NC/NW, Mac Foundations and Why I Had to Get Re-Matched

NC? NW? Cool Undertone? Warm Undertone? Not Cool? Neutral Cool?

I won’t lie and say I had no experience with these phrases before my makeup journey, I did. As a graphic designer and art dilettante, I know my color wheels, warm vs cool shades and the importance of proper matching. With all that, I still managed to get matched to the wrong color foundation the first time I went to a MAC counter. But then – I’m not alone am I? MAC Cosmetics seems keen to confuse the living kittens out of aesthetically aware girls everywhere with their foundation system. In this post I hope to clear some common misconceptions up, as well as ridicule myself and my temporarily yellow face.

A Brief History Of Undertones:

For MOST makeup companies, the use of the terms Warm and Cool refer to the undertone of your skin. These two categories are divided thusly:

Cool Undertone:
Warm Undertone:

But what does that really mean?

Undertone Guide

So, if you have an Olive undertone you have a Warm undertone. If you have a Warm undertone, your skin is complimented by Warm colors (ie: Gold). Whereas if you have a Pink undertone, you have a Cool undertone and are therefore complimented by Cool colors (ie: Silver.)

Keep in mind that this is not a PERSONAL PREFERENCE thing. You can hate gold jewelry all you want and still be a Warm undertone.

With me so far?

MAC’s Version:

Now, as most of us know – MAC has two primary foundation types.  “NW” stands for Neutral Warm. “NC” Stands for Neutral Cool. (Some have reported NW and NC as standing for Not Warm and Not Cool – while this is useful later on, it’s inaccurate.)

“OH!” You’re declaring now. “So, if I have a pink undertone I should get an NC foundation because pink is COOL right?”

Nope. You’re wrong. Go do 50 push ups and come back. …back yet? k.

With MAC, NC foundations tend to have yellow or olive undertones while NW’s are pink and golden. So if you find you have an overall pink tone to your face, stick to NWs. If you have a yellow tone? NC is your friend.

The reasons for this oddness have never really been clear to me. Some suggest that if you have a cool undertone (ie: pink) you need a foundation that is warm (ie: yellow) to get you closer to neutral. I reject this theory on the following:

NC 25

NW 25

As you can see; NC25 is pretty damn yellow whereas NW is pink all the way. So according to the theory:

  1. Girl A has a Pink undertone
  2. She therefore has a “cool” undertone
  3. To “balance” her face out she would need a foundation with more “pink”
  4. So the NC foundation would have to have more pink…

Then there’s the theory that MAC thinks everyone else is wrong and that pink is warm and cool is yellow. When I first learned my color wheels I had a similar reaction to the pink/yellow cool/warm thing, but i’ve made my peace with it. I sincerely doubt MAC is doing this just to mindfuck us all, so I also reject this.

Finally, there’s a similar but reverse theory to the first that claims simply the following: If you have a cool skintone, go with NW BECAUSE it has pink. If you have a warm skintone, go with NC BECAUSE it has yellow. ie: Go NW if you’re “not warm” and go NC if you’re “not cool.” Get it? I also disagree with this because of…

My Hilarious Weeks As Yellow Face:

My first trip to the MAC Counter ended in me walking away from the store with an NC42 Foundation. It was suggested to me by a very stylish but very Caucasian (no offense no offense no offense!) MUA. Despite my own long-held belief that I had a pink undertone, I let this go with little to no complaint.

MUA: You’re an NC42

Me: Wow, really? I’d looked at some of the foundations and I thought I was an NW.

MUA: Well you could go with NW too, but NC looks better.

Me: Oh…okay.

Basically, I went with Theory #3 and thought maybe the yellow would balance me out. After all, it looked great under the blaringly fluorescent lights at Nordstroms!

Then I got into my boyfriend’s car.

Me: …Does my face look a little too…~searches for a boy-friendly version of “yellow-undertoned”~ pale to you?

Bucket: :D No bear (shut up) you’re beautiful!

Me: …I don’t know…maybe I should go back.

Bucket: I think you’re pretty :)

I let it go then and continued trying my NC 42 for several weeks. Each and every time i’d apply it in dimmer lighting than i’d like and would glance at myself in better lighting before heading out. Each time I was hit with a pang of fear that my face looked garishly yellow. Each time I convinced myself the MUA had to know what she was doing. Right? Maybe my lightbulbs were old. Maybe the sun was being filtered through a particularly yellow cloud.

I finally convinced myself to go back to get “re-matched” NOT because I had accepted the MUA had made a mistake. No. I only went back because I convinced myself that I had TANNED a bunch over the last few weeks and THAT was why my foundation suddenly looked off. Oh sweet denial.

