Warm, cool, what does it all mean?

MAC was really my gateway to learning about makeup, and, (as always happens) I felt that what I learned first must be the “right” way of doing things.

MAC has a lot of foundation colors, so if you know your “MAC number,” you can go pretty far. However, there’s also a lot of confusion about what the MAC letters and numbers actually mean.  According to MAC, NW stands for “neutral-warm.” These shades are more pink. NC is neutral-cool; these shades are more yellow.

So I was always arguing with people who said NW = “not warm” or “neutralize warm.” Naturally, I had to get to the bottom of this.

The source of the confusion is surprisingly simple. MAC considers pink undertones to be warm, and yellow undertones to be cool. Every other brand says the opposite.

How did this happen? MAC says it’s looking at the color spectrum (in which red/pink is warmer than yellow). I didn’t find that explanation to be very enlightening.

I think MAC is referring to peachy-pink undertones — which are warm — and other brands are considering blue-pink undertones.

The source of the confusion is that warmness or coolness in skintone is not about pink and yellow. It’s really about peach and blue (or red/yellow and blue/purple as skintone gets darker). If you’re thinking of the stereotypically English/Irish face (pale, ruddy, with a cool blue-pink), that’s where people get the impression that pink undertones = cool. This diagram totally cleared it up for me (from Three Custom Color’s website):


So I think I’m Neutral Warm — in some lighting I think I look pinker; in some lighting I look yellow; but I prefer green, brown, and neutral eyeshadow; red-orange lipsticks; and look better in gold jewelry.

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18 Responses to “Warm, cool, what does it all mean?”

  • stargirl says:

    >Hi! =D I've been looking all over for a post like this, thank you so much! I'd like to comment on your last sentence, "So I think I'm Neutral Warm — I prefer green, brown, and neutral eyeshadow; red-orange lipsticks; and look better in gold jewelry," because I'm still a bit confused about something. =/

    My veins are green, and my undertones are golden and olive and peachy. I look better in gold jewelry (I prefer silver though–I feel gold is too blunt) and with coral red lipsticks as opposed to blue red. I tan easily. My eyeshadow is best in browns and greens and neutrals. I'm using an NW25–though I think it was supposed to be NC25, because if MAC is the opposite of all the other brands, shouldn't we be "cool"?

  • KarlaSugar says:

    >Hey Stargirl,

    You sound like a classic "warm." Peachy undertones? Coral red lipsticks? No doubt.

    And that's where this whole warm/cool foundation naming really breaks down. Your best match might still be NW25 — NC might be too yellow to match you. Are you happy with your foundation?

    I really just use my knowledge of my "warmness" or "coolness" to know that I won't like a blue-red lipstick without having to try it on.

  • Ilada says:

    >oh my, after reading alot of reviews on mac shades, im still confused if im NC or NW!
    first of all, im asian, and most people around me are NC. i see green veins on my arms. so i guess im a mac NC shade?

    i also am confused about the numbers, for example, NC30 looks somehow lighter than NC25 and appears to be more yellow.
    please help me :(

  • KarlaSugar says:

    >Ilada, here's my take on it. MAC set out to create a naming system for their foundations, not a universal descriptor of skintone. They happen to make a lot of shades of foundation, so the makeup-loving population has adopted their system as a shorthand notation for conveying approximate skintone. It's not a perfect system, but it works okay.

    Two NW20s can look quite different; one could be white and the other Asian. And that would be because NW20 would be the closest foundation that MAC has to match each of them. Or the foundation they're using is sheer enough to be a little color-flexible (MAC has a lot of formulas, and the shades aren't 100% identical from one to another).

    If you want to know your foundation shade, the best way to do it is to visit a counter whose makeup artists you trust, ask them to match you, look at yourself in natural light, and see if you agree. If the NC foundations are too yellow, you may wear NW and still be yellow, olive, or peach toned.

  • Mary says:

    >I have ash blond hair and blue/green eyes. I went to the MAC Counter and they suggested select cover up NW25 and satin finish foundation NW25. I'm confused, does that mean I'm a "cool" or a "warm" (according to the chart above). Thanks so much!

  • KarlaSugar says:

    >Mary — ash blonde is almost certainly cool.

  • Mary says:

    >So what colors of mac eyeshadow would you recommend…just getting started and like neutrals :) Thanks so much!

  • lazeny says:

    Warm and cool confuses me, not just in foundation shades but all the colors that come w/ it be it w/ a dress or cosmetics.

