Every time we post a tutorial on how to do your own wedding makeup, the question invariably arises: does this have SPF? Is it going to ruin my wedding pictures? The short answer is—if you’re getting married outside during the daytime, it won’t. SPF is only a problem with flash photography. But beyond that general takeaway, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of understanding how the problem with SPF and flash really shakes out. Save for some conflicting YouTube videos, I have yet to find a conclusive test of this phenomenon. (I mean, I guess most of the time you’re probably not that worried about how you’re to be photographed when you leave the house? Go figure.)
A few weeks ago, we set out to demystify the connection between SPF foundation and wedding photography. We bought a handful of foundations with varying levels of SPF (from none, all the way to SPF 55), at varying price points (from drugstore stuff to the more pricey Sephora goods). And Jillian West, former APW sponsor turned vintage shop owner, agreed to be our gracious guinea pig.
So what’s the big problem with SPF that everybody keeps talking about, anyway? (Because “it’s bad” isn’t exactly… helpful.) Basically, all the fancy makeup technology that protects your face from the sun is stuff that’s built to reflect light. So when a flash fires directly at your face, the result is known as “flashback.” It’s literally your face reflecting the flash back at the camera. It can make you look ghosty, or like you’re wearing a lot of baby powder on your face.
But the blanket statement that SPF makeup shouldn’t be used for weddings is pointedly false. So let’s just break it down for you in terms that aren’t confusing or misleading:
What Makeup To Use
- If you’re getting married outside, during the day, or in another well-lit setting where flash won’t be used, wear all the SPF you want. It’s fine.
- If you’re getting married inside, you can obviously skip SPF all together, and not worry.
- If you’re in a mixed lighting situation (say, a ceremony outside where you need SPF, and having photos taken inside with flash), never fear, you have options. Most makeup with SPF photographs just fine with indirect (bounced) flash, which is what professional photographers use in ninety-five percent of cases. And if that doesn’t cover it, we found that using moisturizer with SPF, and covering it with SPF-free foundation solved flash related problems.
- And finally, just because a makeup sells itself as being “great for photos,” doesn’t mean it is. Revlon’s Photoready line was among the worst we tried (on all fronts). And while Makeup Forever’s HD foundation was the single best foundation we tried, their HD powder was the single worst product we tried, in terms of flashback from cameras. Go figure.
What’s Up with direct flash
If you’re getting married, you might want to skip this section, and just ask your photographer if you’re worried about flash issues. (And feel free to send them to this post, so they can review it and give you a better answer. Chances are they haven’t tested tons of foundation either, because… why would they?) But if you want more detail what exactly the flash problem is, this is for you.
- Direct flash is the work of the devil. Regardless of whether your foundation has SPF in it or not, direct flash (a.k.a. anything that points a flash straight at your face, like the point and shoot cameras of yore, or your iPhone with the flash on) just isn’t flattering. But we all knew that already. Most professional photographers avoid using direct flash for this very reason, but some lighting situations call for it. Plus, sometimes direct flash is used as an artistic tool to create the kind of gorgeous photo you see above, shot by Jonas Seaman. So it may be worth asking your photographer if they use direct flash ever and if they’ve ever had issues with makeup reacting weirdly to it.
- Instead of direct flash, many photographers use what’s known as indirect or bounce flash, meaning that photographers bounce it off a wall or ceiling. In our tests, we found we only had minimal problems with SPF makeup and indirect flash. (For the photographers in the crowd, these were shot at a forty-five degree angle bounced off low, white ceilings.) In fact, the problems were so small that they would largely be corrected when your photographer did a photo edit. So, if like most photographers, yours will be working with bounced flash, you’re good to go.
It’s not the SPF, exactly, that we know of
The common assumption is that flashback is a result of using SPF foundations, but in our experiment, the direct flash test failed just about all of our foundation samples, even the ones without SPF (though some were decidedly worse than others.) There are a few resources online that try to break down what elements in makeup cause flashback (is it the titanium dioxide? Is it silica? Talc?), but the fact of the matter is you have better things to do with your time than research endlessly to figure out what’s safe.
Instead, you can save yourself hours of research by doing a simple photo test with the foundation you plan on using at your wedding. Just apply it the way you would normally, then take a photo with your cell phone flash (the worst flashback culprit of them all). If your picture looks like the one below on the right, you might have trouble if your photographer is using direct flash. If it looks like the one on the left, you’re fine. (It’s direct flash, it’s never going to be flattering. You just want to not look like a ghost.) Most drugstores and big box makeup stores like Sephora gladly take returns, so don’t worry about wasting money on something you might not use.
The APW Test
In order to learn about SPF and flashback, we tested a bunch of different foundations, each one in natural light, then with direct flash, then with bounced flash. We tried to cover a range of products, from drugstore to professional, from high SPF to low SPF. Here are our results, product by product.
