How to Determine Your Skin Tone (Read This Before Buying Foundation!)

how to determine your skin tone

Oh, you want that new foundation? Great! What’s your skin tone?

Um, I don’t know. Maybe medium?

We come up against this question all the time—more often these days than ever before. Used to be we needed to know our skin tone mainly for foundation, but now we also need it for all the various creams—BB, CC, etc.—and for making good choices when it comes to other colors, like those in eye shadows, blushes, lipsticks, and even clothes.

It doesn’t help if we have hyperpigmentation or discoloration. Maybe we’re fair overall, but then we have darker pigments on the cheeks and nose, or maybe we’re light overall but then in the summer we tan and become…medium?

How do we choose?

Then there are all those choices! Manufacturers these days are putting out more and more color shadings to help match our skin as closely as possible. That’s great, but it can make choosing that much harder.

Knowing your own skin tone really can benefit your appearance, though. You know how it works on others. You see them one day in a certain outfit and they just seem to “pop.” They look so nice! That’s often a sign they chose the right color combinations.

Helping our friends and loved ones choose the right colors is usually easier than choosing our own, so we put together some tips to help you out.

Start with Your Surface Color

When determining your skin tone, you actually need to figure out two things:

  1. The surface color of your skin.
  2. Your undertones.

The surface color is what you see first when you look in the mirror. You probably already have an idea if your skin is light, medium, or dark, for instance. This is all about how much pigmentation you have in your skin.

Fair – You’re very fair, and burn easily.

Light – You have generally light-colored skin, but you have more yellow or beige undertones than fair skin. (More on undertones below.)

Medium – Your skin is a more medium color, with potential olive undertones.

Dark – You have dark skin and/or a deep complexion.

The surface color can change depending on a lot of things. If you tan in the summer, for instance, it will get darker, and then lighten again in the winter. It can also be affected by redness, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, dryness, and dullness. These are things you try to keep constant by taking good care of your skin, and things that you work to hide or smooth out with makeup.

How to Determine Your Surface Color

You may have had trouble with this because your skin changes often. Try these tests:

Look at your jawline

This area is usually less affected by skin color changes than the rest of your face. When you examine the skin here, try to determine if it is fair, light, medium, or dark.

How do people describe you?

If they say you’re very “fair,” that’s probably your skin tone. If they’re always commenting on how tan you look, you may be medium. If you look pale in the winter, but tan in the summer, you may be light.

What is an Undertone?

“Undertone” is the term used for that subtle, more muted color that lies underneath the skin. You can think of it as a “shadow” that is always there. While the surface color may change, the undertone stays the same, regardless.

Where does my undertone come in handy?

That means you should use your undertone to form the basis of your overall skin tone. In fact, most beauty experts recommend that you use your undertone, rather than your surface color, to determine which foundation is best. A foundation that doesn’t match your undertone will often look “off”—either too orange, pink, red, or ashen. Eye shadow and blush that doesn’t match your undertone will also look less attractive than colors that do match.

It’s important to understand that these two colors can be different. Whereas the surface color of your skin may appear reddish or ruddy, your undertone may be golden or yellow.

In general, we have three undertone categories:

  1. Warm – think yellow, peachy, and golden.
  2. Cool – think red, pink, and bluish.
  3. Neutral – think olive or a mix of those above.

Now, the million dollar question is: what is your undertone.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can figure this out. Your best approach is to try each one, and average your answers. Usually the tone that pops up most often is your tone, but you can always confirm by trying some colors in that tone to see if they look “right.”

10 Ways to Determine Your Skin Tone

1. Check your veins.

You’ve probably heard of this one before. Look at the underside of your wrist. What color are your veins? Bluish-purple means you’re on the cool side. Greenish means warm. If you’re not sure and your veins look bluish-green, you may be neutral.

2. Do you tan or burn?

Those who seem to turn into bronze goddesses in the sun are usually warm-toned, while those that get red instead are usually cool. That doesn’t mean cools can’t tan—it just means they have to be a little more gradual with their exposure. African-Americans are often warm-toned, but not always. African-Americans may tan easily but still have a cool tone, so keep testing.

