How to Determine Your Skin's Undertone

Skin's undertone is key to choosing the right makeup

Woman touching cheekbones
Take a look at your skin to determine the undertone. RunPhoto/Photodisc/Getty Images

Have you ever wondered why one foundation shade looks perfect on you, yet another one that appears to be the same shade doesn’t work quite as well?

The first one is probably matched perfectly to your skin surface tone and undertone, while the other shade might have the wrong undertone, which can make your face look dull, muddy, or ashy, even if it is the right surface tone. Knowing your skin’s undertone can help you choose the right makeup.

Surface vs. Undertone: What's the Difference?

Your skin’s surface tone is the color that you can see on the surface of your skin, often described as light, medium, tan, deep, and so on.

Your skin’s undertone is the color beneath the surface. You can have the same skin color as someone else but a different undertone. And you'll each need different colors of tinted moisturizer, foundation, blush, concealer, eyeshadow, and lipstick.

Undertone Categories

There are three types of undertones, and these actually are the key to how you look in certain colors and what colors of makeup are the most flattering on you. These three undertones occur under all skin tones.

  • Cool (pink, red, or bluish undertones)
  • Warm (yellow or golden undertones)
  • Neutral (a mix of warm and cool undertones)

Some include olive as a separate, fourth category, but most consider it neutral because it has a mix of warm and cool undertones.

Undertone Facts and Myths

There's a lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding undertones. These are the facts:

  • Pale skin is often said to have pink undertones, but it can also have yellow undertones, with the palest skin tending to have pinker undertones and more yellow for darker tones.
  • According to celebrity makeup artist Bobbi Brown, most people have a yellowish cast to the skin, and pink undertones are actually rare.
  • Asians are always assumed to be warm because many of them have a yellowish cast to the skin, but they actually can also have cool-based undertones.
  • Dark skin has more yellow and red undertones, with yellow on the lighter end and red-blue on the darker end.
  • Very dark skin can have blue, red or olive undertones. There can be both light olive and dark olive skin tones.

This, of course, is a generalization. Undertone is determined and can be affected by a number of factors. "The chromophores (or colors in the skin) are made up of melanin, hemoglobin (oxygenated and deoxygenated), dietary carotene, and collagens," says celebrity makeup artist Aliesh Pierce, author of "Treating Diverse Pigmentation," part of Milady’s Aesthetician Series of educational books. "Our undertone is influenced by diet and overall health."

The skin’s surface color can change as a result of factors like sun exposure, which is why some people  are lighter during the fall and winter months and get darker during spring and summer. The undertone remains the same, although it can look like it has changed.

"There's a certain balance that each of us has innately," says Pierce, "but when skin cells are exposed to UV light the veins and capillaries widen to accommodate immune cells on damage control; in these instances, we could get a false undertone reading."

How to Determine Your Undertone

There is no definitive way for everyone to determine their undertone. What method works depends on the individual, but here are a few tests to help you out. 

  • Vein test: Perhaps the easiest way to discern skin’s undertone, although it doesn’t always work for everyone, is to check the color of your veins. If your veins look blue, you have a cool undertone; if they look green you have a warm undertone; and if you can’t tell, you’re neutral.
  • White fabric test: Pull your hair back away from your face or cover it with a white towel and drape a white towel or cloth around your neck and shoulders. Your face should be freshly cleansed. The white (make sure it's ivory white) will reflect the true color. If your face looks more yellow, you’re warm. If your skin has a blue tone, you’re cool. The result also depends on lighting since fluorescent lights can give skin a greenish tint. Test for undertones in natural or incandescent light.
  • Clothing test: This is probably a more reliable test than using white towels or fabric, especially if you have darker skin. Observe how you look in opposing colors—such as blue-green (cool) or yellow-green (warm) and blue-red (cool) or orange-red (warm). Whichever colors you look best in will tell you if your undertone is warm or cool. If you look good in some of each, you are probably neutral.
  • Silver and gold test: If you look good in silver, you probably have a cool undertone. If you look better in gold, then you're warm. If you look good in both, you’re probably neutral.
  • Sun test: Think about what happens to your skin when you are out in the sun with no sunscreen. If you burn and don't tan, you are cool. If you tan and don't burn, you are warm. If you burn and then it turns to tan or you tan but burn if you stay out too long, you are probably neutral.
  • The compliment test: If you’re still confused, make a note of every compliment you receive about the color of your clothing, hair, and makeup. If you keep getting compliments about a certain look, you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Flattering Colors

If you have a warm undertone, clothing in earth tones like yellow, orange, yellow-green, brown, ivory, and orangey red looks good on you. If you are cool, you look smashing in jewel tones like purple, blue, green, blue-green, and true red, along with pink and black. If you are neutral, you probably can wear most colors and feel great in them.