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Feminspire | July 12, 2014

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The NC45 Conundrum, or How I Found My Perfect Shade

The NC45 Conundrum, or How I Found My Perfect Shade

For as long as I’ve been wearing makeup, finding the right shade of foundation has been nearly impossible. Foundation is supposed to do a lot of things: Cover up, let your skin shine through but control the shine, moisturize, even your skin’s tone, and to accomplish all this it should be the exact shade of your skin. At least, that’s what every beauty article I’ve ever read has told me.

To make sure that you’ve found the right color, you’re supposed to test the foundation on your neck (not your hand!) and run outside the store into natural sunlight to see if the color blends into your skin. I have a few problems with this; first, the beauty store that I frequent is located on the second floor of a mall with a parking garage, and to test out my potential Holy Grail shade in the sun I would have to race down three escalators and through a rather large and convoluted parking garage. I’m willing to spend an hour perusing the offerings at Sephora but I’m too lazy to sprint for accuracy. Second, I already know the shade is going to be too light, too dark, too orangey, or too ruddy. This is because of years of research at beauty counters where the makeup lines seem to assume that all women of color, or any woman with a darker skin tone, need only to choose from a range of about 5 colors.

I do have to admit that in recent years the selection has seemed to grow. Companies such as Make-Up Forever, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, MAC Cosmetics, and NARS have all stepped up with their offerings, with color selection in darker tones growing more varied and nuanced (i.e. paying attention to the various undertones that darker skinned women have).

When first searching for a line that offers what I need, I was almost always directed to MAC. MAC is one of the most recognizable high-end makeup companies, so it’s natural that they would be suggested. And trusted. In coming to the conclusion that MAC was my only hope, I read a lot of blogs, watched even more YouTube makeup tutorials, and found a great resource for makeup information ( The message board there has a section devoted just to makeup for women of color, and it also pointed me in the direction of MAC (it is a MAC-centered site, but not MAC exclusive). So I headed out to the MAC counter, confident in my knowledge that the Makeup Artist Professional (MA) would guide me through my foundation fumbles.

MAC nc45I was so right and so misguided. The MA knew the answer to my prayers after one swipe of exactly one color: NC45. She said it matched perfectly, and who was I to argue with a professional? Nevermind the fact that she tested a single color on my cheek (I thought the neck was ideal!) and didn’t even ask how I felt about the color. She obviously could see something I couldn’t with her expert eye, so I bought the 30-something dollar bottle of foundation. And I used it. All summer. Every day, even though it felt in the hot and humid weather like a waxy substance sliding down my face and looked pretty orange. However, the first problem could be solved easily. I was wearing foundation in July; I told myself that of course I was going to sweat and that makeup was not going to last. The second problem was the orange face I was sporting — but this was the perfect color! It didn’t occur to me to second guess the MAC makeup expert. So when I dove headfirst into my trusty message board I discovered that I wasn’t the only victim of NC45. There were numerous posts with pictures of women ranging in skin tones similar to Kerry Washington to Viola Davis, and all were recommended to apply NC45.

I understand that skin color changes throughout the seasons according to exposure to the sun, but no way could this one color be applicable to seven different skin shades. Why then did MAs continue to hold fast to the idea that NC45 was the best, the go-to color? I have a few ideas, based only on my own personal experience. The first reason I can easily think of is that not every MA is familiar with the intricacies of darker hued skin. Women of color have undertones too; we don’t fit into one or two categories.

This leads to my second reason: It may take more than several tries and combinations to get our shades right. The MA just may not have the patience or time to try every single color and combination available. Thus, I learned to educate myself further than the internet recommendations. I started shopping at stores that had easy return policies and that allowed customers to sample the product in-store. I also perfected the art of politely refusing the assistance of the MA’s. I know that they are professionals, but I’ve been burned (and turned an unsightly orange) by blindly following experts before. I take their suggestions into consideration, not as the only option.

NARS Sheer Matte TahoeI finally found my HG foundation (for now). It’s NARs Sheer Matte in Tahoe, in case anyone was wondering. I’m sure I’ll discover in few months that I’ve been walking around with what looks like crumbly red clay on my face (although I hope not to!), but I’m happy for now.

In my tireless (and, okay, sometimes half-hearted) search I have found brands that offer what I consider a great range of colors for darker skin tones. Drugstore brands that I would suggest include Revlon’s Colorstay and L’Oreal’s True Match. I also hear about Queen Latifah’s line from Cover Girl, but it remains elusive to me as I can never find it in my local stores. Then department store brands I like are Make-Up Forever, Urban Decay, Bobbi Brown, Lancôme, and NARS — no MAC for now. I’m still too fragile.

Written by Autumne Montague 

  • Litost

    I have the opposite problem; no make up company makes foundation light enough for my skin tone. I’ve tried everything. I bought MAC online (“Anne Hathaway wears this colour”) and it turned me orange. Recently I discovered Make Up Forever HD foundation – the lightest colour I was ever able to find – 107!! Then, Sephora discontinued it. :( Apparently only people who are in between light and dark get 120 shades of consideration.

  • ♎ Tiffany ♎

    When I go into MAC I always make sure they take their time and help me with my makeup. I’m an NC45 which is my right shade. But before that it took me years to find the right color. I find that the lighting in the store can change the color of your skin tone so look out for that next time.

  • 9990

    In Australia I always have trouble finding the right undertone they are always rose based, it its hard to get yellow undertones, if I find one it is too light!It’s so annoying, In the stores most of the brands like Revlon and L’oreal don’t actually stock the all the shades in store. I can’t afford MAC anyways