Understanding MAC: Foundation Shades, Lipsticks & Eyeshadows

Aren’t we all just a little bit obsessed with MAC? Their endless limited edition collections, huge range of shades and classic matte black packaging is enough to drive any beauty nerd crazy.

However, MAC can be daunting for anyone new to the brand and so I wrote this post in an attempt to clear up any confusion you may have about MAC. This is a comprehensive guide to understanding how MAC codes their foundations, and the different textures and finishes of lipstick and eyeshadow. MAC can be confusing for beginners, especially because they have such a huge range of products, but I hope that after reading this you will be able to walk into any MAC store with confidence rather than confusion.

So let’s begin:



This can be a hugely confusing thing for any MAC newbies. I am far from an expert so if you really need help in finding a match, go to your nearest MAC counter and they will match you as best as they can. I would advise trying to find a match yourself also, especially under natural lighting. My experience with MAC artists is that they can sometimes match you to shades that are too dark for you, which can then appear orange under natural light. MAC are usually good with samples aswell, so if you’re unsure, ask for a sample of your nearest shade.

By now, you’ve probably noticed that MAC code their foundations in 2 ways. At the start of the code is either NC or NW, or sometimes just C and W, followed by a number. Firstly, I’ll explain the letters as best as I can. This is in reference to the tones of your skin, and is where most people get confused. Usually, we would say that warm skin has a yellow undertone, and cool skin has a pink undertone. For some reason, MAC has these mixed up. I’ve heard a few different meaning for this code, but the prevailing theories seem to be that it means “Neutralises Cool” or “Neutral Cool” (NC), which is skin with a yellow undertone, and “Neutralises Warm” or “Neutral Warm” (NW), which means a pink skin tone. The way I like to remember it is as “Not Cool” and “Not Warm”.

If you’re not sure of you’re undertones, there are loads of great guides to working it out online. A few of my favourites are here, here and here. You have to take these guides with a pinch of salt however, because some peoples skin doesn’t follow the guides and you may show signs of one undertone, while actually having the other.

Now on to the numbers. This is actually extremely easy to understand. The higher the number, the darker the colour. Simple as that. The numbers generally start at NC15, and go up in 5’s. However there is an NC13 and some other odd numbers, which generally indicate that the shade is more neutral toned than cool or warm toned. Most of us paler Irish girls are around the 15/20 mark, except for you lucky tanned girls (or boys!).


Once you know you’re undertone and how dark your skin is, working out your shade is easy. I’m an NC15, but I have been matched to different shades in the past and it’s taken a while to work out exactly what shade I am in which foundations. This is where things get confusing again. Not all shades are the same in all foundations. I’m not sure why, it’s possibly just down to the formulas of each foundation. I have Studio Sculpt, Studio Fix and Pro Longwear all in NC20 (See what I mean about MAC artists matching you to the wrong shade?) and there are subtle differences in each shade (see below). So if you are buying a new MAC foundation, don’t be so sure it will be the same shade as your old ones. It is important to do a shade test and not to assume you are the same shade as in other foundations.


(L-R Studio Fix in NC15 and NC20)


(L-R Studio Fix in NC15 and Face & Body in C1)


(L-R Pro Longwear in NC20, Studio Fix in NC20 and Studio Sculpt in NC20)


(L-R, Pro Longwear in NC20, Studio Fix in NC15, Studio Sculpt in NC20, Face & Body in C1 and Studio Fix in NC20) 

So that’s it for MAC foundation shades, now moving on to…



Lipsticks are probably MAC’s most popular product. I was in MAC in Brown Thomas Dublin recently and I actually had to stand in a line just to SEE the lipsticks. They are amazing quality, come in a huge shade range and the feeling of wearing a MAC lipstick is second to none. This guide is only for the standard MAC lipsticks, because I don’t personally own any of the Pro Longwear Lipcremes, Mineralize Rich lipsticks or Sheen Supreme lipsticks, and I wouldn’t want to give an opinion on something I haven’t personally tested.

There are 8 finishes of MAC lipsticks; Amplified Creme, Cremesheen, Frost, Glaze, Lustre, Matte, Retro Matte and Satin.

Amplified Creme: My first ever MAC lipstick was an amplified creme, and they are probably my favourite finish. These are extremely pigmented and really creamy. They give a slightly glossy effect, but aren’t very long lasting due to their creamy formula. I find that these are so creamy they tend to “bleed” outside of the lips, so I definitely recommend a lip liner with these. They feel quite smooth on the lips and don’t dry them out at all. Examples: Saint Germain, Vegas Volt & Morange.


(L-R Saint Germain & Vegas Volt)

Cremesheen: Very similar to Amplified Creme in all ways, but less pigmented. Not drying at all and very comfortable to wear on the lips, making them some of MAC’s best selling lipsticks. They have a glossy finish. Examples: Creme d’Nude, Pure Zen & Sunny Seoul.


(Creme d’Nude – probably a bad example because it’s so similar to my skin colour, sorry!)

Frost: These are quite shimmery and slightly translucent. They give a medium coverage and are fairly long lasting. I’m not a huge fan of these because I don’t like shimmery lipsticks, but some tend to be less shimmery and more wearable. Angel is one of my favourite MAC lipsticks, despite not liking many other Frost lipsticks. Examples: Angel, Costa Chic and Creme de la Femme.


