Skin & Tonics

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My MAC Foundation Matching Debacle: Am I NW or NC?

MAN, finally! I think I may have, at last, figured out my MAC foundation match. This discovery has literally been years in the making, and finally knowing the truth is – well- I guess it hasn’t really changed my life much, actually, except that I now have a better frame of reference when discussing my foundation color, and I’ve got a couple of new foundations to add to my already massive foundation collection. However, it’s been such an ordeal for me that I thought it would be worth sharing, just in case there’s anyone else out there with a skin tone like mine – one with both yellow and pink undertones – that’s also having trouble finding her MAC match.

MAC Studio Fix Fluid NC15 & NW13

One of these is NC15 and one of these is NW13. Can you tell which is which?

Here’s the thing about my skin tone: it’s neutral. It has both warm tones and cool tones, and for a line like MAC’s, which relies on one or the other for most of their foundations, it can be challenging to find the right match. To complicate things even further – I am part Japanese, and my skin reflects that. There’s something about Asian skin that seems to throw some beauty associates off their game – I am often labeled as being either warmer or darker than I actually am.

As many of you may already know, the MAC color system is divided into NW and NC tones. NW (neutral warm) is for cool, pink undertones, while NC (neutral cool) is for warm, yellow undertones. It can be confusing for the unfamiliar – it really seems like the NW and NC should be reversed, but it helps to think of NW as “not warm” and NC as “not cool.”

MAC Studio Fix Fluid swatch NC15 NW13

On the left is NC15, right is NW13 in MAC Studio Fix Fluid.

Years ago, I was matched as an NC25 in MAC’s Studio Fix Fluid Foundation. I was not as knowledgeable about foundation back then, but I do remember feeling that it looked off. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it at the time, and assumed that I must just not like MAC’s foundation formula. It’s too yellow, I thought. But the girl who matched me told me my skin tone was straightforwardly warm, and I believed her. My skin did have plenty of visible yellow in it, after all.

Over the years, I amassed quite the foundation collection, and I’d found my perfect match for nearly all of them. And then one day it occurred to me: most of my foundations were not straightforwardly warm. A lot of them were neutral, and some of them were actually cool. Not long after that epiphany, I went through the arduous process of finding my match in Kat Von D’s Lock-it Tattoo foundation, and it was this process that helped realize that I was definitely not NC25. Determined to know my true match was, I went back to MAC and asked for a rematch. A foundation rematch, that is. I did not, and have never, brawled with a MAC employee.

The first MAC employee I met with matched me as NW20 in MAC Mineralize Moisture Foundation. I was so ecstatic to have finally found my match, I told everyone I knew the exciting (*cough* boring *cough*) news! I posted it on Facebook, on Instagram, I messaged my friends, I told my sister about it – really, any captive audience I could find. Then I tried it on again at home, and it was wrong. Back it went, which is just as well, because as it turns out, I hate the finish of Mineralize Moisture Foundation (too dewy). I went through this routine many times – getting an almost match, and then going back again (NW15 was workable, but had a somewhat dulling effect). And guess what? In the end, I was an NC after all – NC15 in Studio Fix Fluid, to be exact. NW13 works as well, though it’s a titch too light. I kept both.

This is me with no foundation (and a pretty fun PMS breakout). Actually, there are some foundation remnants that I missed with my makeup wipe, but for the most part, this photo is foundation free.

This is me with no foundation (and a pretty fun PMS breakout). Actually, there are some foundation remnants that I missed with my makeup wipe, but for the most part, this photo is foundation free.

This is my face with MAC Studio Fix Fluid in NW13. It's slightly light for me, but it's still very wearable. I actually really like this shade for wearing with my Chanel Les Beiges Powder in N°30.

This is my face with MAC Studio Fix Fluid in NW13. It’s slightly light for me, but it’s still very wearable. I actually really like this shade for wearing with my Chanel Les Beiges Powder in N°30 for color.

