Primed to Perfection

18th September 2015

No longer is it sufficient simply to apply some foundation over your trusted day cream. There’s now a whole wealth of products to illuminate the skin and lengthen the life of your look.
Lisa Botwright explores the mistifying world of primers, BB, CC, DD and now even EE creams – and asks if they’re AA or ZZ...

it was three o’clock in the afternoon, and I had just been asked if I was ‘okay’. Again. I looked a little tired apparently, and it appeared that I was suffering from the beauty equivalent of the afternoon sugar-slump. My foundation, so optimistically applied a good seven or eight hours ago, was sadly no longer in place, and –audaciously – my natural skin tone had emerged, with all the dewiness of a pallid, exhausted forty-something-year-old.

“Have you tried a primer?” another colleague suggested and I confessed I hadn’t thought of it. I must admit, I was fairly cynical even: wasn’t this just a ruse by the beauty industry to get us to buy another expensive product? Or would this be the make-up equivalent of adding some protein to the sugary carbs of my morning beauty routine?

And so began a quest into the bewildering world, not just of primers, but of BB, CC, DD or even EE creams. I began my research with all the tenacity of a Knight of the Round Table. My holy grail would be fresh-looking skin for longer, and welcome comments of ‘gosh, you look well!’ with the afternoon tea run. Would the product that could deliver that actually exist?

To ‘prime’ means ‘to prepare or make ready for a particular purpose’. Essentially, a primer provides the best kind of base for your make-up; not just in a cleansed-and-moisturised kind of way, but by smoothing fine lines and filling the pores to create a very smooth surface. It also creates a two-way barrier that seals in the products already on the skin and stops the added foundation from stealing the moisture underneath, which would make it ‘cake’. It also decreases sweating through the pores, so your foundation is less likely to ‘slide’, and gives extra protection from dust and other pollutants in the atmosphere which act like a depressing, natural exfoliater – all apparently contributing to the unwelcome afternoon effect.

An industry favourite, and therefore first on my list to try out, is Smashbox Photo Finish Foundation Primer (£25.00). It’s a brand which hails from the Smashbox Photographic Studios in L.A. — and was apparently developed by lots of trendy, fashionista types for perfecting photoshoots. The blurb describes it as a ‘versatile must-have, to be worn alone for a natural look, or under foundation to smooth away imperfections and prolong wear-time.’ This sounds promising, I think, and liberally apply it after waiting a few moments for my day cream to sink in. The result is such ridiculously smooth skin that I can’t help but laugh out loud. Think clichés of silk, velvet and rose petals – I’m too bowled over to conjure up a more original metaphor. In terms of creating a perfect base for your foundation, it really works. This particular primer has been formulated for normal to dry skin, but Smashbox also produce several other similar products for other issues such as oily or dehydrated skin. An oil-free version to mattify is Photo Finish Primer Light (£25.00), or to boost hydration try Photo Finish Hydrating Primer (£28.00) which seals in an extra layer of moisture as well as doing what it says on the tin as above. They also offer a Photo Finish Luminising Primer (£25.00) for irritated, sensitive skin, and Photo Finish Color Correcting Foundation Primers, which, in their rainbow shades of lilac, green and apricot, promise to brighten sallow skin, reduce redness and to warm dull skin respectively.

I’m intrigued by these coloured primers and since I can’t really try them (happily I don’t have any of the concerns they address) I ask professional make up artist Louise ( about the benefits of using colour. Could they really reduce redness on cheeks, or purple under eye circles, for example? She agrees, but cautiously: “I do use colour correcting techniques, but only for evening and bridal make-up when I want the face to look picture perfect. I use totally different colours – greens, yellows and blues – on different areas of the face to counteract specific skin tones.” She pauses and adds: “I’m not convinced one shade of colour correcting cream could really achieve the same result. It would be like applying a tub of paint to the wall and expecting it to come out multicoloured!”

Next up is the Pro-Radiance Illuminating Flash Balm (£35) by Elemis. If I was objectively impressed by Smashbox, my heart is smitten by Elemis. You have already learned that I have the pale and pasty skin of an English-Rose wannabe and am therefore drawn to anything which can bring a little colour to my cheeks. So far, I’d been reasonably pleased with my regular application of foundation, followed by a sweep of pink or peachy blusher, and hadn’t thought much beyond extending their life – hence the hunt for a good primer. But Elemis gives me the kind of rosy pinched-cheek appearance that makes me look five years younger: as if my inner Snow White has just enjoyed a brisk work-out out at the gym perhaps. With this kind of radiant base, I need less foundation, which gives me a much more natural look. This is the impressive Prince Charming product that I didn’t even know I’d been waiting for all my life: a primer, day cream and beauty flash balm all rolled into one. Is this the fairy tale ending?

