How to Determine Your Skin's Undertone

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. Knowing your skin’s undertone can help you choose the makeup that will look the best on you.

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 underneath the surface. You can have the same skin color as someone, but a different undertone.

Undertones are in the categories of:

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 & Myths

  • 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 chormophores (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, due to factors like sun exposure, which is why some of us 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/capillaries widen to accommodate immune cells on damage control. In these instances, we could get a false undertone reading."

    There is no definitive way for everyone to determine their undertone. What method works will depend 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 better 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).

    Silver/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.

    The Compliment Test

    If you’re still confused, make a note of every compliment you receive about the color of your clothing, hair and of course makeup. If you keep getting compliments about a certain look, you’ll know you’re on the right track.