Mega Comparison: Face Primers

Ever since my eyeshadow primer comparison post, I have been inundated with requests to do a similar post focusing on foundation primers.

I did do a “drugstore dupes to the test” post comparing Smashbox Photo Finish and Monistat Anti-Chafing Gel and found that, logistically, it is much more difficult to pull off this sort of comparison for face primers. I got complaints about how people didn’t trust my assessment of what happened because the pictures weren’t clear enough and even some accusations that I was being paid by Smashbox to give a favorable review of their product (Obviously, this is not the case). As a result, I took pains to ensure that this comparison was as methodologically sound as I could make it (given my logistical limitations), leading to a delay in your wonderful blog-reading enjoyment.

Because I have limited bodily surface area, I had to ditch the multiple-foundation method. I still like the idea, but it was impractical. Instead, I chose one seriously intense product: Kat Von D’s Lock It Foundation. Rather than using potentially smudge-y permanent marker to test for opacity, I just chose an uglier part of my skin. My forearms are looking pretty uniform in color, but my legs are blotchy and weird, meaning I have a natural test of the foundation’s staying power. Finally, I chose a color that was significantly different from my natural color in order to make the foundation’s effects stand out more clearly against the camera. I chose the lightest shade in the Kat Von D foundation: Light 42.

I also want to make sure that it is clear that this test only addresses one facet of foundation primer action: its ability to prolong your foundation wear-time. Things like reducing the appearance of pores are obviously not examined in this test.

(The other reason it took me so long to get to this request is because this post necessitated a trip to Sephora, and Sephora is a long-ass way away. The town I live in is too small to sell makeup… It’s so small, the top story in the local paper yesterday was that Walmart’s hours are changing. That sounds like a joke, but it genuinely is not.)

I compared a whopping (and numerically dissatisfying) 19 primers from 15 different brands. As before, I arranged the primers based on price per ounce, from lowest to highest.

1. Hard Candy Sheer Envy Primer, $8 for 1.6oz ($5 per ounce)
2. Laura Geller Spackle Under Makeup Primer, $36 for 4oz ($9 per ounce)
3. Bare Minerals Prime Time Foundation Primer, $23 for 1oz ($23 per ounce)
4. Pixi Beauty Flawless and Poreless Primer, $29 for 1.01oz ($28.71 per ounce)
5a. Too Faced Primed and Poreless Skin Smoothing Face Primer, $30 for 1oz ($30 per ounce)
5b. Too Faced Primed and Poreless Pure Oil-Free Skin Smoothing Face Primer, $30 for 1oz ($30 per ounce)
6. Sephora Collection Perfecting Ultra-Smoothing Primer, $15 for 0.5oz ($30 per ounce)
7a. Tarte Clean Slate Poreless 12-Hour Perfecting Primer, $30 for 1 oz ($30 per ounce)
7b. Tarte Clean Slate Flawless 12-Hour Brightening Primer, $30 for 1 oz ($30 per ounce)
8a. Urban Decay Pore Perfecting Complexion Primer Potion, $31 for 0.94 oz ($32.98 per ounce)
8b. Urban Decay Brightening & Tightening Complexion Primer Potion, $31 for 0.94 oz ($32.98 per ounce)
9. Makeup Forever HD Microperfecting Primer, $34 for 1.01 oz ($33.66 per ounce)
10. NARS Pro-Prime Pore Refining Primer, $34 for 1 oz ($34 per ounce)
11. Tarte BB Tinted Treatment 12-Hour Primer, $34 for 1 oz ($34 per ounce)
12. Paul & Joe Moisturizing Foundation Primer, $35 for 1 oz ($35 per ounce)
13. Smashbox Photo Finish Foundation Primer, $36 for 1 oz ($36 per ounce)
14. Benefit Stay Flawless 15-Hour Primer, $32 for 0.54 oz ($59.26 per ounce)
15. Mirabella Prime for Face and Eyes, $29 for 0.45 oz ($64.44 per ounce)
16. Benefit ‘That Gal’ Brightening Face Primer, $29 for 0.37 oz ($78.38 per ounce)

The costs ranged from $5 to $78.38 per ounce, with a mean of $34.55 per ounce, a median of $32.98 per ounce, and a mode of $30 per ounce.