So I explained my whole ordeal to a very lovely, and very Hispanic MUA at the same Nordies’ MAC counter. She tsk’d and promptly confirmed my fears. (Though completely confused me about the Warm/Cool thing again! lol.) She guided me over to a mirror where she showed me her yellow-undertone skin versus my pink-undertone skin. Though we were very similar in “color” the difference was obvious and absolute.

“You need NW.” She said, gently guiding me to the seat and bringing out a bunch of stuff (half of which I ended up buying.) “You have a very pink undertone to your face. The NC is way too yellow on you. $115 bucks and one NW 35 later I was out the door and BLISSFUL.I was so self-assured and confident with my new, better matched face. I gloated to Bucket about it as we headed to Sephora.

Me: Do you remember that time, when we went to MAC and I was asking you if you thought my foundation looked right?

Bucket: …No?

Me: When I thought it might have been too pale and I wanted to go back but decided against it?

Bucket: : I dunno. I always think you look pretty, bear!

 NC 42 Versus NW 35:

One thing most people notice right away is that NW shades, even if the same NUMBER as an NC appear much “darker.” This is due to the pinkness of NW, which gives a warmer cast. This is the reason that, when I switched from NC to NW I went down several shade-numbers: from 42 to 35. Here’s some comparison shots for you.

NC 42 (left) NW 35 (right)

NC 42 (left) NW 35 (right)

NC 42 (left) NW 35 (right)

And because the color on my hands is not exactly matched to the color of my face…

NC 42 (left) NW 35 (right)

NC 42 (left) NW 35 (right)

I did not do a proper application here so don’t think that that this shot reflects the quality of the MAC foundation – it’s just for color comparison purposes.

As you can tell, the NC 42 leaves a yellowish cast on my face whereas the NW 35 blends in considerably more seamlessly. I’m REALLY REALLY glad I got rematched, can you imagine if i’d kept walking around with that horribly off-color face?

Thank Yous:

I’d like to thank JC from Makeup Diary for giving me the inspiration with her post: MUA’s Don’t Know Everything (Ironically, she was also Mismatched as an NC 42 and it’s one of the shades I’ve seen most people get “matched” to only to find they were NOT that shade.)

I’d like to thank Bucket for taking me makeup shopping several times over the last few weeks as I became increasingly addicted to MAC, Sephora and Ulta.

Mystery MUA #2. I REGRET not getting your name but if you ever read this – you did me a wonderful service and were very helpful.


Trust your gut. Get second opinions from a friend or another MUA. Swatch for yourself. Keep receipts if you’re shopping at the regular MAC store (I switched my NC 42 for NW 35 for FREE with Nordstrom’s liberal return policy.)

Have you had any similar experiences? At MAC? With another cosmetic’s company?

<3 EA

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32 Responses to NC/NW, Mac Foundations and Why I Had to Get Re-Matched

  1. Sara.H says:

    I could never really understand the difference between NC and NW UNTIL I read this great post! Thank you for clarifying things so nicely <3 loved reading :)
    Sara.H recently posted..NINA by Nicole Lee (Bag review)

  2. Sara.H says:

    By the way, you put so much effort in to your posts, it shows! I have this great feeling about you.. You’re gonna go a loonng way. :) love
    Sara.H recently posted..NINA by Nicole Lee (Bag review)

    • Eden-Avalon says:

      Whaaa. I’m so touched you would say that Sara. Being that you’re one of my biggest inspirations, it’s amazing to receive such a compliment. Thank you!

  3. Larie says:

    I’ve never been matched to a MAC foundation, but it does seem awfully complicated :D I’ve been mismatched a few times, which is really annoying. I blame the awful lighting in makeup stores – especially the counters in department stores!
    Larie recently posted..pureDKNY Verbena Scent Spray

  4. It’s great you got re matched! The new shade looks awesome :)
    Vintage Makeup recently posted..Wet N Wild Giveaway! US ONLY (Sorry)

  5. Hey! That was an amazing post! Very well written indeed! I’ve been mismatched a couple of times with the drugstore foundations……one MUA made me look so pale and pink that I had to literally ask her to get that shade removed off my face…such an awful experience!
    Thebeautifier recently posted..My Look For A Birthday Party

  6. i know which side of the NW/NC spectrum i am, though i still don’t know what the what all that business means :p.

    though i found your entire post HIGHLY amusing!
    dani@callitbeauty recently posted..Summer Skincare

  7. This is such a helpful post, thank you so much!! So thorough and informative.
    Meredith Jessica recently posted..Disney Series – Tinkerbell (w/ Hair Tutorial)

