Ask a Beauty Editor: How to Apply Makeup on Dry, Flaky Skin

It’s possible for your makeup to look great even when your skin doesn’t.


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Reader question: How do you apply foundation if your skin is dry and flaky? —Sarah Tullo

Finding the right foundation for your skin tone is tricky in itself, but it’s only half the battle. Finding the right foundation for your skin type is a whole other story—and where a lot of people go wrong. Dry skin and makeup are two things that just don’t harmonize (mix in some eczema like me and you’ve got yourself the ultimate makeup challenge that nobody asked for). 

But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you’re destined for “flaky foundation face” forever. Here’s the thing: Applying makeup on flaky skin is less about the formula and more about the technique. Not to say that the formula isn’t important (more on that in a bit), but the right skin prep and maintenance might just solve the problem for you. The bad news is that you’ll probably have a bit more work cut out for you in the morning (but your flake-less face in the evening will thank you).

As a fellow dry-skin sufferer, here is my tried-and-true makeup routine for applying foundation.

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Start chemical exfoliation 2 to 3 times a week.

I’m talking about chemical exfoliation here, which is using ingredients like glycolic or lactic acid to get rid of dead surface skin cells. "They work by loosening the substance between skin cells, helping them slough off," says Doris Day, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. However, it's important to be mindful of the intensity and frequency if you suffer from dry skin issues, so make sure to find a formula that isn’t too strong and only use it two to three times a week.

If your dry skin also happens to be sensitive, gommage exfoliation is probably your best bet. A gentle method of exfoliation that originated in France, the process involves sloughing off (i.e., erasing) dead skin by applying a viscous gel and massaging it into your face.  By applying a gommage formula and leaving it on for five to 15 minutes to dry, the product changes in consistency to something similar to eraser shavings. When massaged, the product will curl up into small balls, taking your dead skin along with it. "Gommage formulations will contain a combination of exfoliants, most commonly enzymes," says Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., FAAD, a board certified dermatologist in Miami and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare. “You can somewhat dial up or dial down the amount of exfoliation you get depending on how much you massage/rub off the product.” Try: Peter Thomas Roth FIRMx Exfoliating Peel Gel ($49;

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Use your hands to mechanically exfoliate damp skin daily.

This is an exfoliating trick my dad taught me—it sounds strange but works wonders. After washing your face but before drying it (i.e. when it’s damp but not soaking wet), take your hand and gently rub any flaky parts of your face in a circular motion. The friction effectively removes all the dead skin that your exfoliator might have missed.

While this is the same concept as using dry-brushing for physical exfoliation, the water helps loosen up dead skin, and skin-on-skin contact is the most gentle way to avoid irritation or injury like micro-tears.

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Moisturize with a humectant, occlusive, and emollient.

After drying your face, it’s time to slather on the moisturizer. While you can get away with layering multiple thicker creams at night (I recommend slugging with a face mask the night prior for even better results), I understand that it doesn't fly under foundation. That’s why you’ll want to find a minimal amount of products that have a maximum amount of benefits. “The three musts to look out for are humectants, occlusives, and emollients," says Neal Schultz, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and founder of “Humectants work by extracting water molecules from the air and pulling them into the skin's surface. Occlusives serve as a physical barrier to help trap water in and prevent moisture loss from the skin's surface. And emollients smooth over the skin and increase the rate of skin barrier restoration." For an ideal routine, you need all of them working in conjunction to treat and prevent dry skin. While you can use three separate moisturizers, it might be easier to find a power formula that contains all three, like Skinfix Barrier+ Triple Lipid-Peptide Face Cream ($54;

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Always use primer.

Primer may seem like a skippable step, but the makeup pre-game is arguably the most important consideration to take in your routine, especially if you have dry skin.  Just like you would apply a base coat on your nails pre-polish (well, I hope so), primers give your foundation and concealer an even surface to grip onto so that makeup goes on smoother. Just make sure you’re using a hydrating primer, like COVERGIRL Clean Fresh Skincare Color Correcting Serum Moisturizer Primer ($15;, and not a mattifying one. Carly Loudenburg, Bobbi Brown National Makeup Artist, adds that occlusive primers, like Bobbi Brown Vitamin Enriched Face Base ($66;, works especially well to seal in the skincare you just applied.

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Apply a hydrating foundation with a dewy finish.

Now that you’re all done with prep work (whew), it’s finally time for the main event. Your foundation of choice should have a dewy finish (opt for creams and liquids; avoid powders), ideally with hydrating ingredients infused within. This should be easier now thanks to innovative formulas that are skin care-conscious, like Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Tint ($10;, which has hyaluronic acid whipped into a water gel formula, and Urban Decay Urban Decay Hydromaniac Tinted Hydrator Foundation ($33;, which is made with marula oil.

A quick disclaimer here to double-check formulas that market themselves as "glowy"—this sometimes means that it has shimmer/glitter particles like crushed pearl powder, which will impart texture that accentuates dry patches.

The technique you use to apply foundation can also make a difference. I’m actually a big advocate for your fingers (the warmth helps the formula seep into skin better), or you can also use a pressing technique with a makeup sponge. Makeup brushes are least preferable—the friction of dry bristles can lead to more skin flaking and accentuating of dry patches. 

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Seal with setting spray.

A powder is good for long wear, but tends to highlight dry patches as it settles in. To ensure your hard work lasts and dry patches don’t peek through, top off your foundation with a couple spritzes of setting spray instead. Milk Makeup’s Hydro Grip Set + Refresh Spray ($21; is alcohol-free, extends foundation wear for 12 hours, and leaves behind a breathable, glassy glow.

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