How to Use Makeup Primer—And Every Other Question We’ve Been Pondering

Photo Credits: Matteo Valle / Contributor/ Getty Images | Image Used for Illustrative Purposes Only

Primer is the olive of the makeup salad: you either live and die by it, or you not only hate it, but don’t understand the fascination. So what does primer actually do? Do we need to be using one?

Essentially, a primer’s job is to prep the skin for the next makeup step, whether it’s foundation, tinted moisturizer or BB/CC cream. Depending on your skin type and the result you’re after, primer makes life a little bit easier by smoothing out the skin’s surface (i.e. filling pores or blurring lines), absorbing excess oil and, our personal favorite, helping makeup to last a little bit longer. Below, celebrity makeup artists answer our most pressing questions.

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Which step does primer come in?
“After moisturizer, but before foundation,” says celebrity makeup artist Mai Quynh, noting that ensuring your skin-care products and primer work well together—and better, yet, with your skin type—is key. “Layering a moisturizer, primer and foundation may work really well on normal to dry skin, but it might be too much for oily skin types,” says celebrity makeup artist Sonia Deveney. If this is the case for you, experiment. “Try skipping the moisturizer altogether and just use a serum with the primer,” suggests Deveney. “Remember, the end makeup result will only be as good as the skin underneath,” says Temptu global educator and artist Tanya Deemer. “If the skin is not properly prepped, the makeup won’t look as flawless as it should.”

How much should I use?
It depends on the formula. For liquid primers, Quynh recommends a dime-sized amount; for thicker formulas, Deveney says a pea size will do the trick.

Why is there silicone in everything?
Silicone is great for smoothing the surface of the skin and creating an "airbrushed" finish, which is exactly why you can find it in a lot of makeup primers.  However, Quynh says that using too much silicone can start to be an issue. "If you’re applying skin care that has a lot of silicone and then a primer that also has silicone, they may not work well together and end up pilling or rolling."

Do I apply it with my fingers or a brush?
It’s up to you! But there are a few guidelines. “A dry beautyblender would just soak up the product, not leaving a lot to actually apply,” says Deveney. “And a damp beautyblender would thin the product down. So if your specific primer is quite thick and you intend on thinning it out, go ahead, but I usually us a foundation brush or my fingers or both.” On the other hand, Deemer says she’s a big fan of applying most primers with a synthetic bristle brush. “It allows me to really work the product into the skin so that it actually works the way it is meant to.”

Where do I put it?
It depends on the purpose of the primer. If your primer’s main intent is keeping makeup in place, it can be used all over the face to help your foundation adhere better. However, if the bottle mentions pore-smoothing or line-blurring, read on. “For pore-blurring primers, I would concentrate on areas where large pores are prominent,” says Quynh. “Usually that’s the T-zone, but sometimes it also includes the cheek area.” For line-blurring primers, Quynh suggests applying around the eyes, forehead and laugh lines.

Which primer should I use?
If you’re trying to minimize the look of wrinkles, try a smoothing primer. Quynh likes Jill Stuart Beauty Smoothing Flat Primer ($26) because it “melts into the skin and leaves skin silky while also preventing shine throughout the day.” For a pore-blurring effect, Smashbox Photo Finish Pore Minimizing Primer ($39) instantly mattifies and “fills” the look of pores. For a jack of all trades that checks all of the better-skin boxes, Deveney’s tried-and-true option is the original Laura Mercier Foundation Primer ($38). “It’s been a staple in my kit for years and will be in the foreseeable future.” Our current favorite? Tula Face Filter Primer ($34) a glow-boosting, line-blurring formula that's sure to rake in the compliments.