Why is it so hard for beauty brands to cater to Asian skin tones?

PHOTO: Instagram/Orcecosmetics

The search for the right foundation can sometimes be harder than finding the Holy Grail. While more brands are starting to recognise the need for more shades that cater to Asian complexions, it can still be a hit-and-miss process, considering how the undertones of our skin are vastly varied.

This was exactly how Shih Yu-Chen, founder of Los Angeles-based makeup brand Orce Cosmetics, felt before leading the charge to address the unique needs of Asian skin in 2019. Growing up, Yu-Chen- who is of half Taiwanese and half Malay descent - had always felt overlooked by the beauty industry.

"The global Asian community is much more colourful than we think, and not all of us have fair skin. What most of us do have in common is a golden yellow undertone, some leaning more towards neutral complexions, while others lean towards olive," she explains.

Makeup artist Elain Lim agrees. According to her, Asian skin undertones can also have a mix of yellow (warm) and pink (cool) undertones. "We are not exactly all yellow-based," she says.

The many differences in undertones can make it tricky to find the right fit, and it's a problem that resonates with many Asian women living in Singapore, including Yu-Chen who lived in here before moving to the US where she is currently based.

"I remember combing through drugstore aisles and department store counters in my search for a foundation that actually worked for my skin, only to be let down time and again. Japanese and Korean beauty brands tend to offer very narrow shade ranges that cater heavily to those with fair skin, while Western beauty brands never seem to nail the right undertone for me - their foundation shades are always too pink or too orange," she says.

The Orce Come Closer Skin Perfecting Serum Foundation features golden undertones that are not only flattering for Asian skin tones, but for Caucasian ones too, as they're able to neutralise any redness while brightening the complexion.

The foundation currently comes in six shades- a starting point for the brand, and each is "custom-developed based on a real Asian person, and rigorously tested on other real people to ensure a true match for all in the same tone," says Yu-Chen. There are plans to double the shade range within the year and triple it by 2023.

Yu-Chen was determined to create foundations based on real skin tones after a chemist handed her a Pantone skin colour book when she was formulating her makeup to reverse the vicious cycle of "recycling shades that aren't working [for Asian skin]".

In addition, Orce foundations are also developed to "specifically address the needs of Asian skins", targeting concerns such as "blemishes/oiliness, hyperpigmentation, loss of moisture, dullness and visible signs of ageing".

More than just skin deep

The variation in undertones isn't the only way that our skin differs. Even our skin structure is different. According to Dr Kong Yan Ling, dermatologist at DS Skin & Wellness Clinic, Asians have higher levels of melanin present in our skin. This makes us "more prone to skin dyspigmentation than Caucasians, which can manifest as freckles and sunspots".

In addition, Dr Kong explains that Asian skin also has a "thinner, less resilient stratum corneum (the uppermost layer of the skin epidermis), which makes it prone to higher levels of transepidermal water loss (TEWL)". This, "coupled with the presence of a higher density of sweat glands", results in our skin being more susceptible to damage and irritation from external environmental aggressors like pollution.

At the same time, Asian skin also has lower levels of natural moisturising factor (NMF), which leaves our skin feeling drier. In short, it can be sensitive, oily and dehydrated all at once.

To tackle such complexities, Yu-Chen consulted a Stanford-trained Chinese American dermatologist when she formulated Orce Cosmetics' range of Skin Perfecting serum-foundations.

Choosing your foundation

Selecting a foundation to suit your skin's needs is equally - if not more - crucial.

"Asian skin is more susceptible to irritation from externally applied products; [one should] choose fragrance-free foundations that lack other potential irritants such as salicylic acids, essential oils, alcohol, talc and sulphates," says Dr Kong.

As Singapore is situated near the equator, he also recommends choosing a foundation with at least SPF30 for additional protection against UV rays when you're out and about.

Singapore's humid climate- coupled with our active sweat glands - can result in excess sebum production, which in turn can result in skin being more acne-prone.

If you have a combination or oily skin type, Dr Kong advises to choose non-comedogenic formulas that are lightweight and with buildable coverage over thicker, heavier ones that might aggravate sebum production and acne.

For drier skins, go for foundations that contain moisturising ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, glycerine and ceramides.