MAC Studio Fix Fluid Foundation Match NC15

This is me in MAC Studio Fix Fluid in NC15. Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner!

MAC Studio Fix Fluid Foundation Match in NC15

MAC Studio Fix Fluid in NC15, plus MAC Cremeblend Blush in “Glamour Feast,” Satin Lipstick in “Twig.”

The point of this story is: If you have a neutral skin tone, and don’t like how you’ve been matched for your MAC foundation in the past, keep trying. You might be surprised and find that there is a color for you. If you really luck out (as I did), you’ll have more options than you think. Instead of being limited by your neutral skin tone, the presence of both pink and yellow undertones might actually broaden your choices – you could have an NW and an NC match out there!

Everyone’s skin is made up of a multitude of colors – it’s all about finding which ones you want to lead with. Neutral skin tones, in particular, have a very wide range of possibilities, as evidenced by my swatch arm below. As different as all those swatches are from one another, all of them are either a perfect or very close to perfect match for my skin tone:

foundation swatches Kat Von D MAC Guerlain Chanel NC15 NW15 Beige 10 Light 48 Light 44

1. MAC Studio Fix Fluid in NW13
2. MAC Studio Fix Fluid in NC15
3. Guerlain Parure de Lumiere in 02 Beige Clair (EDIT 01/09/2014: I’ve recently discovered 01 Beige Pale is a better match)
4. Chanel Perfection Lumiere in Beige 10
5. Urban Decay Naked Skin in 3.5
6. Kat Von D Lock-it Tattoo Foundation in Light 48
7. Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer in 07
8. Hera CC Cream in 02 Natural Beige
9. Missha Cho Bo Yang BB Cream in 02 Calm Beige
10. Missha M Perfect Cover BB Cream in 21 Light Beige
11. Missha Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail BB Cream
12. Etude House Precious Mineral Cotton Fit BB Cream in W13 Natural Beige
13. Kat Von D Lock-it Powder Foundation in Light 44
14. MAC Studio Fix Powder in NC20 or (wouldn’t you know it?) NC25

That cheat sheet should be helpful for those with a neutral, light skin tone similar to mine. I realize that includes a limited number of people, but the good news is, there are some pretty amazing online resources that can provide anyone a great starting point when looking for a foundation match.

Findation.com
If you know what your perfect match is in at least one foundation, you can try Findation.com, which will give you a list of matches in a huge spectrum of brands. I find that for the most part, Findation gets it pretty close. Many of the matches have been correct for me, though there were also a handful that were off. It’s a great place to start though, and will give you a good idea of what range to search within.

Sephora Color IQ
There’s an in-store Color IQ matching system in a lot of stores, which involves some sort of computerized contraption that “reads” your skin tone and then tells you what your matches are. I’ve heard mixed reviews, but it’s not available in my area yet, so I haven’t tried it. I did try the online version, which asks you to input your foundation match for one brand, and then gives you a list of likely matches for other brands based on that information. I found that most of the matches were accurate, but there were also a couple that weren’t quite right.

Temptalia’s Foundation Matrix
I consider Temptalia’s Foundation Matrix to be the original online foundation matching tool. You’ll need some idea of what your skin tone is to use it, but it works by giving you matches in a multitude of brands based on your answers to a very short list of questions. It’s not as specific as Findation.com, but still a great place to begin!

Finished look.

Finished look.

Have you had a difficult time finding your MAC match, or any other foundation match? Is your skin tone difficult to assess? Do beauty associates often guess your tone incorrectly? I want to hear your tales of foundation woe!

 

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32 comments onMy MAC Foundation Matching Debacle: Am I NW or NC?

  1. I’m listening!! You can shout at me anytime about your perfect foundation match! :) Thank you for explaining this so well. I’ve been wearing MAC foundations on and off for twenty years, and I’ve never heard that explanation for NC/NW before. I had it completely backwards LOL! You’re making me rethink my NC20 status. Your skin tone is very similar to mine. I have both pink and yellow in my skin, depending on what part of my face you’re looking at. I will def check out NC15 next time I’m at MAC. Maybe I’ve found a better match. NC20 was close, but maybe I’m actually NW! Thanks again, I love your blog. You do the kind of research I truly appreciate!