Maybe not. The one thing it’s missing is an SPF. This doesn’t need to be a problem, as you are meant to wear your usual day cream underneath, but it is a very rich product, and, of course, it’s always good to save time where possible. (Always, always wear an SPF every single day, even in the winter. If you’re not convinced, google the story of the truck driver who had one side of his face in the sun for 28 years, with the other side constantly in the shade. The results are startling... but I digress.)

The absence of SPF in the Elemis balm-of-my-dreams leads me to try the much more modestly priced Simple Kind To Skin+ Illuminating Radiance Cream (£8.99) with SPF15. Although not strictly marketed as a primer, this has the same light-reflecting, illuminating properties, which give my skin a lovely glow. It has a comfortingly thick, yet easily absorbed texture, and my foundation definitely lasts longer when worn on top.

Another well-priced product is the Bourjois Happy Light Luminous Serum Primer (£10.99). I try the normal to dry skin version which promises a ‘soft, comfortable, moisturised and replumped complexion.’ It delivers a peach tint to the skin, which is pleasingly pretty and warming, but I find I prefer the natural radiance of the other products.

So far I’ve been testing out primers, but what about the ‘alphabet creams’ mentioned earlier? The difference between the two is that primers are sheer like moisturiser, so there is no need to colour match, whereas the BB (and the CC, DD etc) creams are tinted and come in a range of shades, like a foundation. Unlike primers, which are designed to work specifially to enhance your foundation, these creams can be worn alone for a healthy daytime glow, or underneath your foundation in place of a primer. They’re the next generation of tinted moisturisers, but arguably with a lot more science.

Loosely speaking, BB stands for ‘beauty balm’, CC for ‘colour correcting, DD for ‘daily defence’ and Estee Lauder’s EE cream promises an ‘even effect.’ Clinique offer a BB and CC cream, as well as six colourful primers to address specific concerns, similar to the Smashbox range. Confusingly, the colour correcting benefits of the primers still doesn’t mean that they are CC creams and the advertised daily defence properties of the BB cream still don’t make it a DD cream. The BB and CC creams are listed separately from the primers (tellingly in both the skincare section as well as the make-up section) and all have gushing reviews. I try the Clinique CC cream (Moisture Surge CC Cream SPF 30 Hydrating Colour Corrector £28.00) on holiday and find it evens out my skin-tone with a lovely natural, yet long-lasting finish. It’s a little bit lighter and more dewy than the BB cream, (Age Defense BB Cream SPF 30 £28.00) but both offer fantastic protection for the skin, with their high SPF and anti-oxidant properties.

Estee Lauder offer two luxurious BB creams as part of their popular Daywear and Doublewear foundation ranges – a lighter version of each, with all the protection of an excellent moisturiser. They also promote their CC and EE creams as an extension of their anti-ageing ranges, for more even-toned radiant skin.

If I have failed to clarify the differences between these creams, it is because those differences are very subtle. There appears to be a great great deal of cross-over between brands – in one range a BB cream may suit you and in another range a CC cream would be better. You also have to wade through the hype a little and smile cynically as wordy marketeers vie for the chance to outdo each other on the swanky alliterative opportunities the initials offer (such as Julep’s Dynamic Do-All DD cream.)

Since my search was initially to find a way to stop myself from looking so tired in the afternoon, and to lengthen the life of my foundation, I definitely think that a good primer is worth the investment if this is a familar problem. I also like the fact that a BB or CC cream gives me the option to go for a natural look if I only want to pop out for some milk, but will help to create a polished, fully made up look if I mean business.

And if you find an alphabet cream you love, the other option is to ditch the foundation entirely and use a primer underneath that instead. I tried my Clinique CC cream over my Smashbox primer and was very impressed. It’s all about the mix and match.

So while a good moisturiser and foundation should make up the basics of your make-up bag, it is worth considering the benefits that these additional products can bring. As for my own personal quest: did I find that holy grail of beauty products? I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to answer that now – I’m too busy chatting to my colleagues. It’s nearly tea-time and someone’s just asked if I’ve been on holiday as I’m looking so well…

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