I applied a swipe of foundation over each primer. At the very top, I included a control that had no primer whatsoever.

Next, I waited 12 hours. I was originally intending on doing a shorter test, but Kat Von D’s Lock It foundation was too badass and made this impossible. (After four hours, there was literally no difference from when I first applied the swatches!)

As with the eyeshadow comparison, I was able to divide the tested foundations into three rough categories: low performers, medium performers, and high performers.

(Because none of the primers where I tested multiple versions significantly out-did their paired swatch, for the purposes of pictures I only used one of the two variations.)

Low performers: Hard Candy, Laura Geller, Bare Minerals, Pixi, Benefit That Gal

I classified these five primers as “low performers” because there was no visible difference between the swatches that were over these primers and the control swatch, which had no primer at all. Hard Candy is absurdly inexpensive, so it’s probably not a big shocker that it was relatively ineffective. Prime Time, it could be argued, may be more effective for mineral makeup, since Bare Escentuals is a mineral makeup company. It is perfectly likely that they never tested their primer using liquid foundation. Pixi… I don’t know. Maybe it extra, extra fixes your pores? Benefit’s That Gal might be focusing more on brightening your complexion than prolonging your makeup? I have no excuse, even a contrived one, for Laura Geller’s Spackle.

The one thing that it worth noting, however, is that none of these primers decreased the wear-time of the foundation. Thus, if you are using one for a reason other than prolonging the wear-time of your foundation (your pores or some shit), and you are happy with how long your makeup lasts, there is no compelling reason to switch primers.

Medium performers: Too Faced, Urban Decay, Makeup Forever, NARS, Paul & Joe, Smashbox, Mirabella

This category contained some of my favorite brands… and also Mirabella, for some reason. I would have expected a better performance from fancy-ass brands like NARS or Paul & Joe. Alas, it seems that fanciness is not a reliable indicator of performance.

Notably, the oil-free version of the Too Faced primer did better than its counterpart, although both still belonged in the medium-performing category.

High performers: Sephora Collection, Tarte Clean Slate, Tarte BB, Benefit Stay Flawless

The only real “what the fuck” in this experiment was here: WHY DID YOU DO SO WELL, SEPHORA COLLECTION?! I was definitely expecting the Sephora Collection primer to show up in the medium- or even -low-performing category. I was stunned when I checked my notes to see which primer was used for which number. That being said, the Sephora Collection primer isn’t really saving you any money; It costs $30 per ounce, the same price as the Tarte primers, which also found their way into the “high performing” category. If you want a primer that will keep your foundation on and you ALSO want to feel fancy, you may just want to spring for the name brand and pick up Tarte.

The Tarte BB Primer also did really well, although I am suspicious of these results. Because it was tinted, I think that it may be the equivalent of just using more foundation.

Finally, Benefit’s brand spanking new 15-Hour Primer held its own! It has polka dots on it, too, and I will always be happy when something with polka dots is successful. That being said, I think my 12-hour primer test demonstrated what companies really mean when they put absurd lengths of time on their products– Benefit will certainly be doing way better than the control at 15 hours. However, there is marked fading. It doesn’t look like the foundation was just applied at all.

I think that if you maintain realistic expectations, though, any of these four primers will probably serve you well. Unlike with my eyeshadow comparison post, though, there was no clear victor. Given the variation in people’s skin, preferences, and goals for a primer, I don’t feel like I can advocate for any individual product. However, if you are dissatisfied with how long your foundation is lasting, this may give you some avenues of exploration.


1. Being a similarly oily gal, I’m curious which is your regular primer. I’m less concerned about longevity and more concerned about not looking like I rubbed my face with a stick of butter. I’ve been using Hourglass Mineral Veil and I quite like the product but my wallet isn’t so fond of the price.

