How to Avoid Cakey-Looking Makeup, According to a Professional Makeup Artist

how to avoid cakey makeup

As a professional makeup artist, one of the top requests I hear is, “I need a new foundation, but I don’t want it to look cakey.” I am not sure who came up with this term, yet we all recognize and understand what it means. “Cakey makeup” is best described as complexion makeup that is too thick or dry, and visibly sits on top of the surface of the skin. Basically, it looks like it was, well, caked on.

To me, this is one of the most dreaded makeup mistakes. It implies that something is hidden under all that thick makeup — even if the only thing you’re hiding is a pimple or a few hyperpigmented spots. Foundations, concealers, and powders were created to help us even out our skin tones and create a flawless finish. If you’re not careful about how you apply products (or use the wrong ones), they could cause skin to end up looking less desirable than it did pre-makeup.

If you need a primer on how to master cake-free makeup, never fear: Below, I’ve outlined the top causes of cakey makeup and how to avoid these pitfalls in your daily regimen. Plus, find tips for salvaging your look once it’s already happened!

Mistake 1: Skipping Primer

It is absolutely essential that every makeup routine begins with putting on primer. Many skip this step, but it makes a world of difference in how foundation appears once it is applied. This essential product category was designed to smooth the appearance of skin, fill in fine lines, hide pores, and extend how long it all actually stays on. When you don’t use it, your makeup could highlight the very flaws you are trying to cover. The result is foundation that looks like makeup, rather than fresh, healthy skin.

Right now, I am loving tarte® Poreless Mattifying Primer ($32)  — it does the job of filling in every pore and line in the skin to create a smooth canvas. Just smooth a pea-sized amount onto your face before you apply any of your other makeup, concentrating on areas with rougher texture.

iStock / Sharlotta

Mistake 2: Poor Application

Typically, the number one cause of cakey makeup is the application method. And while celebrity makeup artist Laura Mercier and many of her colleagues have great success creating a natural finish using their fingers, I find that most people do not have the same luck with that method. It takes time and work to make sure that makeup is seamlessly melted into the skin, but the average person doesn’t take (or have) the time. Instead, they do a few quick swipes and run out the door, which can result in makeup looking cakey in spots with an uneven finish.  

So while fingers can work in certain cases — namely with very sheer foundations or tinted moisturizers — chances are pretty good that your application will be more even with a tool. A foundation brush is my favorite tool to ensure that makeup is spread evenly across the skin. Using small circular motions and a little bit of product at a time, you can essentially create an “airbrushed” look.

I am a fan of the IT Cosmetics® Heavenly Luxe® Complexion Perfection Brush #7 ($38), which has dual ends so that you can get into every angle of the face. Additionally, many women enjoy using a beauty sponge like the beautyblender® ($20) which, when wet, can help blend makeup and melt it into the skin. (The mini version, $18, is especially great to use when you just want to soften and blend in small areas.)

iStock / Sjale

Mistake 3: Too Much Product — Or the Wrong Product

The goal should always be to use the least amount of makeup possible to create a glowing, finished look. Once you have chosen your favorite tool, it is imperative that you use the smallest amount of product that you can. Remember: You can always add makeup, but it’s a bit more difficult to remove it once you have applied too much. Use your tools to blend and brush on a small amount of product all over the face, and then add it to areas where you feel you need more coverage (such as around the nose or under the eyes). This will result in a more natural look.

If you find your makeup still looks cakey after mastering the amount and method of application, your problem may be the actual product you’re using. Foundations and concealers must be chosen to directly match your skin type. If you have dry skin and you use an oil-free matte makeup, it will sit on the surface of the skin and catch every flake of dry skin you have. It will look parched, patchy, and could even make your skin look like a piece of sandpaper. By the same token, if you are acne-prone, and use a hydrating makeup formula, it will mix with the oils in your skin throughout the day and create a greasy thick layer on the surface.

Mistake 4: Not Setting Your Makeup

Another key to a perfect makeup application is setting it. Powders are often the culprit of making your cosmetics look cakey, as they are often dry and matte. Even worse, talc-based products that catch every imperfection. They also create a layer over makeup that can make it look dry and thick. Be careful when you are choosing your setting product: if you are already using a medium-to-full coverage foundation, there is likely no need to set with a foundation powder.

Choose the sheerest, talc-free translucent powder you can find to avoid a dehydrated look to the skin. Silky, finely milled powders will be the best choice when aiming for a natural look.

One of my favorites is the Hourglass® VeilTM Translucent Setting Powder ($46). This talc-free formula is infused with diamond powder to reflect light and leave an invisible finish — invisible being the key word. Remember that makeup is meant to help you to look like a better version of yourself, so the less makeup you see on your skin, the better!

The Solution: Triage Tips

Sometimes, despite best efforts, your makeup could still end up looking cakey once it’s applied. As an artist, I can make just about any foundation work on a client’s skin. But sometimes once I have applied a foundation that I think will look beautiful, I notice that it looks dry or accentuates imperfections. This is an immediate red flag that tells me the makeup will end up looking cakey, so instead of taking it all off, there are some tricks I have learned to “melt” cakey makeup.

Surprisingly, one technique I utilize when I observe cakey foundation is actually to layer on another foundation. When doing makeup for television or editorial photoshoots, I have been known to use three to four foundations at a time. If the skin looks dry or cakey in spots, I add a sheer or glowy foundation over the thicker formula. This helps thin it out in areas that don’t need as much coverage or it adds radiance and moisture to parched zones.

I’m particularly fond of using IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Foundation® Full Coverage Moisturizer with SPF 50+ ($38) in these situations: the hydrating formula is infused with skincare properties, so when I sweep it over a thick, matte foundation, it won’t take away the coverage, but will thin out the cakiness.  

The most popular method is one that many women have embraced in recent years: using a blending sponge. When the sponge is wet, you can roll it over areas of the face that need blending and essentially thin out the makeup so it will appear smoother. But instead of water, I like to use a hydrating facial spray, like any from Mario Badescu Skin Care® or Too Faced® HangoverTM 3-in-1 Replenishing Primer and Setting Spray ($32). These sprays help to blend and soften the makeup using moisture with added good-for-skin ingredients like glycerin or coconut water. This helps visibly improve the texture and condition of the skin, and will also act as a setting product once dry.  

Some products were gifted to the author for the purpose of writing this article.

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