    • Kerry

      Thanks, Angel! You made my day! I’d love an update when you find out what your match is. :) I’m glad I could help with the NW/NC thing – it really is confusing!

  2. Great post. ^^ To to the truth, I’ve never been matched, as I only wear BB Cream and not foundation. However, I ESTIMATE that I’m a NW20 based on what other people using the same Missha cover as me are using. Lol. Not super professional, I know.

    • Kerry

      Which Missha color are you? I think you might even be fairer than NW20, but I’m basing that solely on your blog photos. I’d guess NW15 – but then, it took me several trips to MAC to figure out my own color, so take that with a grain of salt! ;)

  3. My skin tone is a pain in the *ss to find. I have both yellow and pink undertones and on top of that I have dark skin. Because of that sometimes certain brand have my skin tone but when I put on my skin turns out to be ashy. And the cherry on the cake is that I’m between medium and deep skin. I’m helpless!

    • Kerry

      Ack! Juanita, that sounds like a nightmare! Do you have any good matches? Which brand/color have you had the most success with?

      • I recently got the Kat Von D Lock It foundation and the shade M64 was a pretty good match, then I received in a swap a second bottle and guess what? The shade is the same, at least is what the package tells me but the swatch is different! Never heard about that! Thank God is working now in the summer when my yellow undertone get dominant hahahahahah And the other good match is from CoverGirl All Day Flawless for dark skin tones in Q810 I would say that is my perfect match… for now!

        • Kerry

          That’s so strange about the Kat Von D shade change! Was there a big difference between the two?

          • Sorry for the late reply! I think the shade it’s pretty much the same but the undertone that before was more pink went totally yellow! So now I have to use the pink one in the winter and the yellow when I’m more tan, as I think I change undertones too. Like if my skin wasn’t troubled enough!

  4. I did not know about these wizard online foundation match machines!! Thank you!!

    I’m glad you finally found your match :) It looks great.

    • Kerry

      Thanks, Arielle! Me too! I love the online wizards. Findation might be my favorite of the three, but I spend an embarrassing amount of time with all of them.

  5. Nice post!

    I have trouble with this too, I have yellow and green undertones >: Red/pink just makes my skin look irritated or masky. But I live in a country where a lot of people have pink in their skin. Pretty much the reason I got into Asian brands was because I was FINALLY able to find products that matched my yellow/green or at least were not pink!

    • Kerry

      I agree 100% about the Asian brands making things easier! Here’s a question for you – do green undertones fall into a warm or cool spectrum? Or are they a class all their own?

  6. The color system at MAC still annoys me, even with my pro “status” lol! I’m an NC30 in Studio Tech, but not in other formulas(I can go anywhere from NC20-NC35) because they are either too light, oddly dark, or oxidize orange on me, so I just stick to my C4 in face and body(it’s just an easier everyday formula for when I’m not going hard core face), so I can totally empathize with you when it comes to color matching. Weird that the artist would have matched you as an NW(when I look at your pic, the idea of an NW makes me go “that would make her face not match her neck”), the NC definitely looks better. MACs foundations are one of those things that really have to be worked with to find “the one” and it’s frustrating that there is no consistency among their formulations.

    I’m rambling.

    Glad you found something that works, though! lol!

    • Kerry

      Agreed! MAC foundations do seem to require some persistence! How’s the coverage & finish for the face and body formula? I’m curious about that one!

      To the artist’s credit – the NW did look like it *could* be a match. I even wore the NW15 for a couple of days before I took it back. It was very close, but had a slightly dulling effect on my overall tone that also looked a smidge dark for me in certain light. But I’m glad I took it back – the NC15 (and even the NW13) are both much better!