2. This isn’t very helpful, but I don’t really have a regular primer… My makeup switches up just about every day. I have had good luck with the Korres Pomegranate Mattifying Primer (which I just realized that I completely forgot to include in this test! Oops…). It is $32.67 per ounce rather than $52 per ounce, so that’s about 62% what you’re paying now…

3. Right now I use UD brightening for my regular liquid foundation, and Lorac water based for my airbrush foundation. I think after reading this I’ll be switching to Tarte primer for regular foundation. Thanks!

4. Get a sample and see what you think!

5. i’ve been very interested in the tarte BB tinted primer but have hesitated because i’ve tried the other 2 and didn’t like them. for now, i’m very happy with Hourglass and OC8 primers but will definitely consider the tarte next time. thanks!!

6. Definitely pick up a sample first!

7. I am big on Benefit primers for some reason. I mean, I like a few of their products, but the only primers I use are theirs. I do think that That Gal is absurdly expensive, but I’ve always gotten great deals on it, and it really is brightening. The Porefessional, which you didn’t cover makes the makeup last longer and minimizes pores well. Last, I got a sample of Stay Flawless, and it really is fantastic. As soon as I get my 12 month discount from Birchbox a full size Stay Flawless is mine.

Can I just say that I really do like your blog a lot? I check up on it daily and tell my friends to read it. It’s the perfect blog for someone who loves makeup and who is getting a Ph.D. The tests and reviews are genuinely useful and practical which is refreshing with other unrealistic blogs or those that love everything.

8. Oh crud! I definitely have a sample size of the Porefessional hiding out somewhere too! I am remembering all sorts of primers I should have included. Whoops!

9. Then you could have had a far more satisfying 20 trials!

10. Thank you so much for doing this. I LOVE trying new primers (I have literally 20 primers. It’s probably kind of a problem, haha) The Tarte Clean Slate is my absolute favorite. I haven’t tried the oil free version of Too Faced’s Primed and Poreless (I’m a pretty big fan of the original version and I have oily skin), so I will definitely give it a try after this.

I have a somewhat related question. The KvD lockit foundation, how do you apply it when you use it on your face? I bought some to use for special occasions when I want full coverage, but no matter what I do it looks SUPER caked on. I’ve tried cutting it with Moisturizer, the KvD Primer Elixir (at the suggestion of a sephora employee) and with Hourglass Serum 28, but none of that seems to help. I’ve also tried different application methods (beauty blender, foundation brush, kabuki brush, and just my fingers) . I have super oily skin, I exfoliate regularly, and I moisturize before I use primer. Any suggestions you have would be awesome!

11. Huh. I use a different shade than the one pictured (I think it’s Light 44? The second lightest shade) but I haven’t had any problems with it. I use my fingers or a brush on my acne-covered areas, and then a beauty blender to sheer it out on the parts of my skin that looks better.

12. Amy, have you tried using thin layers built up, rather than 1 big thick layer? I had cakeyness problems until I realized, I was putting on way too much at one time in an effort to cover all my imperfections in one go. Pat (not rub/blend) on a thin layer with a damp bb, one section at a time, and pat on additional layers until you reach the desired coverage.

If you are already doing this, and are still getting cakiness problems, then I don’t know what could be the problem, you sure seem to be doing everything right. If so, then maybe the kvd just isn’t for you.

13. I think based on both of your suggestions I’m trying to use way too much all at once. I use BB Cream or tinted moisturizer on a daily basis and have only recently been experimenting with products that provide more coverage. I will definitely try your suggestions and let you know how they work. Thank you both!

14. Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

I must say, you’ve proven what I’ve always known – I’ve gotten samples of every primer known to man (or woman) kind… And I ALWAYS go back to my Sephora primer!

Part of me feels like I SHOULD get a better result from a higher-end brand, but nothing else does the job quite as well!

15. You clearly are a wiser lady than many of us!

16. Welp. Off I go to get that Benefit Primer.

Amazing post, thank you so much for doing this!