When choosing our ideal base colour, makeup artist Larry Yeo cautions against using base makeup products with pink undertones to brighten "sallow" complexions. "It really depends as sometimes it can create a washed-out finish that contrasts the face from the neck, which isn't a look to go for," he says.

As a start, Elain advises narrowing your colour choices down to two shades that are the closest match to your skin tone. Once done, "dab the foundation near the jawline to see if it matches both the face and neck". Next, spread the foundations out and compare how they blend into your skin tone - the one that blends seamlessly is the shade for you.

For application, less is more. "Start at the cheeks and blend the foundation outwards towards the ear and jawline. As the skin around the T-zone is thinner, too much foundation can look unnatural, so go light at the T-zone," says Elain. One should include a bit more coverage at the cheeks, as wearing and removing our masks can cause the foundation to rub off.

Choosing the right finish is also important, says Larry. "It's pointless to go for a 'soft glow finish' foundation if you sweat easily, because you might end up looking like you've just stepped out of a sauna or steam room within a few hours."

He adds that foundations should ultimately be able to cater to a wide range of skin tones. Elain shares his sentiment - she believes there isn't a real need to limit our choices to Asian brands, or foundations that are made specifically or Asian skin.

"Beauty brands have improved their foundation formulas in terms of textures and pigments, making them suitable for Asian skin tones. A lot of Western brands are also looking to Korean labs to formulate their products, which in turn, helps create formulas that are better suited to our needs as well," she says.

Looking for a foundation for your base makeup? Here are some of our recommendations:

M.A.C Studio Fix Powder Plus Foundation, $61 

PHOTO: Sephora Digital SEA Pte Ltd

A one-step powder and foundation that gives complexions a smooth and velvety matte finish. It offers buildable medium-to-full coverage that reduces the appearance of enlarged pores, while wicking away oil and shine to keep complexion looking fresh for 12 hours.

More importantly, it won't leave darker skin tones with an ashy grey tone. Comes in 32 shades.

Available at M.A.C boutiques and counters

Hermes Plein Air Complexion Balm SPF30/PA+++, $148 

PHOTO: Hermès 

A hydrating complexion enhancer that offers a "second skin" finish. It also contains skin-loving actives like hyaluronic acid, evening primrose, baikal skullcap and white mulberry to nourish and protect skin.

But here's what makes this so unique: Each shade caters to several skin tones, so there's something for everyone. Comes in ten shades; two additional shades will be added later this year.

Available at Hermes boutiques and online

Make Up For Ever HD Skin Foundation, $68 

PHOTO: Make up forever 

Achieve an ultra-natural finish with this fluid foundation. The secret lies in its unique micro-skin system, which contains a flexible micro-meshed structure that follows skin's movements for a truly even and flawless all-day finish.

The long-wearing formula also contains a duo of perfecting and micro-blurring powders to cover imperfections for 24 hours. It's also sweat-, water- and smudge-proof. Comes in 40 shades.

Available at Sephora stores and online

Nars Light Reflecting Foundation, $78 

PHOTO: Nars Cosmetics.

This skincare-makeup hybrid not only blurs imperfections, smooths the look of textured skin and hides blemishes, it even helps improve skin's clarity over time - thanks to a vegan formula containing 70 per cent nourishing skincare ingredients like biomimetic oat, cacao peptides and milk thistle.

Its use of a photo-friendly powder adjusts your skin tone to the intensity of the light you're under, so you'll never look washed out. Comes in 16 shades.

Available at Nars boutiques and counters

Charlotte Tilbury Beautiful Skin Foundation, $76 

PHOTO: Sephora Digital SEA Pte Ltd

An easy-to-blend foundation that gives skin a soft matte finish and a natural glow. It's also infused with a brightening rose complex and hyaluronic acid to erase dryness and dullness, revealing a smooth and fresh-looking complexion. Comes in 30 shades.

Available at Sephora stores and online

Orce Come Closer Skin Perfecting Serum-Foundation, $129 

PHOTO: Orcé Cosmetics

Made especially for Asian skin tones and types, this lightweight serum-foundation hybrid with its breathable, buildable formula covers imperfections while rejuvenating skin with Tahitian pearl, evodia rutaecarpa (a herb used in traditional Chinese medicine) and hyaluronic acid. Comes in six shades.

Available at Tangs at Tang Plaza and online

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This article was first published in Her World Online.