      • F&B is super low coverage and maybe, maaaaybe buildable to medium if you let it sit for a bit to thicken up or just like to layer product. At one layer, it’s just enough to take out light redness and balance skin tone and is very forgiving because of its sheerness, but it’s definitely for skin that has no major problems/just needs a little bump. The formula is very watery, but a little goes a long way and it’s easily spreadable, and feels like a light moisturizer on my skin. It separates, so you have to give the bottle a good shake, like Chanel’s Aqua Lumiere(I think that’s the one with the little shaker ball in it?) but the regular size bottle seems to last forever, and you can always pop it in the fridge for coolness in the summer and keeping it even longer. Finish wise, definitely a dewy/satin kind of deal going on, but powder mattes it down nicely without getting cakey. No SPF so it’s great for photography since there’s no flash bounceback. F&B and StudioTech(full, but not hardcore pancake full coverage) are probably my favorite (and only) MAC foundations I use; not a fan of the rest of the lineup sadly so I turn to other brands for more “medium” coverage, or even a BB cream.

  7. I just stumbled across your blog and I’m so happy I did! I too am part japanese (although my features don’t reflect that) with fair skin similar to yours, and something about the asian skin tone makes it so hard to find a match! I had given up on MAC but now I’m gonna give it another go. Have you tried the studio fix powder plus foundation?

    BTW love the blog & your gorgeous!

  8. Haha I am not the only Neutral person alive! Ok So here is the think with MAC that I discovered most all of the liquid foundations are either NW or NC which is true, but they do have a powder foundation that come in N (applause ladies and gentleman that is N for Neutral)! I am an N4 or and N3 depending on the season. Although I am of a different heritage Irish and Native American. I use a concealer and blend out any imperfections and then the powder on a brush for the entire face. Building over any concealed areas to even out the tone. The studio FX powder comes with a sponge pad for more coverage, but I thankfully rarely need it. Try it out!

    • Kerry

      Hey Tracy! You know, I’ve seen the N colors in the powder and the face and body foundation online before, and have always wondered about them. I might need to go to my MAC counter and take a closer look. Thanks for the tip! :)

  9. Holy Hanah! I read this article and think I have found my twin in my foundation search. I am filipino, chinese, and spanish. I tan easily and vacillate my colouring throughout the year. I am also prone to hormonal acne and utilize acne medications that flare up the redness in my cheeks. MAC always viewed me as warm and coloured me NC30-35 (summer) but also it “never felt right”. They never seemed to notice that my poor neck was lighter and always looked toward my cheeks which were often redder:. must be warmer. Blush on and some oxidation in a few hrs…omg I was an ompa loompa. I have gone through so many foundations and have since embraced the neutral position, but in winter I tend to go towards the yellower ones I own. Eg.: Winter: 02 in L de P Guerlain (neutral leaning pink), PL Chanel 03 (neutral leaning yellow), and PRF Shiseido in 04 (most yellow foundation I own); Summer: YSL Teint ?forgot the name…beautiful glass bottle in BD5 (beige medium) and SSE KA 10 (beige medium) and Chanel on work days with bronzer as it just works so well for long days. If I lived-in a climate where the seasons were not so fluctuant I am sure this would have been solved more quickly but I don’t and have become confident enough to try different looks and “play” with my foundation now depending on my skin condition, type of day (work or at home), and weather. Thank you for bringing to the attention of others that we need to believe in our gut and not believe everything a MUA states if we feel it conflicts with our skin! Sample sample, sample and have fun! Thanks so much for the article!!!

    • Kerry

      You’re welcome, Lisa! How do you like the YSL foundation? I’ve often thought about trying it but haven’t yet. I would love to know how you feel about it!

      And yes! Samples, all the way. :)

  10. I’m the same as you, I have an in between of yellow and cool undertones (I’m half Turkish-Cypriote), and whenever I get a colour match it’s always wrong! I’m very fair skinned, yet they always put me in a darker colour, I have no idea why. It doesn’t help that the fluorescent lights in the shop change your skin tone. I bet loads of women have been mismatched because of this. They should really do something about it.

