Setting Powder: How and Why to Use It

Full disclosure: As the owner of a shiny T-zone by the end of the day (okay, by lunch) I can attest that it makes a difference to actually set my face makeup. When I say “set,” I’m referring to the process of using either a powder or spray—typically powder in my case—to keep in place the makeup I’ve previously applied, so it doesn’t slide off before the end of the day. On days when I don’t use setting powder, I usually find that the masterpiece I’ve created on my face eventually ends up melting off my face. Right now, my go-to powders are a toss up between Onomie’s AHA! Perfecting Setting Powder, ($30), and the travel-size version of Laura Mercier’s cult-favorite Translucent Setting Powder, ($23), which makes it way easier to lock my makeup in place while I’m on-the-go. I’m also a big fan of Black Opal’s Soft Velvet Finishing Powder, ($10), to set my entire face when I’m feeling especially oily, or want my makeup to really, really last.

While I can’t stress how game-changing setting powder can be (especially for us oily folks), I usually don’t apply mine to my entire face, just in hotspot areas like under my eyes, and along the sides of my nose, as well as a light dusting over my forehead to tone down shine before it starts. “‘Setting your makeup really means keeping everything looking flawless for as long as possible,” Sarah Lucero, global executive director of creative artistry at Stila, tells SELF. “It’s like using a final mist of hairspray to hold your hair in its perfect ‘do.” And if you’re sick of your all your hard work suddenly disappearing, it may just become your favorite tool in your makeup arsenal. Keep reading for the low-down on all things setting powder (including some best practices on how to use it).

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So, what’s the difference between a setting spray and powder?

Aside from their individual consistencies, there are a few key differences between setting powders and sprays. Powders are typically used as a last “sealing” step for complexion products, like foundation and concealer, while sprays are used to lock everything down after your entire makeup look is complete. “A setting spray is a light mist which usually contains a polymer—or bonding agent—that, when sprayed onto the face, sticks to your makeup,” says makeup artist Ashleigh Ciucci. “A spray can take away any [overly] powdery finish created, leaving the skin looking more like actual skin.” For those looking to refresh and/or reset their makeup midday, Lucero recommends using Beauty Blender’s Re-Dew Set and Refresh Spray, ($30).

If you’re not into spraying your entire face with something (it can be a little scary!) you might opt for a setting powder instead, particularly if you have a combination or oily skin type. “Setting powders are loose powders that contain ingredients like talc and silica, which help keep ‘wet’ products (like liquid or cream foundations and concealers) in place while preventing excess oil production,” says Ciucci. She tends to prefer using a setting powder like Nars Light Reflecting Loose Powder, ($37), on clients for a more natural feel, because sometimes setting sprays (while they may look more natural) can feel stiff or sticky.

What are some tips and tricks to best apply setting products?

To set her clients’ makeup, Lucero uses a loose powder with a small brush or makeup puff, which she says makes it easier to control where the powder is going. “I like to apply [the powder] in an upside down ‘v’ shape, focusing on the sides of the nose, mouth, chin, and forehead, by pressing and rolling a powder brush over the areas,” she says. “Strategic powder placement is more modern!” For those with scars and skin discoloration, Lucero explains that the press and roll method can be especially helpful for smoothing over rough skin textures, as well as discoloration and blemishes, which can take extra time to correct with makeup.

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Ciucci advises layering a little bit of product at a time, and building up gradually. “When setting scars and discoloration, apply a layer of foundation and set with your powder. Next, with a small, stiff brush, use your concealer to pinpoint the main areas of concern, tapping with your fingertip to blend. Finally, set the area with powder again, add another layer of concealer, and a final setting of powder. This way, your concealer has something to stick to (the powder) so that you’re able to build coverage in a natural way.”

Is there a difference between ‘baking’ and ‘setting’ makeup?

While the word baking may evoke the thought of a homemade dessert, the makeup version is essentially a more hardcore way to set your makeup. “Baking refers to using an extra amount of loose powder that can visibly be seen as a build-up on top of the skin,” Ciucci explains. “Your body heat forces the cream or liquid [products] to bond with the powder. After about 30 minutes or so, she adds that you can dust off any excess powder, revealing ‘red carpet-worthy’ skin.”

Since baking takes a bit longer to do than simply setting makeup, it’s a great time to go all out with the creative eye look of your dreams during the waiting period, especially since applying powder under the eye can prevent eyeshadow fallout from ruining the rest of your makeup. Ciucci suggests reserving the baking technique for special events where lots of photographs will be taken.

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