A Trans Woman's Guide to Makeup.
April 6, 2022 | 12:30 pm
This blog post is an adaptation and rewrite of some advice we wrote for some trans girls on a discord server. But we figure that this info would be super useful for other folks; so we’re sharing this here to make it easier to access and share! It is written for trans women, but I feel the tips are applicable to anybody who wants to explore makeup.
The goal of this is to act as a primer and basic rundown on important bits of theory, products, and suggestions on how to achieve feminizing makeup.
So! You want to do some makeup! Problem is that you don’t even know where to start? Well I’m here to help! This guide should act as a comprehensive primer to help you get a foundation on where to start and how to figure out what you need to start exploring this art form.
I’m far from an expert, rather just a trans woman who started from nothing with the help of a makeup nerd of a spouse, and learned a lot as a kind of “public safety blanket” early on in my transition. So hopefully I should have the right amount of knowledge and empathy to understand what it’s like, and how to explain everything simply to help you start too!
So to clear up a simple misconception you might have; trans women don’t need to specific techniques to feminize their face. You can use whatever techniques cis women use; as the same techniques they use are also done to feminize their face as well. The important thing isn’t to get a “femme” face; but to find techniques that help emphasize your best features and de-emphasize your worst. Which I will help you figure out and understand!
Likewise, I will use the term “drugstore” in this guide. This term is used to describe products that are less expensive, and easily found in drugstore; but also places like Walmart and other affordable retailers. Though they are less expensive than their counterparts (commonly called High-End, though sometimes called “Department store”) found in places like Sephora or Ulta; drugstore products can be just as good and effective (and if they’re as effective as certain high-end products, they’re often called “dupes”; which is a useful term when doing research).
With that said, we should first start with some basic theory behind makeup;
- Find what products that match your skin tone and complexion
- Use techniques to flatter your eye and face shape
Skin tone and complexion
So, skin tone and complexion are vital to finding products that look natural; and flatter your face and skin type. So to start, we’ll go over undertones!
Skin Undertone (Colour)
Your skin tone is determined by your “undertone”; which is basically what colours ‘sit’ underneath your skin. You could be as pale as a vampire, or as dark as a coal; but you’ll generally have a colour and shade within how light/dark your skin is. In general;
- Warm: Your skin has gold, yellow, or peachy tones; and generally warm colours and gold jewelry looks best on you.
- Cool: Your skin has pink, red, or bluish undertones; and generally cool colours and silver jewelry looks best on you.
- Neutral: Your skin has both warm and cool tones. All clothing and jewelry looks good on you.
How to check for skin tone:
- Check your clothing; if you look best in warm and autumn colours, then you have warm undertones. If you look best in cooler winter colours, then you have cool undertones. If you look good in any colour, then you have a neutral skin tone.
- Do you get sunburns? If you get them easily, then you likely have cool undertones. If you tan more easily, then you likely have warm undertones. If you burn and tan, then you’re likely neutral.
- Check the colour of your veins (especially on your face and neck). If your veins look more blue, then you have cool skin tones. If your veins look more green or olive, then you have warm tones. Neutral has a mix of both.
What to do with different skin tones:
Basically skin tones help you decide what foundation shade to pick and what shades to use for lip, cheek, and eye colours. I suggest the following for each;
- Cool: Blues, soft pink, silvers, and cool reds and browns.
- Warm: Reds, peaches, golds, and deep reds.
- Neutral: Pretty much any colour will look good on you.
So once you got colour done; you’ll need to figure out the skin type. Which is a way of saying how oily/dry it is. This is important as using the wrong products (and especially foundation) can cause your makeup to flake off, cause acne, or make your skin look very unnatural.
The basic types are;
- Dry Skin Type: Your skin tends to be dry and flaky; and can be caused by your skin not producing enough oil to trap water into your skin. If your skin feels tight and dehydrated after washing, then that is a good indicator that you have dry skin. Extreme examples of dry skin tend to be eczema.
