A Guide to MAC Foundation (and concealer) Shades

If I could only pick one foundation for the rest of my life it would definitely be the MAC Face and Body foundation. I’m currently writing another blog post on that specific product but before I post that, I wanted to get a bit more technical and write about what the letters on your MAC foundation mean that determine your shade.

The reason for this is because every time I go into a MAC counter, they will always swatch the back of my hand. Whether it is because they are trained to do so or not, swatching a foundation on the back of my hand is a big no no for me. There will definitely be a mismatch between the colour of the back of my hand and my face, mainly because my hands are darker than my face and the undertone can be slightly deceiving.  

Also, because whenever I go shopping, I will have a full face of makeup on, making it annoying for me to take it all off and swatch it on the sides of my face. To top that off – MAC counters in Hong Kong are in department stores with fluorescent lights so not a good lighting to match your foundation in (the best is to stand in day light). So I decided to ask them in person what the shade code means and how they pick a shade for you over another.


Skin tone and Undertones

To be able to match a foundation to your skin regardless of which brand, you should be able to know what your undertone is. Your undertone is different than your skin tone. Skin tones go from fair to medium to deep or dark and will change if you for example tan in the summer months. Your undertone is the underlying colour of your skin that you won’t necessarily see directly and it will never change. Finding your undertone can also help you with pairing outfits and jewellery together that will make your skin visually light up.

Your undertone can either be cool (reds, pinks and blues), neutral or warm (gold, yellow, peach). The easy method to figure your undertone would be to see whether gold or silver would suit you better (as in make you skin brighter) but I personally don’t like that method. You can also look at your veins on your arm. Are they more blue? Then you probably have a pink undertone (cool). If they look green, then you have yellow or a golden undertone (warm). My personal favourite method to check a skins’ undertone is to wear a white towel around your body and preferably wrap another white towel around your hair. Then compare your chest and neck area to the white of your towel. Again, if you are more red or pinkish, you are a cool undertone. If your skin compares more yellow, then you have a warm undertone. If you still can't decide after trying a few methods, you're probably a neutral undertone. 


MAC Foundation Code

So the MAC foundations made it easy for you to pick your shade because the letter refers to your undertone and the number refers essentially to the shade of your skin tone.


C – Cool 

NC – Neutral Cool

N – Neutral

NW – Neutral Warm

W – Warm


Does this mean if you are a cool undertone you have to pick the shade C or NC? No, it’s the opposite actually. I was deciding whether to write about the reasoning for this but then realised it would be a bit too confusing for some, so I’ll keep it very short: An NC is for warm undertones because it cancels or neutralises the yellow in the skin, vice versa. You can see this in the colour wheel. 

So, if you’re a warm undertone – gold, yellow, olive – you use the NC or C foundations. If you’re a cool undertone – reds, pinks, blues – you use the NW, or W foundations.


The same method works for your MAC concealers as well. However, if you’re suffering from discolouration underneath your eyes, again check the colour of that area. Many people use NW concealers to cancel out or essentially neutralise the green in the undertones of their eyes, while their face is an NC.



That wraps it up for today’s post. I hope this was a tad bit helpful and not too confusing. Of course, you can ask me if you’re still a bit confused about it all.





P.S. A little tip, if you tan a lot or change your skin colour often during the changes of the seasons, buy two foundations in slightly different numbers so that you can mix them to create the perfect match for you all year around. For example, technically I’m a MAC Face and Body shade N4 which they don’t sell, so I bought the N3 and N5 and mix them accordingly to get my shade right all year around.