Primer is divisive. There are those who swear by it — and have the Instagram-ready skin to prove it — and those who think the stuff is a pore-clogging, breakout-causing nightmare. To be honest, we’re not entirely sure where we stand. As with all products, there are some amazing priming bases out there, but we’ve also fallen victim to heavy, sticky, flaky formulas. So we asked the skin pros: Could this makeup step be doing more harm than good?
Ahead, we answer four of the most common questions we get about primers — and whether or not that extra step in your routine is worth it.
Dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, tells us that anything can cause your breakout, and while new products can be catalysts for irritation, odds are the addition of the primer just pushed your skin to its breaking point. Dr. Engelman says you most likely already have some underlying inflammation, excess sebum, and irritation bubbling beneath the surface, so those are the issues to target, rather than ditching the primer altogether.
Solving those issues begins during your morning skin-care routine. Consider investing in exfoliating tonics to clear out your pores before you do your makeup or using a daily serum formulated with a gentle BHA, salicylic acid, to keep acne away.
From the outside, this does not look like your regular primer — probably because it works harder, better, and faster than the rest. Yes, it’s a balm, but it’s the kind that leaves your complexion silky smooth — and grease-free! — in seconds.
Tatcha The Silk Canvas Protective Primer, $52, available at Sephora
A: Not all primers contain ingredients that are comedogenic (in other words, pore-clogging).
Beauty chemist Ni’kita Wilson explains that not all primers — and their ingredients — will contribute to excess oil production, greasy T-zones, or breakouts. If you have acne-prone or oily skin, then you should be more aware of what your skin type can handle, but the primer in itself isn’t entirely responsible for clogged pores. Wilson says a lot of other makeup products can get into pores, like finishing powders. If you have oily skin, it is easier for them to get caught in excess sebum, making them harder to remove. But if you are a primer devotee and hate hearing this, consider adding a deep cleaning tool, like a cleansing brush or a konjac sponge, into your regimen each night so this won’t be such a problem.
Just in case your makeup angers your acne, this primer neutralizes redness so no one will ever have to know just how irritated your skin is. Its other talents: mattifying, smoothing, and treating (yep, it’s formulated with pimple-busting ingredients, like zinc, sulfur, and kaolin clay).
bareMinerals Blemish Rescue Anti-Redness Mattifying Primer, $26, available at Sephora
Dr. Engelman explains, “Most primers contain some sort of polymer and silicone that act like a second skin to allow makeup to adhere to it better. They also fill in lines and creases to create a smoother, more even appearance.”
If you’re really set on not using primer, there are alternatives. Dr. Engelman suggests hyaluronic acid to plump, caffeine to reduce dimpling, and retinoids for a collagen boost. Adding these products and ingredients into your daily skin-care routine can make the need for a oil-preventing primer obsolete. These options, however, won’t keep your makeup from melting off on a Saturday night. In that case, opt for a setting spray that can be used before and after your makeup is finished.
Not into going full matte? This setting spray locks in makeup, but adds a dewy glow that lasts hours. Bonus: Its alcohol-free formula is super-hydrating.
Cover FX Dewy Finish Setting Spray, $31, available at Sephora
Silicones tend to get a bad rep because the name itself implies synthetic and unnatural, but we’ve got news for you: Most things you put on your skin, hair, and nails are mostly likely “unnatural.” Primers containing silicone do make your makeup look better and last longer, and they are especially useful if a blurred, pore-less effect is what you’re searching for. Bottom line: Silicones will smooth lines, extend the wear of your foundation, and help the rest of your makeup apply more evenly. But keep in mind, other primers have benefits, too. “The non-silicone-based products could do the same thing, but the degree to how well they work depends on the ingredients being used,” says Wilson.
Unfortunately, silicones are made to essentially act like glue. RealSelf contributor Eric Schweiger, MD, explains that if the polymers are formulated with a comedogenic ingredient, they can lock it into the pore all day long, which can lead to clogging and breakouts. If you’re not willing to risk it, opt for a water-based primer instead. Sure, it won’t be as powerful as its competitor, but it’s a primer all the same.
If you’re looking for makeup that doubles as a skin-care step, look no further than this smoothing and hydrating primer. Water-based and packed with vitamins A, C, and E, it’s fit for all skin types – a perfect pick if you’re too scared to use silicone primer.
Laura Mercier Foundation Primer, $38, available at Sephora
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