17. I recently picked up Sephora’s primer. When I pulled it out to use it the next day (but before I actually put it on) I remember thinking “goddamnit, why did I ‘cheap out’ and buy the Sephora brand? I should’ve sprung for something nicer.” But then! I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked it. So I was pleased, but not surprised, to see that you had good results with it in this test, too.

18. I LOVE YOU. You just saved me SO much time and money and dissatisfaction!!

I have been using Whatever Drugstore Foundation Is On Sale And Doesn’t Test On Small Bunnies. Plus two primers – Rimmel, which may or may not have made my skin look smoother but didn’t prolong wear for shit, and Something Else From Target, which did prolong wear but not nearly enough.

And I can grow a reasonable-though-sparse beard in about 36 hours, so I battle two different things with foundation: first, covering up dark Italian stubble, and second, covering up 5 o’clock shadow at the tail end of the makeup’s lifespan!

(There ain’t nothing wrong with being able to grow a beard in a day; it offers fabulous gender-bending versatility. But on days when I’m trying to get a consistent femme girl kind of look, which is most of the days, it is not helpful.)

I wasn’t even sure that any foundation/primer combo would give me all-day wear. I’d been re-applying 2-3 times a day. It was annoying.

I ran out of makeup (it was some cover girl long-wear stuff from walgreens) last week and went, “Well, I’m getting that Kat von D stuff for sure!”

I got out everything I had learned from this post, went down to Sephora, and ended up with a sample of the Kat von D and a bottle of the Sephora primer, the silicone one. $15 total, plus it turned out I had points so I got a tiny thing of mascara for free.

And OMG!! Now I can put on the primer, pat on a TINY amount of the foundation (because I also learned that my fingers are the most efficient foundation-applying method!) and it lasts all day. I mean, by midnight I’m still wearing most or all of the foundation. It wore off faster when I spent all day playing with our nieces and nephews, but that’s about it.

Before, I was not only re-applying repeatedly and having to check my look all the time, but also, I was putting on probably three times as much foundation in the morning so it would last longer.

This is so awesome!!! Thank you for all your research!!!!

19. Yay! I am glad that combo is working well for you!

20. Also FWIW: At least at my local Sephora, the store primer might be the same cost per ounce as the Tarte primer, but it’s in a smaller bottle – so you can restrain yourself to only spending $15 at a time. Same outlay over the long-term, but less painful in the short term.

21. Coming a little late to the party, just discovered your blog a little while ago via a comment left on the AskAManager blog. I really love what I’ve read so far and am going back and reading older posts.

For primer, I really like Paula Dorf’s Perfect Primer. She has two, one for Normal/Oily and one for Dry skin and I use both – Normal/Oily on my t-zone and Dry on the rest of my face.

It is worth the time and effort. I use either Bare Minerals foundation or my new fave, Laura Geller’s Balance-n-Brighten in Fair, and both work beautifully with these primers. The Normal/Oily really does keep the shine down for much longer time than with no primer and a finishing powder.

22. Just gotta say that I really enjoy reading your entries. I haven’t seen anyone else use such a scientific approach to makeup testing (and I LOL’d at the mean, median, and mode thrown in there – too cute!) and it’s refreshing to have a bit of salty verbiage thrown into the writing. 🙂 Thanks for the info AND the entertainment!

23. Hey!

Have you tried the Tarte Clean Slate Poreless primer with the Tarte Amazonian Clay 12hr foundation (liquid)? I know the Tarte Poreless primer has oil in it (albeit a small amount) so I’m not sure if that would react differently with an oil free foundation. Thanks so much!!

24. what an excellent comparison!

25. whoa. i am SO GLAD i found your blog. i just bought tarte’s BB primer and i’m on the fence about it. especially since i still have a full, unopened, bare minerals primer. i might return tarte and power through the BM bottle until i can figure out what i want to splurge on next

i love LOVE your scientific approach to the product comparisons. and i truly appreciate it. i’m a fan of sampling products, but sometimes, i want a person’s thorough evaluation of a product before giving it a chance.

thanks for my new read 🙂

26. Hey, it looks like your image links might be busted. I’m loving the read, though – such a unique approach! xo