The very mention of setting powder carries a whiff of an earlier era, when jeweled compacts in tiny evening bags allowed for discrete touch-ups. But in a world where “glazed donut” is the internet’s shorthand for the ultimate skin, is powder still on the menu? The answer, of course, is yes. Less a ladylike pre-requisite, more a secret weapon against the elements, a good setting powder can be a tool deployed with subtlety, tamping down shine in select zones while ensuring your makeup (even the most minimal) stays in place all day.
The key is stealth. A well-chosen powder is something of a silent knight, going unnoticed while gallantly safeguarding your makeup into the evening. But “powders can be so challenging to get right,” says makeup artist Mary Greenwell, who knows a thing about high-stakes execution, having worked with Princess Diana and lately such red-carpet talents as Jessica Chastain, Cate Blanchett, and Amanda Seyfried. The powders that earn a spot in her kit are ultra-delicate. “They have to be so finely milled [that] they feel featherlight and appear completely sheer on the skin,” she says, echoing the gold standard that defines next-generation formulations.
While powder as a category has proved its staying power in the beauty industry, early versions reveal a problematic history. Toxic ingredients, including arsenic, mercury, and lead, found their way into some 19th-century formulas, in part by acting to physically lighten skin tone. Powder connoted more than a polished appearance; the quest for pallor, linked to race and class hierarchies, led to the perpetuation of damaging beauty standards for Black and brown women, not to mention a product landscape that long overlooked deeper shade ranges. The latest powders address that need for inclusivity, at the same time furthering a movement toward innovative, ingredient-conscious formulas. While working to keep makeup in place and perspiration at bay, they can also address a variety of skin concerns, including rosacea, excess oil, and sun exposure.
Ultimately, the best powder is highly personal, as seen in these real-world recommendations from people across creative fields. Whatever the aim—encouraging the glow, keeping pores unclogged, catering to all skin tones (and undertones!), and avoiding the dreaded flashback—there is truly something on the market for everyone.