Aliya Varma wearing gray clothing and smiling at camera

Finding makeup products for my undertone empowered my beauty journey

January 11, 2021

So You’re Getting into Makeup P. II:
A Gen Z South Asian POV on the trial & error of exploring makeup. 

By Aliya Varma, Contributor

At the age of 15, I was not ready for my acne to always be on display. Most of the advice I received when it came to dealing with acne was, “Don’t touch it!” And when my mom said, “Don’t irritate your pimples,” that was basically code for, “Don’t wear any makeup.” What my mom didn’t know was that I was enamored with YouTube makeup tutorials. I was excited to play with  makeup and learn how to create a fun, laidback look. From Halloween makeup to fun ways to highlight your eyes, I wanted to explore it all! Bethany Mota was my go-to beauty guru at the time; watching her play around with bright pink lipsticks and blushes intrigued me. While I wanted to recreate these fun looks, I ran into a small setback: 

Between the fear of looking orange or whitewashed, I felt that I would always be in-between shades.

Trial and error became my middle name. Luckily, Instagram wasn’t big at that time, so my makeup ‘mistakes’ were only seen by classmates.

If you know your undertone, it is much easier to navigate makeup.

I was once told that a bronzer would be the equivalent of a face powder, because no company made a colour in my shade. It is a bit off-putting to have a salesperson, someone who you view as informed in that domain, tell you that your skin colour isn’t represented. Even higher-end brands, such as NARS, recommended that I mix shades to get the perfect colour. 

Some beauty brands focus on ‘feeling comfortable in your skin’—but is that comfort only reserved to those of a certain skin tone?

It can be scary to navigate a space that makes you feel like you need to compromise in order to even enter it.

By pure chance, I found Irene Sarah’s YouTube channel, and she taught me everything I knew about undertones. The most important tip she shared was that the correct undertone can actually make a world of a difference when it comes to building a strong base and having a look that is fully blended and matches your actual skin tone. There are 4 categories of undertones: cool, warm, neutral and olive. An undertone is what truly affects your overall hue; it brings your whole foundation base together. So, I realized that it wasn’t my skin tone that was difficult to find matching foundation, concealer and powder for, I just had to understand my undertone better. 

Given that Irene Sarah is of Bengali descent, she has similar features to me and has tips that suit my skin tone.

I found myself gravitating towards content by Women of Colour to understand how to effectively cover up dark circles and acne. 

When it comes to my undertone, I fall under the umbrella of ‘warm.’ According to NARS, I have a golden undertone. I tried the trick of looking at my veins, and based off of that, I would categorize myself as having a ‘cold’ undertone. However, I quickly realized that cool-toned foundations would make me look very ashy. 

In terms of finding your own undertone, I’d recommend getting a free consultation at SEPHORA and see what shade they recommend (if COVID guidelines permit this). I’ve been able to try new brands and colour match myself much easier, because I realized that there are levels to this. After you get colour matched, don’t run to the counter to buy the foundation they give you. Allow yourself a day of trial to see if the foundation oxidizes and how it wears throughout the day. When I was in the thick of dealing with acne, the oil on my skin would turn my foundation orange. During this time, there was a lot of trial and error before I found a brand that did not react to the oil on my face. 

My feature-enhancing makeup finds for the face, lips, and eyes. 

A Strong Base: Before I apply any concealer and/or foundation, I use a moisturizer for an easy application overall. If I’m applying makeup in the morning, I always make sure to use a hydrating sunscreen prior to any foundation application. It is so crucial to read reviews when it comes to sunscreens given the white cast it can leave behind! 