- If you have dry skin, it is recommended to try using liquid foundation and avoid matte formulas (as it tends to flake off and makes your skin look extra dry and rough). Dewy and glowy foundations are also recommended. It is also recommended to try moisturizer to help your foundation have the easiest time applying and sticking to your skin. (Though make sure it is fully absorbed before applying makeup!)
- Oily Skin Type: Oily skin tends to be what it says on the tin, it produces a lot of oil. Your pores tend to be larger, your skin tends to be shiny, and you’re prone to acne and blemishes.
- If you have oily skin, it is recommended to try powder foundations and try matte formulas (to balance out the shininess that the oil causes). Liquid foundations tend to slough off throughout the day. Test and research products to help your skin.
- Combination Skin Type: This is where you have traits of dry and oily skin on different parts of your face. Typically the oiliest part is called the “T-zone” and consists of your forehead, nose, and chin.
- If you have combination skin, you may need to trial-and-error your skincare products to minimize the difference between different zones of your skin. You may need to use different products on all parts of your face. But a matte full-coverage liquid foundation may work best.
- Normal Skin Type: You have none of the problems above. You may have blemishes, but they are minimal and irregular. Your skin tends to look healthy. Your skin can also have small and barely visible pores. You can try most makeup and skincare products.
So once you figured out your skin type and undertones. You’ll be able to figure out products you’ll want. The basics of what you’ll want are the following;
- Eye shadow
- Lipstick But if you are planning on wearing makeup all day, then I also recommend
- Setting powder/spray Likewise you’ll need the following tools
- Brushes (especially a couple of eye shadow brushes)
- A blending sponge
- Makeup Remover
Foundation is a cream or powder that is used to even out the tone on your skin. It is what gets you that “picture perfect fashion model skin” that you might see in your daily life. There are a bunch of foundation types, formulations, and all with different traits. I highly recommend researching by going “
<skin type> skin foundation” to find guides on what kinds of foundation works best for you.
As a note, if somebody with dry skin tries a foundation that is meant for oily skin, it can look overly matte and dry. Creating an undesirable “rough porcelain” look. While somebody with oily skin using a formulation meant for dry skin can find their foundation “sloughing” off and flaking off during the day. So using the right formulation is vital for creating a natural and beautiful look.
Something to keep mind of is that some foundations can also “oxidize”; which means that some of the ingredients interact with the composition of your skin and the air to shift colours. Often towards a slightly yellow and darker hue. Different foundations oxidize to different degrees and extents, so make sure you try out foundations in person to see how much the colour shifts.
For feminizing makeup, it is highly recommended to use full-coverage foundation. Full coverage means that it tends to hide most of the underlying tones and unevenness. Which means it’s perfect for hiding beard shadow if you have dark hair and light skin. If you have light hair and darker skin, you may be able to get by with other forms of foundation.
My recommendation for a drugstore foundation to try is Maybelline Superstay 24-hour Full Coverage Foundation. It’s a liquid full-coverage foundation that I found doesn’t tend to make my dry skin look overly dry; and has coverage that rivals some of the high-end brands. Only issue that I’ve found is that it tends to oxidize (which means that as it interacts with the air, it tends to darken and turn yellow a bit); so you may want to go a shade lighter so it evens out.
As for trying foundations, it’s always best to try it in person in a drugstore. So find a shade that seems to match and dab a small part it on an inconspicuous part of your face or neck (other parts of your body may be pigmented differently, so it’s best to try it where it’s actually used). Even better if you can expose it in direct sunlight, as that gives you the most accurate sense of colour.
Eye shadow is a powder that you apply on your eyelid and surrounding area to help make you eyes look bigger/smaller and draw attention to them.
As much as I would like to give recommendations for the best colours and techniques to use, it would easily make this write up easily ten times longer. Each person has a different eye shape and colour to them individually. So instead I’ll recommend a few things on how to figure out how to get the best eye shadow for you.
- Determine your skin undertone and what colours will look best with your iris colour. Search online “
<iris colour>eye shadow”. But if you’re in doubt, go for a nude eye shadow palette. Every skin type looks good with a nude, and you can go from a subtle no-makeup look to a dramatic smokey eye with almost any nude palette.
