your preference.

For me, primer is totally worth it. I recently tried putting on my makeup without using face primer. (I hadn’t done that in ages…) The experiment was a disaster!

My makeup was in meltdown mode after about 2 1/2-3 hours of wear. My foundation was sliding around, transferring on everything I touched, and had settled into my nose pores giving me the dreaded Polka-Dot Nose. It was NOT pretty.

Those were always some of the issues I had with my foundation before I started using primers. Going one day without using face primers proved that primers are worth it for me.

To know for sure if primers are worth it for you, you will have to do your own experiment. Have fun!

Oh! I promised you a cat at the end of this post. Here you go:

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This is Kiki. He’s 13 years old. He decided he was going to “help” with my photo shoot. This is where he decided to settle after trying to “help” with a couple of product shots. Such a good boy!

Do you prefer to wear makeup with, or without primers? If without primer, why? If you like primers, what are some of your favorites and why? Let’s chat in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “A Primer on Primers”

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who couldn’t get Becca’s primer to work. I keep pulling it out and trying it every 6 months or so, and every time it just ends up being a mess on my face. Someone needs to start a Youtube channel showing all of the cosmetics that don’t work. It may not make much money, but it would certainly be informative.

    Good to see a new post. I always enjoy reading your reviews!

    Like

    1. Thanks, Leslee! Yeah, I’ve been bad about writing new posts. I’m trying to figure out what to write Primer on Primers was suggested by a friend.

      I’m still toying with the idea of starting a beauty channel, but it’s a matter of making sure I have the time and energy to do it regularly. Also, I was thinking of exploring putting my beauty channel on Twitch. The YouTube beauty space is real over crowded, which makes it hard for anyone to just stumble across your videos if you’re just staring out.

      Like

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