    I’ve settled with YSL Le Teint Touche Eclat in B10. It’s the perfect match (I decide to match it to my neck so I don’t have a floating face), but the foundation is too dewy, so I end up like an oil slick towards the end of the day. Le sigh, the search continues.

  11. This is almost word for word my foundation problem, although I am a few steps behind. I have ‘always’ been NC25, neutral (plenty of yellow, but not warm) and I am part Chinese. NC25 has never been quite right, but I have still used it as my reference for finding other foundations as, like you, I thought the ‘not quite right’ was just the various types of MAC foundation I had been using, not the colour. Yesterday, I was matched to NW20 and it all became clear, I am not NC25! Problem solved..except, I put it on today and it is far too pink (and somehow a bit dark, even though by number it is lighter than my benchmark NC25). There is no MAC counter near me (yesterdays match was at an airport), so I have to use online options. Instinctively I would have exchanged the NW20 for NC20 as dropping to NC15 (from NC25 and occasionally on holiday NC30 for the last 15 years) would have seemed a bit of a leap. Do you find that 15 is not actually that much lighter than NC25 just a different tone? Any help would assist in me keeping my sanity! Thanks

    • Kerry

      Hey Dina! NC15 is a definitely lighter, but the tone is also different. NC20 might be a good pick for you if NC25 was close. I’d love an update on what color you decide to go with and how it worked out for you. Good luck! I definitely feel your frustration.

      • Love Odeh

        I really want to know the difference between Nc and Nw. I got Nc50 and discovered its dark on me so I went ahead and got Nc43 but Nc43 is white on me, I’m thinking of getting Nc45. Please make me understand. I’m light in complexion…should I try Nw or still maintain the NC? Is NC for light skin and Nw for dark skin? Thanks .

  12. please give a review shade mac spf fluid foundation NC35/30 . I CAN’T MATCH MY FOUNDATION MATCH… :(
    MY SKIN TONE: WARM FAIR

  13. Thank you. I’m half Japanese and I thought I was the only woman in the country with a makeup drawer of foundations. Right now I have full bottle of foundations that are mismatched Nars, Laura Mercier (2), Marc Jacobs, Dior, Givenchy. I just returned a Dior Airflash and YSL. I also just tossed a Smashbox Halo foundation in the trash because there was nothing I liked about it. In the past couple of months I’ve wasted some $500 on foundation alone.

    I’m going to try some of the shades you have as our skin tone is very similar. I’ve been color matched by Mac in three different shades–all either too yellow, too pink, or too ashy (reads looks like death).

    Thank you again for posting this information.

  14. THANK YOU. I am neutral-toned as well and it looks like we are the same shade. :) I have been feeling so limited because I’m scared to be yellow or pink. I though before this I was limited to Dior, because it has been the only truly neutral foundation I tried. I’m relieved to know someone else has this obstacle and has persevered and overcome it. Thank you so much for this huge list of choices!

  15. Chloe

    Thank you for this blog! I was away to buy nc20 online and realised that it’s actually darker than photos:) this had made my night as now I know what nc and nw means! Thank you so much

  16. Faiza

    Hey thanku so much for that great post. Guess what I have the same skin tone as yours. And I went to a store to try MAC studio fix and I tried these two shades, nc15 and nw13 and nc 15 was a perfect match for me whereas nw13 was little light but im plannig to buy both!! But which studio fix powder to use for nc15 and nw13? I think with nc15 it would be nc20 but what bout nw13?

  17. Rebecca

    I have the exact same issues as you, and I’m pretty sure the exact same color as you too. I don’t recommend the Sephora color IQ, it always “matches” me with foundations that are so far too yellow it’s laughable. If you like matte foundations, MUFE Mat Velvet+ in 25 or 30 should work well for you :) thanks for the post!