The start of term | A lesson on the MAC colour system

To celebrate (ahem) the start of Fall term, I thought I’d finally post some photos I took… in June. 2010. I know, I know; I’m awful. I often surprise myself with my ability to procrastinate, too :P

There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to MAC shade numbers, but hopefully, this’ll help clarify things for you!

PLEASE NOTE: if you are viewing these images in a browser that doesn’t colour-manage (ahem, Chrome), the colour values will be off!

The letters

L-R: MAC Studio Finish Concealer SPF 15 in C15, NC15, and NW15

Perhaps the trickiest thing about MAC’s shade system is that you have to know your undertones – and most of the time, you only have two choices. I’m going to start off by saying that, though MAC does a lot of shades, not everyone will be able to find a perfect match. It’s rather unfortunate, but, well, that’s just the way it works!

NC stands for “neutral-cool,” and corresponds to yellow, golden, or olive.

NW stands for “neutral-warm,” and corresponds to pink or rose.

N, C, and W stand for “neutral,” “cool,” and “warm,” respectively. So, a N shade has more of a yellow/pink balance, a C shade is more yellow than a NC shade, and a W shade is more pink than a NW shade.

What’s important to remember is that MAC refers to pink as “warm” and yellow as “cool.” Keep that in mind and it should be smooth sailing from hereon in!

To help explain this a little better, I swatched three “15” Studio Fix Concealers: C15, NC15, and NW15. As you can see, the C shade is the most yellow, and the NW shade is the most pink – even though I, personally, would say that the NW is a cold pink!

Swatches: MAC Studio Finish Concealer SPF 15 in C15, NC15, and NW15

The numbers

Thankfully, MAC’s number system is (much) easier to understand than their lettering system! Basically, the larger the number is, the darker the shade will be. And that’s all you need to know ;)

To show off the shade values, I swatched four consecutive NW concealers, in 15, 20, 25, and 30.

R-L: MAC Studio Finish Concealer SPF 15 in-NW15, NW20, NW25, NW30

Swatches: MAC Studio Finish Concealer SPF 15 in-NW15, NW20, NW25, NW30

Still can’t find your match?

  • Try mixing – maybe your shade is two parts NW and one part NC, for instance. Or perhaps it’s just time to admit defeat! Yep, you heard me – it’s okay to admit defeat. Because…
  • Most lines mix their shades along the same strain, so another brand may simply work better for your skintone. I mean, MAC foundations are often criticized for being too extreme (that is, too pink or too yellow); Bobbi foundations are supposed to lean yellow; Marcelle ones usually have more a of a pink/peach base. And don’t even get me started on Clinique: I love the line, but I’ve never been able to find a foundation match with them!
  • Go theatrical. Brands made for theatre, or which originated in theatre, tend to have a broader shade range, so keep an eye out for them – think Ben Nye, Mehron, and MUFE.
  • And last but not least, always be ready to swatch-test new things! A good base will always be in, so brands are always going to be launching new shades, new undertones, or even entirely new foundations. You’ll find something, trust me. It might take a long time and a ton of testing, but your perfect match is out there!

Don’t forget…

The thing about being online is that, well, you have the world at your fingertips. If you’re still having trouble figuring out your shade, make sure you check out pages like the Temptalia Foundation Matrix, KarlaSugar’s foundation swatches, or MAC’s own shade finder!

If possible, try to find a skin twin, too –  a blogger or fellow beauty junkie who wears the same shade as you. Or, optimally, someone who wears the same shade and has the same skin type. I’m still hunting for mine, but I hear they can be incredibly useful :P Possibly harder to find than snipes named Kevin, but definitely worthwhile if you can track one down!

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  • last week i had the pleasure of overhearing (overhearing, eavesdropping. potato, potahto) a customer arguing with a MAC SA about how their usage of "cool" and "warm" were wrong.

    they were frustrated with each other. i was entertained.

    i find that accepting the fact that MAC operates backwards from logical thinking helps things a great deal. i have a warm undertone but my shade is an NC? ok, whatever. just give me the damn product :p.
    My recent post New Nude: MAC's Sheen Supreme Lipstick in Bare Again

    • Lol! It's like dinner and a show, but… makeup an a show. Which is possibly even better :D

      When all else fails, throw logic out of the window and just pick up whatever works! Try out enough shades and you're bound to find yours eventually, right? :P

      • There should be a reality show that's based inside major department store beauty counters. So much drama goes down right there, and even if you're not into that sort of entertainment you can oogle at products. It's a winwin :D
        My recent post Sky Full of Lighters.

    • Vibrant77

      I think MAC purposely wanted to confuse the public with their system so that the consumer can't match their shade at a competitive brand due to confusion about cool and warm undertones.

  • AdorableOnYourVanity

    fantastic post. I think foundation matches are something I struggled with THE most when I was in high school and just started wearing it and the it didn't end until very recently. You know what I think works the best. Find a foundation which is your perfect match in one range (there must be one) and if you want to venture out in other brands, take the foundation with you and ask the SA to help you find a foundation which looks like that. Chances are you will find your shade in that brand. I have had FANTASTIC service at Sephora in this regards. Also try to ask for samples if you are confused, you will never hear a no.
    My recent post Importance of doing brows & ybf Automatic Eyebrow Pencil

    • Brilliant idea, hon! I've never found my *perfect* match, so that's not really an option – but, then again, I've never really looked :P I'm thoroughly dependant on concealer, yes, but really not much of a foundation girl!

  • Thanks for this post, i is very informative! Last night I was looking for a foundation and I was wondering what was my best shade, so now it's perfectly clear!
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  • Great post! When I first started using MAC, I was thoroughly confused. I think mainly because you have to remember that MAC does the complete opposite of most brands in terms of what's considered warm and cool.