Drugstore, No SPF ($11.99): Our first test was with Revlon’s Colorstay Whipped foundation. It was actually really hard to find a drugstore makeup that didn’t have some SPF in it, but even without the culprit, this foundation gave us a little bit of flashback when we used direct flash.
Verdict: Fine, not perfect.
Drugstore, No SPF ($10.99): We saw the label on Revlon’s Photoready Airbrush Foundation label and figured, “Well this should look good in photos!” It gave us less flashback when used with direct flash than our whipped mousse foundation above, but the smell and texture of this foundation was pretty disgusting. Do not recommend. For… anything.
Pro Quality, No SPF ($42): Make Up For Ever’s HD foundation is THE foundation recommended by the Sephora associates when you mention weddings. In fact, Meg used it at her wedding. The good news is it was easily the best looking foundation we photographed. If you’re willing to splurge a bit on your wedding foundation, or if you want buildable coverage, this is the ticket. The downsides are you probably will never use this foundation after your wedding (it’s heavy-duty stuff), and it might be too much if you’re used to sheer foundation or no foundation at all.
Verdict: The winner, but definitely heavy-duty foundation.
PRO QUALITY, NO SPF, with hd POWDER ($42 + $34): A funny thing happened when we paired the winning foundation with its matching powder. It became the worst product we tested, period. Makeup Forever HD foundation paired with their HD Microfinish Powder, has the worst flashback of all the products we tried. Don’t buy this powder for you wedding.
Verdict: DO NOT USE THIS POWDER if being photographed with direct flash.
Pro Quality, No SPF ($55): Even without any SPF, we got some flashback from this foundation. This may be because the NARS Sheer Matte foundation is formulated for oily skin—who knows. This is also much more noticeable in person than it is in photos, which we did not love. If you want a ton of coverage, however, you might like this, but overall, we wouldn’t recommend it.
Verdict: Wouldn’t recommend.
Drugstore, SPF 17 ($11.49): This SPF 17 L’Oreal True Match foundation gave us some trouble in our direct flash test, though it looked and felt pretty good in person.
Verdict: If you’re not dealing with a lot of direct flash, and you want an affordable foundation with SPF, this is a good bet.
Pro Quality, SPF 35 ($39): This Smashbox Camera Ready BB Cream fared pretty well in the flashback test, even though it has SPF 35. It didn’t flashback nearly as much as the drugstore SPF 17, and felt much better on Jillian’s skin than a lot of the other foundations we tried. Overall, this was one of our top choices for SPF level, how it felt, and how it photographed.
Verdict: If you don’t mind a little flashback with direct flash and want foundation with good SPF built in, this is a really solid choice.
Drugstore, SPF 55 ($12.49): For a foundation that calls itself Healthy Skin, Jillian’s first reaction to putting Neutrogena’s Healthy Skin SPF 55 foundation on after washing her face half a dozen times between other tests was, “Oh my god, this is burning my face, please take the picture fast!” So if you’ve got sensitive or broken skin, the level of SPF in this might irritate your skin. Otherwise, it doesn’t appear that the level of SPF has any bearing on flashback. So if you have extra fair skin and need a high SPF, this is an affordable option that photographed almost as well as the pro level foundations.
Verdict: Ok, but harsh on the skin. Funny, for something called “Healthy Skin.”
Sheer Foundation, SPF 40: If all of the above foundations seem like way too damn much makeup, both Jillian and Meg love Clinique Super City Block sheer foundation. It’s got SPF 40 and no flashback. Bam.
Verdict: If you’re looking for something super sheer with some SPF, this is a clear winner.
SPF Under Foundation: If you like your current foundation and it doesn’t have SPF in it, or you want to use one of the no SPF foundations from above, but will need SPF on your wedding day (because really, you want SPF every day), we put Neutrogena SPF 15 moisturizer under the Make Up For Ever HD foundation and found no issue with flashback. You win!
Verdict: A clear winner. Also, easy.
For those of you following along at home, here are the basic takeaways.
- No, flash is not the enemy.
- Yes, direct flash is.
- You can test your makeup using your cell phone flash. If it looks like you’re wearing white powder on your face, you might have issues with direct flash.
- Ask your photographer if they use direct flash ever. If they don’t, you should have nothing to worry about!
Consider this myth partially busted. Yes, flashback exists. But flash itself is not the enemy. It’s all in how you use it. Unless your photographer plans on using direct flash all day, your makeup situation is probably going to be just fine. So go ahead and move on to more important topics, like what you’re wearing on our lips, or your feet (priorities). Also, under no circumstances should you let anyone near your face with a cell phone flash. But that goes without saying even on days that aren’t your wedding day.