Beauty Lesson: A Primer on Primers

The what, the how, the which.

By: Michelle Thomas

We get it—some beauty products are more than just a little mystifying. Which is why we’ve already helped you decode the secret awesomeness behind such tricky items as alphabet creams and highlighters. Next up? The literal base of it all: primers. Clear and gel-like, these things are practically the apex of puzzling products. So what IS a primer, exactly, and how do you use it? Read on for a quick lesson in how to use one, what for, and which ones.

Why: Primer creates a canvas for your makeup, smoothing out your complexion, hydrating skin, filling in fine lines, and minimizing pores. It provides your foundation with something to stick to, which helps it last longer and creates a more even, flawless finish. And most of them are bolstered with antioxidants and vitamins to help nourish your skin and counter aging.

How: Apply your moisturizer (if you use one), then wait a minute or two to let it sink into your skin. Using just a tiny amount—one pump or a pea-size dab usually does it—smooth the primer over your moisturized skin, especially around the eyes where you apply concealer. Let it settle for a couple of minutes, then apply your foundation, concealer, and powder as normal.


Becca Ever-Matte Poreless Priming Perfector, $36 at Sephora. This silicone-free version gets high marks for its pore-minimizing formula and long-lasting matte finish.

BareMinerals Prime Time, $23 at Ulta. This mineral-infused, preservative-free gel formula glides on smoothly and leaves a satin finish. It’s loaded with all kinds of antioxidant goodness. 

Too Faced Shadow Insurance, $20 at Sephora. Though Too Faced also makes full-face primer, this shadow-specific one has a permanent place in our collection for its heroic ability to keep our eyeshadow from drifting into the creases.

LancĂ´me La Base Pro, $42 at Nordstrom. We love this primer for its velvety feel and smoothing effect.

Smashbox Photo Finish, $36 to $42 at Smashbox. One of the brand’s best sellers for very good reason, this primer comes in nine varieties, starting with the original clear version and ranging to a lavender-tinted one meant to balance out yellow skin tones, and a golden type that adds a soft, illuminating glow.