Fed up of the day’s makeup slipping off your face by the time evening rolls around?
The key to long-lasting success is in the foundation - or rather, the foundations behindthe foundation. In beauty speak, that means primer.
Like prepping walls for painting and decorating, a primer’s main goal is to gloss over all those annoying imperfections on the base - think acne scars, fine lines, large pores etc - to make it perfectly smooth for the proceeding steps.
Typically clear and a thin solution, it stealthily sits under foundation and powder, helping to keep your makeup locked in place all day and well into the evening.
Not only does it prep your skin for makeup, but it helps the makeup go on more smoothly, for flawless results.
Sure, it’s an extra step in your makeup regime, but well worth the effort if you’ve got a big event in the diary, like a party, date, wedding or simply your first restaurant outing post-lockdown.
Pick the right one and you can reap the benefits even without a full face on top. Choose one with blurring properties to blend out those fine lines, or a hydrating primer to infuse your face with a dewy, youthful glow.
With so many options out there, a singular question remains: do you really need to spend a pretty penny or can you get a great primer for less than a fiver? We put some of the best primers on the market to the test to find out.
See our favourites below
Smashbox Vitamin Glow Primer
Best for: a daily boost of moisture
While Smashbox's original primer was made for photoshoots (see below), most of us aren’t spending hours in front of a professional camera.
For everyday use, Smashbox has launched a new primer that focuses on boosting skin health. Packed with nourishing vitamins B, C & E, the Vitamin Glow Primer feeds your face helping it look revitalised, glowy and well hydrated.
The peach -hued formula spreads well and feels fresh from the get-go. It’s so hydrating you can feel your skin plumping up instantly, yet it manages to leave behind no sticky residue. Magic.
Smashbox The Original Photo Finish Smooth & Blur Primer
Best for: long-lasting results
Specifically designed to enhance the look and longevity of makeup on photoshoots and sets where hot lights and notoriously long hours threaten to melt products clean off a model’s face, Smashbox’s primer is one of the original; a Linda Evangelista in the lineup of top beauty primers if you will.
The translucent primer is packed with vitamins A and E and green tea. It feels silky on the skin without swamping your face in oil and is light enough to wear under foundation or even just a concealer for those days when you don’t want a full face of makeup.
It lasts for ages too: dot a pea-sized amount sparingly over the centre of the face outwards before applying the rest of your warpaint.
Chantecaille Ultra Sun Protection SPF45 PA++ Anti-Glycation Primer
Best for: superb SPF protection
If you’re prepared to drop just north of £80 on a single beauty product, it’s only right to expect as much bang for your buck as you can get. Presented in a shiny tube, Chantecaille’s primer is incredibly hard working, shielding skin from harmful UVB and UVA rays with the merest application of the thin SPF45 primer. Meanwhile helpful ingredients like lemon balm, cherry blossom and white tea extracts work to soothe the skin while also fighting free radicals and inflammation.
Price tag aside, it feels like a primer for mature skin, protecting and perfecting at once. If you’re looking for a facial SPF that will enhance your (nearly) naked skin, this makes a very persuasive case.
Pat McGrath Labs Skin Fetish: Sublime Perfection Primer
Best for: high-everything - rollers, fashion and maintenance
Brace (your bank balance) for impact: this beauty will cost more than a pretty penny. From the undisputed queen of backstage beauty MUA Pat McGrath, the primer is a clear transparent liquid which means it can sit undetected on any skin tone - a win for inclusivity. At £52 for just 35ml, there’s no doubt that this is one of the priciest primers in our list, but does Mother know best?
The pump bottle squeezes out just enough primer to smooth across your entire face, and used with Pat McGrath Labs Skin Fetish foundation, offers the kind of full coverage that could survive a hundred trips under the blazing lights of a catwalk without breaking a sweat. Top marks also for the hyaluronic acid within, which fills in pores and creates a gorgeously hydrated, plumping effect to leave you with a picture-perfect base.
But if you’re looking for a barely-there formula for everyday wear or day trips, you might be better off with another, lighter solution. The primer carries a faint fragrance, which wasn’t an issue for us but may not be for everyone.
Estee Lauder The Illuminator Radiant Perfecting Primer + Finisher
Best for: a veil of radiance
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the gentle sheen of this primer’s packaging gives you a suggestion of what you can expect inside. Pat over cleansed, moisturised skin before applying liquid foundation and step back to admire brighter, dewy, youthful-looking skin. The difference is noticeable even on naked skin for those days you want to go makeup-free.
The slim 30ml tube is handy for stashing in your bag for reviving day-old makeup or using as a highlighter when you’re on the move.
The Ordinary High Adherence Primer
Best for: a first foray into the world of primers
When it comes to beauty, we’re often encouraged to splurge on certain products: think skincare, foundation and mascara. They sit right on the skin, so it makes sense to invest in cosmetics that will protect and serve your body’s biggest organ. The same goes for primer, but as with everything there are exceptions to the rule, and this primer from no-fuss brand The Ordinary is one of them.
