If there’s one makeup technique that separates pros from amateurs, it’s complexion work. Convincingly faking perfect skin with makeup requires a working knowledge of colour theory, lighting, skin types and cosmetic formulations — not to mention a lot of experience.
I’ve never had great skin, but after years and years of dermatologist-guided trial and error, my acne is finally starting to chill out. Even though I still have some hyper-pigmentation spots and the odd pimple, I only wear foundation to big events.
The most I’ll do on a daily basis is some spot concealing, which is the single best technique for hiding dark spots while maintaining an overall realistic appearance.
If you struggle with foundation — whether it’s colour match woes, ingredient sensitivity or mid-day cake-face syndrome — or just plain don’t like it, spot concealing can even out your skin tone without looking like a mask. Here’s how to do it.
Protect Your Skin
Makeup can’t magically flatten raised bumps or smooth out flakes, so if you need to conceal pimples, scabs or other rough texture, preparation is everything.
I’m a huge believer in Vaseline, which I apply to my still-wet face right after cleansing. This keeps my skin moisturised all day and protects it from potential acne triggers in sunscreen and/or makeup.
Any active pimples or flaky areas get a generous extra glob, which I allow to sit for at least five minutes. I remove the excess with a cotton bud just before applying concealer.
For hygiene reasons, I don’t recommend attempting to cover open wounds with makeup, but if you have a juicy pimple to deal with, here’s what to do. Just after removing the Vaseline with a cotton bud, press some translucent powder on top of the pimple with a powder puff or sponge and let it sit for a minute; repeat if needed.
This should give you a canvas that’s moisturised enough to not look flaky, but dry enough to hold onto concealer.
Choose The Right Colour
Most people wear concealer that’s way too light for them. It’s easy to see why: If you need to cover a dark spot, reaching for something super light to counteract that darkness makes intuitive sense.
Unfortunately, that isn't how pigment works. White pigment turns dark spots grey rather than fully concealing them, so your concealer needs to be roughly as dark as whatever you’re trying to cover up.
Most people need, at most, two concealer shades: An orange-based colour for blue or purple shadows and a yellow-based one for redness.
Here are four concealers applied heavily just below my jawline (L-R): Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer in Sx09, Kevyn Aucoin SSE in Sx06, NYX Dark Circle Concealer in Fair, Tarte Shape Tape concealer in Light Sand.
The lighter shades closely match my skin tone, but they have way too much white to cover my post-acne spots, undereye circles, or even the redness on my cheeks — so the darker shades are actually perfect.
Let’s start where most concealers do: Dark circles. On my right eye (your left), I used the NYX Dark Circle Concealer in Fair; on my left (your right), I used the Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer in Sx09. (I applied and blended both with my finger.)
The white pigments in the NYX concealer leave a grey cast, but my left eye looks great; the difference is especially noticeable in natural light.
Next, let’s talk about redness. Everyone knows that green cancels red, so green concealer is a seemingly logical choice for redness. However, skin redness isn’t pure red; it’s a combination of visibly engorged blood vessels (red) and assorted levels of melanins (mostly brown and black, with some red).
Those brown and black pigments are what make the ubiquitous mint green concealer stick useless for most people: Adding green and white to dark, reddish-purple brown just makes a lighter, greyer brown.
Yellow concealers work better on redness for the vast majority of people — but again, too much white is bad news.
On my right cheek (your left), I applied Tarte Shape Tape concealer in Light Sand; on my left, Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer in Sx06. (I applied the Tarte with my finger and the Kevyn Aucoin with a tiny brush; I blended both with fingers.)
The lighter concealer knocked back the redness, but left behind a definite grey cast.
The same thing happens with pimples and hyperpigmentation marks. I used Shape Tape to cover the pimple on the right side of my chin, and it did OK — but check out how much better the darker, yellow concealer handled things:
Photo: A.A. Newton
Photo: A.A. Newton
Use The Tiniest Brush You Can Find
Dispensing small amounts of super opaque formulas allows you to build up coverage gradually, which is always better than slapping too much on at once and trying to blend it away. To do this, you need a truly itsy-bitsy brush.
You probably won’t find the perfect brush for detail work at Sephora, but your local art supply store has your back. My spot concealer brush is a 10/0 synthetic-bristle spotter from a set designed for painting miniature figurines. It looks like this:
If you don’t have an art supply store nearby, order an inexpensive set of brushes from your online retailer of choice. Sets are packaged much more securely than individual brushes, and you’re more likely to find a favourite if you have a few to choose from. (Plus, any extras are great for eyeliner.)
To conceal wide areas — such as my cheek redness and undereye circles — I dip the end of my brush into the concealer, apply it in a crosshatch pattern across the area, and tap with a finger to blend.
For dark spots, I apply two or three individual dots of concealer directly on the darkest area, then press and tap with the tip of a finger to distribute the pigment. If it’s still showing through, I’ll repeat this process and/or add a dot of the orange concealer to knock back any residual darkness.
Photo: A.A. Newton
Photo: A.A. Newton
Don’t Skip Powder
Base makeup is kind of like a brick wall: Powder particles are the bricks that give it structure, and creams and liquids are the mortar that holds it together. (I guess fixing sprays are weatherproof sealants in this analogy, which is pretty apt.)
If you don’t set your meticulously applied spot concealer with powder, it’ll melt off your face right away, ruining all your hard work.
My love for puffs and sponges is well-documented, and they’re especially important here. No other tool can lay down the solid sheet of powder that you need to lock concealer in place. I like a pointed velour puff for precise powder application.
Once you’ve powdered over your painstaking concealer work, you’re ready to apply the rest of your makeup.
Whether it’s a mascara-and-lip balm day or you’re in the mood for a lot of colour, a flawlessly spot-concealed base will ensure you look your best.
This article has been updated since its original publication.