Jun 20, 2018 · 7 min read
Updated June 2021
Whether you buy your makeup at a drugstore, department store, Sephora, or another retailer, it’s important to take a look at what’s in it—lest you end up with breakouts or dry, irritated skin. So we’ve rounded up a bunch of popular foundations, from high-end to inexpensive drugstore brands, to find out which are safe for acne-prone or sensitive skin.
Psst… whether or not high-end foundations are worth the premium is totally up to your personal preference — and depends on the ingredients in each product. High-end makeup products aren’t necessarily “better” for you!
Head on over to CosDNA.com and search the product name.
If it isn’t on there, have the ingredients list handy. The manufacturer’s website should have an ingredients list. Alternatively, you can check makeup resources like MakeupAlley or websites that sell the product, such as Ulta or Sephora.
Copy the ingredients, then paste them into the text box under “Analyze Cosmetics,” and click “Analysis.” Look in the “acne” column — if there are any 3’s, 4’s, or 5’s, we’d recommend avoiding it if you have acne-prone skin. If there are only 0’s, 1’s, or 2’s, the product can be used on acne-prone skin, and is considered “non-comedogenic.” We’d also recommend avoiding any products with 3’s, 4’s or 5’s in the irritant column if you have acne (or sensitive skin).
One rule of thumb: avoid foundations and any product that contains denatured alcohol. Denatured alcohol actually doesn’t clog pores (it’s non-comedogenic), but it can be very irritating and drying — especially to pimples that are already red and inflamed. Denatured alcohol is rated a “5” under the Irritant column on CosDNA.com. As with the Acne column, we’d recommend avoiding any products with 3’s, 4’s or 5’s in the irritant column if your skin is acne-prone.
Some foundations contain SPF—which is great!—but don’t let that fool you. You probably still need to wear sunscreen underneath your makeup. SPF 15 may be enough sun protection for everyday use (like if you’re just going to be indoors at work most of the day), but if you plan to spend any time in the sun, consider wearing sunscreen underneath your foundation. We recommend SPF 30 at least. If your foundation does have SPF 30 or higher, remember that SPF isn’t a one-and-done deal: you need to reapply sunscreen throughout the day for it to keep working.
In general, mineral makeup contains ingredients like titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, mica, and iron oxides. Mineral foundation tends to have fewer ingredients, which is often a good thing for people with sensitive skin. But if you have oily skin, sometimes the mineral powder combines with oil and can appear caked or clumpy.
Enough preamble—on to the reviews!
Photo Credit: Alima
Light to medium coverage
Vegan, nut-free, gluten-free, cruelty-free (but pricey)
Photo Credit: bareMinerals
Contains acne-fighting salicylic acid
Powder allows for light yet buildable coverage
Photo Credit: bareMinerals
Contains only 5 ingredients
Photo Credit: Glo Skin Beauty
Contains Vitamin C and Vitamin E
Photo Credit: IT Cosmetics
Great built-in sun protection
Long ingredient list, so maybe avoid if you have sensitive skin (or if you’re a minimalist).
Photo Credit: Kat Von D
Full-coverage, matte, might need setting powder
Photo Credit: MAC
Photo Credit: Make Up For Ever
Buildable pigment to achieve medium-to-full coverage
Natural, skin-like finish
Photo Credit: PÜR Cosmetics
Long-lasting, matte finish
Photo Credit: Urban Decay
Lightweight feel, per its name!
Photo Credit: e.l.f.
Contains salicylic acid (BHA) to combat acne while wearing makeup
Vegan and cruelty-free
Photo Credit: e.l.f.
Reviews mention it does leave a sheen/glow, probably not ideal for oily skin
Photo Credit: Maybelline
Formulated for normal to dry skin
Photo Credit: Walgreens
Great if you have a talc allergy!
Photo Credit: Wal-Mart
Wide range of shades to match skin color and undertone (cool vs. warm)
A few ingredients to avoid — some of these can be irritating/drying for inflamed acne or irritation-prone skin. Some can also clog pores! If you have a foundation with these ingredients, you may want to stop using it!
Isostearyl Neopentanoate (an emollient that can clog pores)
Clogged pores, nasty breakouts, irritation, and redness can result from using foundations with any of the ingredients listed above. If you’re trying to recover from a foundation that did you dirty, Curology has your back with dermatology providers and a custom prescription cream to help restore your skin back to health.
We know it isn’t easy to choose a foundation that checks all the boxes: the right texture, color, consistency, finish (matte or glowy?), and safe ingredients. But take it from the experts: the safety of a product’s ingredients should be your #1 concern before putting anything on your skin! Especially if you’re prone to acne or irritation.
If all these choices seem overwhelming, or your skin doesn’t seem to react well to any foundation, remember: there’s absolutely no shame in forgoing foundation! It can be beneficial to give your skin a break from makeup and let it breathe. Try just a little concealer, a tinted moisturizer, or a BB cream (check out our guide to BB and CC creams on the blog). And if you’re ready to break up with makeup altogether, try the minimalist approach: just slap on a non-comedogenic sunscreen in the AM, and you’re golden. Your skin will thank you — and you’ll have more time to snooze.
Just a reminder: we aren’t affiliated with any brands. Our product reviews are always based on what’s best for you and your skin!