The silky, non-oily formula offers makeup a long-lasting base to sit on, but you could just as easily reap its pore-shrinking effects on off-duty days too by wearing it on its own. Paired with mascara and the faintest hint of cream blush for a Zoom call, it made our skin appear ever so slightly airbrushed with almost zero effort.
Many have compared it to Smashbox’s primer, but for a snip of the price. The minimal packaging will appeal to those who prize function over flashiness, while men may feel more comfortable with the unassuming-looking tube in their wash bag too.
You can’t quibble the price either; at £3.90 it’s a painless investment for anyone dipping a toe into the realm of beauty primers.
The Ordinary High-Spreadability Fluid Primer
Best for: faking a good night’s rest
Using a pipette distribution, a few drops of the light, serum-esque formula is all you need to cover your entire face. As well as levelling your skin, this primer is particularly helpful for infusing moisture into the dry, tired patches around the eyes, nostrils and mouth which means less foundation and pigments creasing or collecting there.
We tried this the morning after a virtual drinks night and were amazed to see how quickly it revived our sleep-deprived skin in time for a family video chat. It imparts a juicy sheen of moisture that suggests perky, healthy-looking skin - even when you feel anything but, and even if you have nothing else on top.
It’s also great at reviving makeup that’s been on all day; just pat on a few drops to bring the dewy glow back. At 30ml, it’s ideal for taking on trips where the air can dry out your skin - plane journeys, beach trips and long car rides, we’re looking at you.
Laura Mercier Pure Canvas Power Primer Supercharged Essence
Best for: big day beauty
This elegant glass bottle is part of the Canvas Primer collection which includes five silicone-free sisters that each offer different results (perfecting, protecting, hydrating, blurring and illuminating), but Power is the queen of the pack.
Thickness-wise, it’s a Goldilocks formula - not too thick, not too light - and the appearance is milky rather than transparent. This is probably down to the Marimo Pearl inside, which offers a cooling, soothing sensation while also plumping the skin by smoothing over imperfections. The pearl also reflects light, giving your skin a glowy veil that makes it look airbrushed. No wonder it's a favourite with bridal makeup artists.
Charlotte Tilbury Wonder Glow Instant Soft-Focus Beauty Flash Primer
Best for: red carpet radiance
Skin dehydrated and in desperate need of a beauty boost? Former makeup artist to the stars Charlotte Tilbury offers a solution (literally) with her beauty flash primer, which promises to transform a dull complexion into one worthy of the red carpet.
The cream formula houses something called a ‘fluorescent core light diffuser’ that basically takes UV light and reflects it back as skin luminosity, like a glow-diffusing shield.
It neither heavy nor light and turns back the clock particularly well on more mature skin, making you look instantly younger and fresher.
Beauty buffs have hailed it a miracle, and we can see why. You only need to use it sparingly to make good on the promises it makes on the tin - which also makes it fantastic value for money.
Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Primer
Best for: a next-to-nothing matte finish
It may squeeze out milky, but gently spread Kevyn Aucoin’s new Sensual Skin Primer over the skin and you’ll soon see it vanish into an invisible matte finish. In fact, once it’s on you can barely feel or see it at all, making it perfect for anyone who dislikes the thought of wearing multiple layers of product.
Despite feeling like you have nothing on, the primer offers a good base for foundation, a smooth layer on which to create your masterpiece. We wouldn’t recommend wearing this solo unless you want to tame a particularly oily complexion.
Flower In Your Prime Illuminating Primer
Best for: serious results on a shoestring
A superb high street option that performs just as well as its pricier peers, Flower’s primer is a great first-buy if you’re hesitating about plumping for a primer.
Not only does it deliver on its promise of making your skin look light and brighter, but it blurs out fine lines and pores too, treating skin to a hydrating glow.
The nude colour formula blends into skin, just not as quickly as some of the others we tried, so you’ll need to make sure it’s properly absorbed to avoid unsightly streaks.
Glossier Priming Moisturiser
Best for: luscious, millennial healthiness
Say hello to fresh, glowing skin from a tube. Loved by millennials, Glossier’s cult following is built on it’s Insta-friendly packaging and fuss-free formulas that just work.
Part primer, part moisturiser, this solution will help you claw back a step in your skincare routine by perfecting, smoothing and hydrating all in one creamy formula. Ditch your daily face lotion for this high-performance alternative instead.
As well as saving precious minutes, it rebalances skin tone with an anti-redness agent while the oxygenating agent infuses your cells with dewy loveliness. It’s buildable too, so you can apply another layer whenever your skin looks like it could do with a boost.
Late night? They’ll never know.