  • Laneige’s Water Bank Moisture Cream ($38) is my go-to moisturizer, and it truly allows my skin to feel hydrated and use less products such as foundation, concealer and setting powder! Given that I am focused on keeping my skin healthy, a hydrated base is my key to an easy application!
  • My favourite sunscreen has been Coola Sport ($32) which leaves no whitecast and is so comfortable. I also love that it blends into my skin so nicely; it has such a great cooling sensation and does not feel sticky!
  • The NARS Natural Radiant Longwear Foundation ($49) is my favorite foundation. I am able to use a pea sized amount and have minimal transfer (Big win when you’re constantly wearing masks these days) Because I turn to foundation to cover up acne scars, this is a full coverage foundation and blends into my skin well. I have to say, this foundation lasts me such a long time; a small amount truly goes a long way.
  • To make sure that my makeup is well set, I have been using the MAC Studio Fix Powder ($33). To ensure I do not look too dry, I use a fluffy brush to lightly pat on powder on my T-zone first! Whatever remains I sweep quickly and lightly over my cheeks. It is also full coverage and helps me set my makeup easily. I turned to this just to make sure that my whole base has an overall even finish. 
  • I don’t always use a setting spray, but when I do, it's these two: I top off my makeup with Mario Badescu Sprays ($7) or the MAC Studio Fix Spray ($29) This is mostly reserved for night outs.

Expressive Eyes: I am obsessed with doing my eye makeup. From Colourpop to Makeup By Mario, I feel like a palette hoarder! The best part of doing my eyes is that I can express myself completely. I can go from an extremely subtle look to dramatic in just a few steps. Given that I struggled with acne and could not always use many products on my face, eye makeup was a safe bet. It allows me to be expressive, without my skin getting irritated. My favourite eyeliner to date has been the L’Oreal Infallible liquid eyeliner ($7.49). For the perfect winged liner look, I have relied on the tricks provided by beauty & lifestyle content creator Kaushal.

Lazy-Girl Lips: I once bought a shade of lipstick that was way too light. It looked ‘I kissed a ghost;’ light, so I applied a brown lip liner under it, and it looked just fine. I cannot rave enough about Colourpop’s Lippie Stix ($7): affordable and such a smooth application! While I believe one can rock any shade of lipstick, it is helpful seeing how a lip liner can bring out an undertone in a lipstick and how certain colours of concealer would help my discolouration. My lazy-girl tip when it comes to liquid lipstick is to apply it to the center of your lips and then blot it out with your finger! It gives that perfect shade of ‘barely there,’ while still making your whole look super chic.

If you ever asked me what products go into my makeup bag the minute I know I am traveling, it is these:

Aliya Varma's makeup essentials
photo credit: Aliya Varma

I usually opt for one neutral lip colour and one darker one to go from day to night!

These products work best for me and my skin type, so they may not necessarily work for everyone. I have dry skin, so most of my products focus on hydration. I have struggled with finding drugstore brands that actually cater to my skin tone and undertones when it comes to foundation and concealer, so I tend to opt for higher end brands given the range they provide.

While I was getting into makeup, I remember having to turn to higher end products given that many beauty brands never felt the pressure to really offer a wide colour range, and drugstore brands usually had more orangey shades for brown skin tones. With a quick google search, you can find dupes of higher end products, including accurate descriptions and reviews from many beauty bloggers.

You can’t really make ‘mistakes’ when it comes to beauty.

My journey to finding my undertone and beauty representation that looks like me, has allowed me to reflect on the way that many of the spaces in the beauty realm have catered to those with white or light skin tones and cool undertones. At the age of 22, 

I now realize the importance of seeing faces that resemble mine—in a space that barely catered to those who are tan. 

While my makeup routine has evolved over the years, the best thing I did was play around with different techniques and try different products. There is definitely a learning curve, but go into this realm with confidence and—trust me—the results will be amazing. I view makeup as any other art form, and it’s truly all about practice! 


About — Aliya Varma is a marketing and political science student in Montreal, Canada. She has a passion for all things beauty and fashion. When she’s not scrolling through Instagram, you can find her reading a book while drinking copious amounts of coffee! You can find her on Instagram at @asapaliya.

About the Series — So You’re Getting into Makeup is a Kulfi Bites series led by Janvi Sai that aims to demystify beauty in an approachable way, through the lens of Gen Z South Asians and BIPOC. We hope to bring you everyday makeup tips & tricks and weave in product recommendations from BIPOC &/or indie brands whenever possible. Read Part I of the series on all things lavender makeup here.

Cover photo credit: Aliya Varma, @asapaliya

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