3. Do you blush easily?

If so, you’re on the cool side.

4. What colors look good on you?

Cool tones look good in deep, vibrant colors, such as blue, purple, and emerald-green. Warm tones glow in earth tones like red, orange, yellow, and olive-green. If you can wear both shades, you have neutral undertones. Another test: picture yourself in a yellow or orange shirt. If it gives you a great glow, you’re warm. If it makes you look a little sickly, you’re cool. If you look good but not great (like warms), you may be neutral.

5. Try the white test.

Get a plain piece of white paper and put it up by your face, sans makeup. Does your complexion look dull, or good? (You can also use a bright white towel.) If you answered “dull,” you’re warm. If you answered “good,” you’re cool. If you can’t tell much difference, you’re neutral. Some more clues: if your skin appears sallow or yellowish, you’re warm. Pink or rosy: cool. Grayish? You may have a neutral undertone.

6. Do you like gold or silver jewelry?

Cools look best in silver, while warms shine in gold. If you like two-toned, can you guess? You can test this by laying a gold and silver chain next to each other on your hand or arm. Which looks best?

7. What color are your eyes?

Usually, those with golden brown, green, hazel with gold flecks, and blue eyes are warm-toned. Those with black or deep brown, steel blue, hazel with grey or blue flecks, and grey are cool toned.

8. Look behind your ears.

Ask a friend to look at the skin just behind your ear. Yellowish means warm, pink or rosy means cool, and if they can’t tell, you may be neutral.

9. Think basic:

Test your skin against basic colors like black and white, and brown and tan. Cool shades will look better in stark black and white, while warms will prefer off-whites. Cools will like deep browns, while warms will prefer softer tans.

10. Who do you identify with?

Think celebrities. Scarlett Johansson, Anne Hathaway, Lucy Liu, Demi Moore, Courtney Cox, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Hudson, and Amanda Seyfried have cool undertones. Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Diane Sawyer, and Kim Kardashian have warm undertones.

Some Generalizations About Undertones

If you’re still not quite sure that you’ve got your skin colors down pat, consider these general categories:

  • Fair types often have freckles and may suffer some redness. They burn easily, may have sensitive skin, and may have cool or warm undertones.
  • Light types may burn in the sun, but then that burn often turns to a tan. They may suffer some spotty redness, such as on the cheeks only, and their skin may be somewhat sensitive. Both cool and warm undertones are possible.
  • Medium types don’t usually have to worry about burning much, and often have warm undertones. Those who look like they have a tan year-round even without sun exposure may have “olive” skin with a warm or neutral undertone.
  • Dark types rarely burn and usually have warm undertones. Often describes African Americans and women of Indian descent.
  • Very dark types may be described as “ebony” or “deep” and can have warm or cool undertones.

When you’re ready to try out foundations, keep in mind the following:

  • Warm shades are often labeled beige, golden, tan, caramel, and chestnut.
  • Cool shades are often labeled porcelain, rose, sable, cocoa.
  • Neutral shades are often labeled ivory, buff, nude, and praline.

Don’t worry if you don’t get your shade just right the first time. The fun is in the experimenting! Good luck.

Have you had trouble determining your skin tone? Do you have tests that help? Please share with our readers.


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Reader Interactions


  1. Shell says

    Finding fair and light neutral,shades when you have olive undertones is hard. Neutrals are often too flat and beigey (lacking the distinct green undertone), warms turn orange or look too buttery yellow, and cools are just pink. Making it worse, people think olive means medium skin tone and even misapply it to tanned people who don’t even have olive undertones…ugh!

  2. Anjaly says

    After struggling to understand my undertone for almost 6 months. I have got my answer. Thank you for explaining with such clear examples and in great detail.

  3. Pauline says

    This is the best explanation I have ever seen on this subject! I have been trying to figure this out for years. You are obviously a master of your subject!! Thank you for sharing this info with us!

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