Benefit The POREfessional Face Primer Minimising Pores
Best for: a Honey I Shrunk the Pores beauty special
This primer has a cult following, and for once, the hype is well-earned. It appears to perform alchemy on the skin, shrinking pores so that your complexion ends up with an airbrushed finish.
Wrinkles and fine lines get the same treatment, leaving you with skin perfectly prepped for foundation and blusher.
Our last point? It’s mattifying too, so you won’t need to blot for hours afterwards.
Paula’s Choice Smoothing Primer Serum
Best for: plumping mature skin
We’ll always have a soft spot for any product that can address more than one issue. Enter Paula’s Choice’s primer which comes with built-in sun protection in the form of broad spectrum SPF30. The slim, white 30ml tube houses a clear, gel formula that’s non-irritating, fragrance free and feels like silk on the skin.
It’s reassuringly thick enough to fill and smooth over acne scars and wrinkles, making it a perfect choice for anyone with mature skin. Primes and perfects while also protecting skin from environmental factors.
Strivectin Anti-Wrinkle Line Blurfector Instant Wrinkle Blurring Primer
Best for: easing out the look of wrinkles
Wrinkles are just a fact of life, and while some are worth keeping (eye laughter lines) there are some we can’t help but want erased.
Enter Strivectin’s clinical-looking primer, which promises to ease the look and depth of creases by filling the skin to stop makeup settling in and emphasising them. The cream gel formula feels powdery on, but settles into a satin-like matte finish that lasts all day.
SUQQU Treatment Serum Primer
Best for: the all-rounder
Products from Japan have been big in beauty for quite a few years now, but SUQQU is arguably the leader of the pack. Much has been made of the Japanese brand’s Treatment Primer Serum, which imparts a chic glowy finish on the skin.
It comes in a pretty pink and gold tube, and squeezes out milky with a subtle lavender which works both to brighten the complexion as well as balance tone. It’s lightweight and requires a bit of rubbing in - which gives it the feel of a lotion. Made with plant-based oils, there’s a touch of shimmer to the primer which gives a gentle glow.
Illamasqua Beyond Veil Primer
Best for: bouji brides
This primer screams luxury, from the sleek round pot to the tiny scoop for the gel primer inside. It works a treat on all skin types, hydrating dry skin and minimising shine on oily t-zones, leaving your skin looking ultra hydrated and… well, expensive.
At first we shied away from the formula: as a gel it looks as though it might feel heavy but it sits light as a feather on the skin, creating a lovely smooth base for the rest of your makeup. This one is nude toned with tiny light-reflective gold particles, which gives a shimmery finish to skin that will look radiant under foundation. However, there is a sister primer, Illamasqua Hydra Veil Primer (£34), which is completely clear for a more matte look.
Illamasqua’s offering is made to relish the experience of applying primer rather than hurriedly slapping it on first thing in the morning, a caviar to lesser brands’ pop rocks. One to crack open for special occasions.
Milk Makeup Hydro Grip Primer 10ml
Best for: making your makeup last well into the evening
Fed up of your makeup sliding off by lunchtime? For extra staying power, you need Milk’s primer in your corner - it’s not kidding when it says it grips.
As well as keeping your base and everything on top perfectly in place, the ingredients - aloe water, cherry blossom, hyaluronic acid and B vitamins - will hydrate and create a barrier to protect your skin from all sorts of pollutants and traffic fumes.
Giorgio Armani Luminous Silk Hydrating Primer 30ml
Best for: giving skin an expensive finish
A big name offering suitably big results. This primer will give you a smooth canvas for your final makeup masterpiece thanks to some of the hydrating ingredients inside the pale pink bottle: think Shea Butter and Glycerin.
What’s great about this primer is that you can use it over your makeup too, as a subtle highlighter that’s designed to mimic the look of charmeuse silk.
BECCA Skin Love Brighten & Blur Primer
Best for: adding serious glow to your complexion
A beauty brand built on a rep for launching brilliant radiance-boosting products, BECCA’s Skin Love primer will work wonders on the appearance of fatigued skin. It blends superbly and acts as a shield between skin and pollutants, making it a handbag hero for any urban dweller.
It feels silky on, and is packed with hydrating ingredients to keep you looking fresh all day and into the evening.
Stila Souffle Skin Perfecting Primer
Best for: an airy lightweight base layer
In the market for a little indulgence? This elegant pot from Stila contains a feather-light primer with the texture of whipped souffle that’s packed with light-refracting pearl pigments that will help blur imperfections and leave your skin looking lit from within.
With a price tag this hefty you’ll want to eke this out for as long as possible, and the good news is that a little goes a long way. You’ll be amazed at the coverage from just a few dabs.
While your ultimate primer will depend on many factors, we think for an all-round everyday product, Smashbox Photo Finish Vitamin Glow Primer is the best all-performer. It's the sort of thing you can wear even without makeup on top for those off-duty days, thanks to its nourishing feel and brightening effect.