Glaze: This is the sheerest of MAC lipsticks, even sheerer than lustre or frost. These shades do exactly what it says in the name, they simply provide a glaze over the lips. These aren’t particularly popular shades, and there are very few of them. Examples: Hue and Pervette.



Lustre: I have a few Lustre lipsticks and I’m really not keen on them. I think these are more suited to people who want to wear minimal make up, like in school etc., but still want to wear lipstick. These are not very pigmented at all, and give very little coverage with a glossy finish. Examples: Hug Me, Syrup and Lady Bug.


(L-R Girl Next Door & Altered Beige)

Satin: These are similar to matte finishes in that they are highly pigmented and long lasting, but like cremesheen finishes in that they have a glossy, satin-like finish. They are not as drying as matte lipsticks, which makes them slightly less long lasting (about 5 hours). The lipstick that Kylie Jenner apparently uses for her famous lip look, Brave, has a satin finish. These are some of the most beautiful lipsticks and are very easy to work with. Examples: Fleshpot, Cyber, Snob and Myth. 



Matte: My other favourite finish after Amplified Creme! These are long lasting, highly pigmented and not as drying as most matte lipsticks. These are completely matte, meaning no sheen or gloss. They give full coverage of the lips and last about 6-8 hours. Also, if you’re looking for a lipstick that won’t bleed outside the lips without a lip liner, these are perfect. Some of MAC’s most popular shades are mattes. Examples: Heroine, Candy Yum Yum and Diva.


(L-R Dodgy Girl, Strip Poker, Enchanted One, Steady Going and Diva)

Retro Matte: These are like the matte finish but EXTRA matte. They are extremely drying but also much more long lasting than the regular matte. Again, full coverage and no sheen or gloss. They tend to be so matte that they’re hard to apply and sort of drag across the lips. There aren’t very many of these shades, but many limited edition lipsticks have come in Retro Matte. MAC’s famous Ruby Woo lipstick is supposed to be in Retro Matte, although mine says matte on the back, so I haven’t included it just in case. Examples: Ruby Woo, Riri Woo and Flat Out. 


(Riri Woo)



Who doesn’t love MAC shadows? They are buttery, easy to use, long lasting and come in an AMAZING shade range. Also, there is nothing like building your own personal MAC eyeshadow palette.

As with lipsticks, there are 8 eyeshadow finishes; Frost, Lustre, Matte, Matte², Satin, Veluxe, Veluxe Pearl and Velvet.

Frost: These are MAC’s most popular finish. They contain a lot of shimmer and are the perfect highlight for any look. Bear in mind however that these can also highlight imperfections, and will make creases and fine lines extra visible. Example: Jest, Nylon and Ricepaper.



(L-R Cranberry, Jest & Satin Taupe)

Lustre: These eyeshadows are the most shimmery of all MAC eyeshadows, leaning almost towards being glittery. The glitter within them is very finely milled and tends to cause a lot of fall out. These are not ideal for day wear but make great touches to any night time look. Examples: Mythology, Honey Lust and Filament.


(L-R Retrospeck & Mulch from Rihanna’s Her Cocoa Palette)

Matte: Just as the name suggests these are completely matte with no shimmer or glitter. They are very flat, true to colour, pigmented and long lasting. These are personally my favourite eyeshadow finish because they are so easy to wear. However, MAC matte eyeshadows have a reputation for being a bit hit-and-miss as limited edition matte eyeshadows tend to be chalky and less pigmented, even if they are the same as permanent collection ones, so I would definitely recommend the permanent shadows over limited edition shadows. Examples: Espresso, Embark and Wedge.


(L-R Nehru & Shadowy Lady)

Matte²: These are essentially the same as matte eyeshadows but with an “improved” formula. They tend to be more finely milled with a more rich colour payoff, however they can also be harder to blend. Examples: Blanc Type, Handwritten and Brown Script.



Satin: Similar to satin fabric, these give a subtle sheen. They are very popular as they are said to be the perfect mix of a matte and a frost. Examples: Coquette and Mylar.


(L-R Shroom & Whisper Peach from Rihanna’s Her Cocoa Palette)

Veluxe: These give a silky matte finish and are extremely fine milled and creamy so they apply and blend very easily. However, they don’t have the same intense colour payoff that matte finishes have. Examples: Kid and Brown Down.



Veluxe Pearl: These are very similar to Veluxe except with a shimmery/metallic finish, almost like a mix between Veluxe and Frost finishes. Examples: All That Glitters, Twinks and Woodwinked.



Velvet: These shadows vary from a matte to satin to shimmery finish. The majority tend to be a matte finish with infused glitter. The problem with this glitter is that it sometimes doesn’t adhere well to the skin and can have a lot of fall out. They have a very buttery texture when applied and give a soft, subtle colour. Examples: Mulch, Smut and Vanilla.



So that’s my comprehensive guide to MAC Cosmetics! I really hope you feel like you understand MAC a bit better now and that you would be more confident walking into the MAC store. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me on Twitter, Instagram or in a comment below!

Thanks for reading!



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