The Skinny on Skin Tones

It’s no mystery why certain shades can make skin appear dull while others boost vibrancy — selecting the right shade for your client’s skin tone is as much a science as it is an art. Learn the philosophy behind it before making your next color recommendation and your clients will be sure to give you a very colorful thanks.


FAIR SKIN: Light and light-medium shades of pink and red will look good, but the shades that work best for fair skin have a blue undertone. Silvers and gunmetal look great too. Cool fair-skinned ladies should be careful with darker shades. Opt for a light or medium blue rather than a navy. Avoid golds, yellows, and greens. If they insist on dark, trim their nails short; if they insist on green, recommend pale mint.

MEDIUM SKIN: Medium-skinned women can teeter between both warm and cool colors, but a paler shade really complements this skin type. Suggest lavender, rose, mauve, and light blue. If they’re in the mood for bold, true red is very flattering. Avoid black and orange.

DARK SKIN: Deep grape and berry tones give depth to cool dark skin. Cool gray, navy blue, bright pink, and jewel tones are also gems. Yellows and greens should be avoided, along with beige, orange, gold, and brown because they tend to make skin appear dull or washed out.


For some people, choosing complementary colors is an almost subconscious act. Do you happen to have a lot of blue in your wardrobe? Do you look better as a redhead than a blonde? Do you only stick to French manicures? Ever wonder why? When matched correctly with complexion, colors have the power to dramatically enhance a person’s natural beauty. And by understanding the theory behind it, you can help your clients take their choices one step further.

First and foremost, it’s important to know how to identify different skin tones. Skin tone is generally broken down into three categories: fair, medium, and dark. All skin has either a warm or cool undertone as well. But skin is multifaceted — someone who might have light skin can still have warm, golden undertones, like a person who’s fair during the winter but tans easily during summer.

Therefore, the best way to establish a client’s true tone is to search for the undertones rather than the outward color of her skin. Alesia Lanzo, creative director for Morgan Taylor, suggests looking at a client’s eye color and natural hair color. Another trick is to look at the lightest part of their body. “Where the veins meet along the inner wrist is the perfect place to reference,” says Lanzo. “It’s also a great idea to compare skin tone to the person sitting next to you.”

When you see yellow, orange, or olive undertones and veins that appear slightly greener than blue, you’re seeing indicators of warm undertones. Cool undertones will exude a bluish, purple, red, or pink sheen. “If your client has cool skin with a lot of red or pink, stick with hues that have blue-based or cooler undertones,” says Elyse Piwonka, product development manager for Orly. “If your client has warm skin, then warm and golden- or yellowbased tones will be very flattering.”

But what’s great about polish is that the rules are more forgiving than those for other beauty products. Nails are fairly removed from the face and they’re generally small canvases. “Where certain colors when worn on the face, like eye shadow or lipstick, can make a person look sallow or tired, there’s a lot more freedom when it comes to nails,” says Lanzo. So while you should be sure to pass on your shade-savvy suggestions, don’t be too tough on clients who want to pick an out-there color!



FAIR SKIN: Warm pink and orange-based red look great on warm fair skin. If your client is looking for something darker, try dark corals, golden yellows, or opaque beiges with yellow undertones.

MEDIUM SKIN: Darker polish as well as bright and vibrant shades hold well against tan skin. The best matches will be colors with obvious yellow undertones including gold, copper, caramel, brown, and olive shades. Purple and bright coral are also classics.

DARK SKIN: Warm, dark skin is the most versatile tone and flatters just about any color. But deep jewel tones like dark greens, purples, and burgundies, really stand out naturally and look glamorous. However, both pale colors and bright colors provide an excellent contrast as well. Clients can also try bronze, magenta, and fuchsia.



It never hurts to brush up on color theory! The color wheel divides different shades into four categories: primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors, and complementary colors. Mathematical genius Sir Isaac Newton invented the color wheel to illustrate the spectrum of colored light found in white sunlight. The colors were put into a wheel form and were based off the colors shown when white sunlight was put through a prism.

Pure pigments that cannot be made by mixing any colors together. These colors actually make up all the colors in the spectrum. Various mixes make the different shades, along with elements of black and white. The primary colors are redyellow, and blue.

Colors that are made by mixing equal parts of any two primary colors together. They are made up of orange (1:1 red and yellow), green (1:1 yellow and blue), and violet (1:1 blue and red).

Colors made from mixing equal parts of one primary color with one of its closest secondary colors. These are somewhat intermediate colors, and are made up of red-orangeorange-yellow, yellow-green, green-blue, blueviolet, and violet-red.

Colors located directly opposite each other on the color wheel. The wheel shows what the colors look like if the two are mixed. If they are mixed evenly, they appear closer to the center and are a brownish, more neutral color. If one is mixed in a higher ratio, than the more abundant color will be dominant. This is shown in the color wheel as the shades move toward the outer edge.

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