- Determine your eye shape. Search online for eye shapes and figure out which one matches you the best. Shapes include; “Round Eyes”, “Wide-set”, “Narrow-set”, “Deep-set”, “Downturned”, “Upturned”, “Almond”, “Hooded”, “Prominent”, and “Monolid”.
- You might have a hard time if you have certain types like “hooded eyes” or “sunken eyes”; my recommendation is to go for simple eye looks and instead focus on your lips. Work with the features you have, rather than fighting against them.
- Once you figured out your shape, look for techniques on how to get the most flattering eye shadow by searching “
<eye shape>eye shadow”.
The best drugstore eyeshadow I found was e.l.f. Bite-Size Eyeshadow. It was super pigmented and came in colours for every skin and eye colour. It also rivalled my high-end eye shadow palettes for how easy it was to apply and get vibrant colours.
Eye liner is what it sounds like, it is a product you put on the edges of your eyes to line them. It is best used to make your eyes look bigger or smaller, and can even be used without eye shadow to put together a look.
Just like eye shadow, the best techniques to use is dependent on your eye shape. So search “
<eye shape> eyeliner” to figure out how to flatter your eyes best.
There are various types of eyeliner, but I’ll go over a couple to help you understand the benefits and drawbacks;
- Eyeliner Pencil: Some are literal pencils with a soft lead encased in wood (or wood-like) stick that you sharpen with a pencil sharpener. Others are more like mechanical pencils. To start I highly recommend this type, as it’s easiest to apply and is the most forgiving of poor technique. The downside is that the colours and edges tend to be soft and fuzzy, so you may not get the nicest wing shape if you want an eyeliner wing.
- Liquid Eyeliner: These eyeliners tend to come in either a pencil with a soft brush or felt tip; or as a little bottle with a brush applicator. These make sharp edges and look the darkest/most vibrant. However they are very unforgiving of poor technique and you will likely be frustrated the first dozen times you use it.
There are a few more types that tend to be less popular, but generally the other types tend to have the same issues/benefits as the ones mentioned above.
I don’t have a good recommendation for a pencil eyeliner, so I recommend trying one that catches your eyes and has some good recommendations. As for a liquid, my favorite is L’Oreal Infallible Flash Cat Eye Liquid Eyeliner it’s very dark and flows very easily so it tends to be easier to work with. But the killer feature is that it has a stencil that slides into the lid that is super helpful for making eyeliner wings. Line up the wing with the point of your eyebrow, and draw within the lines, and you’ll have an easy eyeliner. Just be careful on the eyelid itself!
Alright, so with the complicated stuff out of the way, lets go for something simple! Mascara is just a liquid-gel that you apply with a brush to your eyelashes to make them look fuller and longer, and sometimes more curled.
There are a few types, but for now I’ll just recommend a simple one to get started. Some mascara is YMMV but most tend to work well for most people and isn’t as dependent on eye shape or anything like that.
Maybelline Great Lash is a mascara that has been in production since the 70’s and for good reason. It’s cheap and good quality, and tends to be a no-nonsense mascara that makes your eyelashes look darker and thicker. Some products may be more thickening, lengthening, curling, or more waterproof. Likewise if you want something fancier, I have found most of Maybelline’s mascara tend to work and look good.
While not as simple as mascara, it’s still less complicated as other forms of makeup. You can find either liquid or “stick” lipstick. The “stick” is the classic stick of lipstick, solid and easy to apply. Liquid lipsticks come in tubes of liquid with applicators; they are quite vibrant (usually) but also are more difficult to apply evenly.
There are two pieces of advice I would give for lipstick. One is to make sure your lips are moisturized and exfoliated (basically, rub your dry lips on a dry towel to get rid of dead skin, and let some lip balm soak in before doing lipstick). Likewise is a piece of advice when doing eye makeup. You’ll either want to do a “lip look” or an “eye look”; which means you’ll draw attention to one part of your face with bolder colours and dramatic technique. If you have both bold eyes and lips, you can look overly busy and clownish. For “eye looks” go for a subtle colour of lipstick, and bolder eye colours and shapes. For “lip looks” go for subtle colours on your eyes, and strong colours on your lips.