  8. Omg! What a great post! Thanks for much for doing this! I was matched NC40 by one and NC42 by another during summer. Sounds like I need to double check!
    Red Lips, Black Hair recently posted..FOTD

  9. lilit says:

    So glad you finally got correctly colour matched… I still don’t know what I am, and I’m totally confused with how the system works. I’m meant to be NC25 but i find it too yellow, and anything in the NW range is too pink for me so I might have to veer away from MAC foundations all together.
    lilit recently posted..TAG: The Beauty Lovers Census Form

  10. Eden-Avalon says:

    Lilit – Have you tried the Face and Body foundations? Unlike the rest of the MAC line; those are divided into N for Neutral and C for cool. N is definitely less pink than NW. But if you can’t find a good match then yes, i’d stay away. There’s no sense in buying into a popular product if it doesn’t cater to your needs.

  11. Kristel says:

    This was very helpful! I didn’t know those info until now ;]

  12. Hey chika! I’m so glad you got the primer and liked it!! It works best if you use a good about instead of a thin layer.:) Whatcha think??
    Red Lips, Black Hair recently posted..FOTD

  13. Amber says:

    The MAC shade that I would love to have is a PRO color and.. I can’t get it. :\ it’s NW15 I do believe. The lightest (or second lightest) shade I heard they make. I haven’t yet to be matched because I fear the MUA is going to match me with the incorrect shade (as happened to you) and make me look like Snooki because that can easily happen with my skin. I am unbelievably pale and I have the HARDEST time finding a foundation for this reason. I also have the worst red facial discoloration. I want to use a green concealer but ehh.. I don’t want to look so cakey.
    Amber recently posted..Where have I been?

  14. Meaghan says:

    Thanks for clarifying between warm & cool! That really helped a lot.

    I’ve never tried any of MAC’s foundations. They’re far too expensive & I’m not sure if it’s worth the money.

    Glad you got the correct color, though! :)
    Meaghan recently posted..Haul: Sephora

  15. adrienne says:

    Oh gosh the difference is unbeliveable I’m thinking of going back too now as you cant really see in my photos due to the flash but the NC37 really doesnt match my skin at all it looks like i’m wearing a pale mask :s I end up warming it up with bronzer. Hmm :( however this post was great, so informative and got me questioning my life okay not life but my foundation anyways hahaha! xx

  16. make-up-deer says:

    It happens often to me too XD
    I’m NC 20 and I’m really yellow toned! A Mac mua gave me a sample of matchmaster in the shade number 3 which is way too dark!!! Then another mua sold me a concealer in NW25 which is dark and too orange on my face :( now I must finish it because we can’t return products in Italy, but next winter I’ll only buy NC20 stuff!!
    PS where can I find the application to let other people show their last blog post in the comments? Thanks ^^
    make-up-deer recently posted..MAC In Extra Dimension Haul!!

  17. Misato-san says:

    really useful! I don’t use MAC foundations but their system is so strange to me…

    Ps: psychology graduated too. Asian drama fan too. XD
    Misato-san recently posted..Wonder Before Xmas look series 13: Jack the Pumpin King (extras 1)

  18. amna says:

    I’m still confused!
    The MUA gave me NC45 and NW40 bcz she said im overall yellow but pink in some areas…i’ve always felt i had a yellow under tone… So how do i go abot this? I need help and clarification….

    • Eden-Avalon says:

      As I explained, if she felt you had too much of a certain undertone in places she would give you the opposite undertone-based foundation to make your skin look more neutral (not pink or yellow but in between.) I’ve heard of this being done with concealers however – I personally don’t like to “balance” my undertone this way so I stick to NW. I’ve never heard of it being done with foundation!

  19. Diane says:

    I love this post. I was totally confused as I got matched with MAC NC20 powder foundation.. all the way i thought i have a cool understone and I was wondering why orange and gold really looks great on me… hahahahaha
    Diane recently posted..Swatches: Models Own New HyperBrite Matte Lipsticks!

  20. Christine says:

    I got matched to an NC42 a few years ago, which at the store, looked to match me perfectly. I was annoyed because the mua asked me if I was going to get more tan – I was like, are you kidding me? I get tan all the time, whether I like it or not!

    I wore it to class a couple times and my friend said I had some cheese on my face. I had no idea what he was talking about… until I saw myself in the mirror and I was orange and splotchy. I’m already yellow as it is, so seeing this, I need to get some light NW, maybe. Thanks for the post!

  21. missKay says:

    I have yellow toned skin, I got matched as an .NC44.5 then a week later went back as it was too tanned! Then i got matched as an .NC42! I still felt it was a little dark but thought the make up artist prob knows better. I sent my sister to got me a sample of .nc40 and what do you know!! It matched JUST right!! Its all a abt trial n error! & this post was really helpful, glad I’m not the only one who got mismatched!