    I find Temptalia's foundation matrix really helpful but finding a skin twin, as you mentioned, is even better! I am constantly looking for makeup blogs by ladies who are between NC30-40 with MAC. It really helps me know what color cosmetics or other brand's foundations work with my skin tone. For those on the lookout, I found google really helpful!

    My recent post We Live Like This

    • For sure! Even just googling the skintone that you *think* you might be, and searching through the images – surprisingly useful ^^

  • Chynna

    MAC shades are confusing. I've started calling NC "Not Cool" and NW "Not Warm" to make it work out right in my head.

  • nono

    I thought it was not cool, not warm. Because otherwise it would not make sense.

    • It does if you go by the MAC colour system, which is opposite everyone else's! :P You just have to remember that pink = warm (in MAC), or think not cool/not warm.

    • Kate & Zena

      Nono-The problem with most makeup companies is that they've created a system that's opposite of how we see the world. We naturally see the world and associate pinks and reds as warm tones and blues and yellows as cool-tones. If you want to be technical, yellow is a neutral primary color; red is warm; blue is cool (this is beginning color theory.) "Blue" doesn't really exist in the makeup world for undertones until you get to olive/black tones, so yellow replaces cool and red is replaced with pink.

      The makeup world reverses the color theory and says "pink is cool and yellow is warm." This isn't right by any means of the imagination, if you think about it in terms of how we see the world. Why would pink be cool when we consider it warm in every other category EXCEPT FOUNDATION/CONCEALER and vice versa? It's screwy and just not right at all. SO, being an artist, I've always thrown that idea to the wind (well, I've sort of laughed at it, then stomped on it, torn it apart in teeny tiny pieces and THEN thrown it to the wind) and gone with the concept of Color Theory. It just makes more sense.

      Does that seem to make more sense? You've sort of been brainwashed to think that undertone defies the law of Color Theory, that's all. It's weird.

  • I haven't tried MAC concealers or foundations yet, mostly because they look so intense. Thankfully, I'm not in the market for a new foundation right now, so…that's that. This is a helpful post, though! :D Especially since I do want to try one of their concealers one day.

    And Clinique…well. I had a powder from them that I loved, but their liquid foundations are toooooooo pink.
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    • Yes! For an asian gal with yellow undertones, they're very much not a viable option :P

  • Kate & Zena

    YES! A makeup company that thinks like an artist. Yellow & Blue= cool. Red & Pink= warm. Anyone who thinks otherwise is crazy. It just boggles my brain as to how pink or red equals cool-toned skin. It. Just. Doesn't. WORK. Whoever thought of that seriously needs to be shot. Fire (which is warm) is not blue (okay, only when it is really, really, really, really hot. But, standard fire that we see everyday? NO) and ice (which is cold) is not red.

    REDEMPTION AT LAST!!! I am not insane!

  • xD <3 Rae. Your guide is so much more comprehensive than mine – do you mind if I link to it in my MAC shade post?

    I'm so glad I found my correct MAC shade. Went from NC42 (too light, too yellow) to NW35 (PERFECTION.) It's also funny how some cosmetics companies are friendlier towards certain markets than others. For instance, I was going to buy NARS Sheer Matte foundation but they were ALL (and I do mean all) way too yellow! I couldn't get any of them to blend. MUFE was much pinker….almost too pink! Haha.
    My recent post Gettin’ All Existential

    • Of course not! I'm just glad you found it comprehensive – I was a little worried it would still be all muddled :P

      I'll have to check out the ingred. on sheer matte. I can always use another yellow-fdtn find ;)

  • that was such a useful post – I always mix my NC/NW shades because my skintone is right-down-the-middle-neutral – but it's good to finally have someone spell it out for me!
    My recent post Skincare State of The Nation: Serum

    • Glad it made sense! Felt a little rambly as I was writing it :P

  • Carla

    "I, personally, would say that the NW is a cold pink!"
    Me too. Your and Kate's comments have made the whole MAC colour system make more sense to me… but I still don't get MAC. Do pale people not come in an actual warm colour? Just cool pink or cool yellow?

    • /flail

      I DO NOT KNOW! But it is confusing :s Also, frustrating, I am sure!

    • Kate & Zena

      If you are talking about Caucasians, they do. Rae was only explaining one side of the scale. They come in the other side of the spectrum as well! Every race comes in cool, neutral and warm tones! If you were to ever see a photo of me with my parents, I tend to clash with my mom and blend with my dad. My dad is cool-toned (like me) and my mom is warm. When you clash with somebody, you two have opposite undertones.

      Does that help?

      • *pokes* Sarcasm, Katie :P MAC's NW and NC shades tend to be cool for their 10 and 15s – which means there aren't any options for PPPs who are actually warm-toned!

        • Kate & Zena

          Yep, this is one of those times where the Autism shows and Katie is left feeling dumb. I thought I was being helpful!

          • It's totally understandable, though! Sarcasm online is HARD, no matter where you are on the Autism spectrum!

  • I guess I am really behind on mac collections. I didn't know studio finish concealer came in just C.

    • Er – not behind; just on top! :P MAC used to do C and W (possibly just in their PRO line? I'm not sure.) but they've since discontinued them.

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  • Kat

    Awesome post! And the “not cool, not warm” memory aid is really useful!


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  • Kendra

    Great explanation! I love how you broke down the colors- I always have to mix no matter what. I am an awkward shade…
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  • Alison

    It'd be SO useful to be Christine @ Temptalia's skin twin!

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  • Juna

    How come stores don't carry "C"shades like C15 you mentioned?

    • W and C shades used to be part of the Pro lineup, but have unfortunately been discontinued!

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