When choosing a lipstick, decide on whether you want a dramatic or subtle shade, and use a warm or cool colour based on your undertone.
My suggestion for lipstick is Maybelline Superstay Matte Ink liquid lipstick. It sticks on your face until you want to remove it and it’s vibrant as hell. It’s popular in the porn industry because it doesn’t budge at all, if that gives a hint.
I’m gonna go a lot lighter on these things as you can ignore them as you’re learning makeup. But if you want to wear makeup out and have it stay all day, then do a bit of research into these products.
This is a product that you apply under foundation to help it stick better, and smooth over creases and pores on your skin. A good primer can make you foundation last all day without sloughing off or flaking off. It can make foundation and makeup look nicer, but for feminization it isn’t needed.
Basically think of it as super-full-coverage foundation. It’s meant to be used on spots with particularly bad blemishes or discoloration. Some come in skin tones, and others come in particular colours to counterbalance redness/blueness/yellowness. It can be skipped, especially because it can require a bit of colour theory, and can be overwhelming when you start out. But if you have particularly bad beard shadow, using a peach colour (personally we use Pixi Correction Concentrate in the peach colour) over the beard shadow on top of your foundation can help make it invisible.
Setting powder and spray is a product used after you’ve applied everything else to help it stick and not budge at all throughout the day. Like primer, it isn’t needed when you start. However if you have oily skin and your makeup tends to run due to the oiliness, setting powder can be useful for helping it stay even longer.
Alright, so you can get a lot of brushes, and honestly you don’t need most of them unless you’re doing makeup artistry. For everyday looks you can get away with just two; a brush for applying eye shadow, and a brush for blending your eye shadow. A soft and round-ended brush for both is more than good enough; as that’s all we use for most of our makeup.
You can get a makeup brush set, and drug store brushes are okay. But personally our favorite brushes that you can get at a drugstore is Real Techniques; but NYX brushes also tend to be pretty good.
So you can get a brush to apply foundation, I 100% believe that a blending sponge will do you better as you’re starting out. It tends to give more even coverage and is easier to apply than a brush. ‘Beauty Blender’ is the high-end gold standard for a good blending sponge. But the second-best (and usually 1/3rd the price of a BB) is Real Techniques Miracle Complexion Sponge and what I use.
As to how to use one, you’ll wet the sponge first to make it all soft; and then squeeze out the sponge to make it dry. Then apply your foundation to either the back of your hand, to the sponge itself, or bushing it onto your face first and exclusively blending it out with the sponge. If it’s on your hand, dip the sponge in the foundation; then in any case, pat the foundation onto your face and keep stamping it on until you get full and even coverage.
Makeup remover is just as vital to makeup as any other tool or product. After you apply the makeup, it may be hard to remove with soap alone. As many products try to make themselves stay on for as long as possible. Which can cause clogged pores and other skin issues.
Micellar Water is one of the most common ones, and it’s just oil suspended in water to help break the surface tension of makeup products and adhere them to the water to help it become easier to remove. You’ll use with either a clean cloth or cotton pads to apply and wipe makeup off.
Makeup wipes also work similar to Micellar water, but have the remover saturated into a disposable cloth to help remove.
In either case, you’ll need to wash your face, so get a gentle facial cleanser to wash off all of the remaining product after you use remover.
Alright, so that is the most bare-bones-but-comprehensive guide to makeup that I could write out. I skipped over some things (like highlighter, contour, bronzer, blush) to make it easier to digest. But that is everything you’ll need to get started and get started looking good off the bat.
The ultimate thing though, is that makeup is an art, and even with the best tools, products, and theory; you will need to practice your skills to look the best. Some stuff will make it easier to start (which is what my recommendations were done to help with) but ultimately you’ll need to get started and practice until you’re happy with what you can do!