  22. Esther says:

    I’ve never bought MAC because it’s really expensive where I live, much more than in the USA and I believe it’s completely overrated. I went a couple of times to a MAC stand and the MUA were really unkind and unpleasant to me, so I don’t think I’ll ever want to buy anything there.

    I really liked reading your post. But I don’t understand why MAC thinks that people should correct their skin tone with the opposite tone, it’s riddiculous to wear a yellow-undertoned foundation if the rest of your body is going to look pink-undertoned, and it looks awful.

    Finding the right shade of foundation is really complicated. I have neutral to yellow undertones and it’s difficult to find a foundation in a light colour that it’s not too pink, especially if you’re on a budget. I haven’t been wearing foundation for months because of this problem.

  23. Lotus says:

    I got a sample for NW 35 and NC 45…I was very surprised, because I am extremely yellow (in my opinion), although lately I’ve found that I have a sort of greenish tone going on too. But anyways the NW 35 matched much better than the NC 45, though they were very similar. WHat’s the difference between yellow and golden?

  24. Alexandra says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I love the MAC Studio Fix Fluid formula and have been trying to straighten out the shade I wear for nearly a YEAR! When I was first matched, the woman said I was NC25. This somewhat shocked me as I have never worn anything but the lightest of light shades in foundations. But I accepted because I was like, “Hey? They know their stuff right?” After about 6 months of using it and continually diluting it with my moisturizer to make it lighter, I finally went to the MAC counter and requested the NC20. However, I still feel like it’s too orange. I found your post after googling NC/NW to try and figure out what is up with MAC’s color ranges. Your problem was my problem, so next time I go to the counter I’m buying an NW!

  25. alina says:

    i’m half asian and always thought, oh i’m asian so i must have yellow undertones, but actually i have very pink undertones. i recently got matched to a MAC concealer in NC35. It’s sooo yellow on me. I never wear it. I agree it looked great under the department store lights (hi bloomingdales) but it really doesn’t match at all. I thought i was going crazy because it’s NC! Cool! Pink! Me!

    so thanks for this post!
    alina recently posted..Birchbox & Kiehls

  26. I did a lot of research online before I decided to order a NW foundation. Because I felt like that would match my skin tone the best. I’m still not sure if I’m right, but my skin tends to be kind of pink and i blush very easily, so I figured I have a cool undertone.
    However when I was in Oslo the past weekend I went to a MAC store to see what they said, and they said I was NC… Don’t really know what to believe. But from the past I feel like you can’t really trust people that work in those stores. Only some of them actually know what they’re talking about.
    I also use a NC concealer under my eyes because I think that makes the skin less blue.. Am I doing it right?? haha

    Really enjoyed this entry though!!
    Linn Jeanette recently posted..Nye innkjøp

  27. Shruti S says:

    You put in so much effort in doing what you do, which is evident from this post. Good job and keep ‘em coming.. totally a fan.. :D <3
    Shruti S recently posted..How to style your Leopard Print shoes

  28. Hannah says:

    Great post, thanks so much for this. I just came across it while trying to research what is really going on with the different foundation classifications at different companies. At NARS, where they seem to have three variations (yellow, pink and peach for neutral) I’ve been matched to all three, and the SAs use the word “warmer” for “darker”… they seem to run through the colours as if the undertone is irrelevant and when one doesn’t work, just go ‘warmer’ (darker) regardless of whether they’re switching from pink to yellow. Madness! I think in the end I’m yellow (oh and in the past I’ve been matched to both NC and NW at MAC). Anyway, your post is great – should be required reading for SAs everywhere!

  29. BBB says:

    While one can appreciate an associate helping, most times it’s helpful for them to step away and let you play with different colors. Often, they base undertones on race/ethnicity generalizations and that can definitely lead to mismatching. Rather than saying, “THIS is your color” they should try a few colors in your general skin tone, in both NW and NC, and see what actually looks natural. If you look in the mirror and feel kind of funny at what you see, but the MUA told you it’s the right shade you’re going to buy it despite the nagging feeling that it looks odd (they’re a pro, I’m a novice, they must know better). On the other hand, if they try several shades on you, the one in which you look at the mirror and don’t feel odd about is probably your shade.

  30. Goodie says:

    I had a feeling nw had a little golden to it because I tried nc and I promise you my face just looked yellow and it was highlighting my dark spots and the artist said it was making it look greenish. You’re right you will never know for sure your color is unless you go there for me I went there several times to get the right shade and I was successfully matched by the manger for powder plus foundation.

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