    I have never used MAC so I’m not familiar with it’s color conventions, but the brand that’s easier for me to understand when it comes to foundation shades is Shu Uemura. I’m shade 764 or 964. I can work w/ a neutral light medium shade (764 with a good primer to keep it from becoming too pink) or a yellow undertoned foundation (964).

    But I much prefer a yellow undertoned foundation, SA from Shu told me that neutral would suit me best but I find that yellow undertones blends much better.

  • Denise Moran says:

    Karla,
    Super useful site. This is my first time here. I am ultra thrifty, I will certainly check here first before a buy.
    To help Mary who has blue-green eyes and ash hair, I will add this( my coloring as well)while ash is most certainly a cool color, it really doesn’t mean much. I would also venture to say your hair is probably more of a neutral blonde than ash anyway. You can verify with a swatch at Sally’s. Because you don’t see any warm tones jumping out at you, doesn’t neccessarily mean it’s ash.Most dirty blonde hair is neutral. You Probably see a little warmth in your hair in sunlight. Furthermore hair tone doesn’t always match skin tone, quite the opposite in fact. Asians with cool black hair often have very warm skin tones, redheads often have cool.
    I think the gold/silver trick is the easiest. You probably already know whether you look better in gold(warm) or silver (cool).
    I don’t pay much mind to the warm cool thing anyway.
    I have neutral blonde hair level 7, more blue veins than green, I can tan but I do burn, but I look better in gold than silver. I guess most signs point to cool but I assure you I look don’t look my best in “cool” colors. I look much better in brown, peach. Yet I look good in some pinks and plums. My favorite lip colors are a pinky beige, plum, both cool, yet the reds that look best on me are warm.
    What I’m saying is while some people may be “true” warms or cools I believe many maybe most people fall in the middle somewhere.
    Moral of the story, you should still test colors and shades even within the same lines to see what’s best for you.
    I really need to learn how to concise my thoughts better. Karla you do a great job of that. I write journals, not blog posts. :)

  • Sabrina says:

    Like you said, its not so much about yellow or pink. Becuase ANY color (blue, red and yellow) can be cool or warm depending on what tones it has in it. But I always thought yellow would be neutral. Blue is cold, red is warm…. so to make it even, wouldnt it make sense for yellow to be neutral? Anyway like I said, its not about the 3 primary colors alone, but how they are used together.

  • Meredith says:

    Am I the only one who struggles with the gold/silver test? I really have no idea which one looks better on me.

  • KarlaSugar says:

    Meredith, if you are able to wear either gold or silver necklaces with equal ease, I’d think you would also be able to wear warm/cool makeup with equal ease? Do you find this to be the case?

  • Meredith says:

    Again, I’m not entirely sure. I tend to wear blues, purples, and reds/pinks more often, so there’s a bit of a range there. I am, however, loving coral pink lipstick lately.

  • Dorrit says:

    Back in the 80s when the company (and book) “Color Me Beautiful” first taught women about being cool or warm (by defining their coloring in terms of the seasons – spring, summer, fall, winter), one of their practitioners told me that I was warm and she was right – I am really pale/fair, I have some permanent facial freckles though I’m not a redhead, my skin is yellowish, my eyes are blue/green, my hair is naturally blonde (now in my 40s, the natural color has darkened to dark blonde), gold jewellery looks better on me, my best bold clothing colors to wear are navy blue, deep coral, hunter green, etc. White, pink, and purple clothing colors look awful on me. Pretty much, all of this matches the chart that you show in this post. However, I don’t understand the idea presented in the chart that all fair people who have yellowish undertones can tan easily in the sun. I am very sensitive to the sun and my skin burns quickly. With regular sun exposure, my skin tone never really gets “tan”, just a reddishness (mixed with the constant yellowish cast of my skin). I now live in the UK, where the majority of women with fair-coloring have a pink/blue cast to their skin, and most of them tan much better than I do. I have never heard this theory that fair, yellow-toned women must be able to tan easily, and I imagine that this might confuse a lot of people about which category they fall into. Mainly, it’s about the basic cast to your skin (either pinkish or yellowish, either bluish veins or greenish veins).

  • Marta says:

    Hi Karla
    Loved your post, thank you.

  • Pook says:

    Thanks for this post and all your other posts. It looks like a lot of work, but they’re all great! You must have the cleanest arms in the world, lol! :)

    Very interesting. Personally I think Mac’s products are great, whatever they are called. It’s not going to change the industry, though, because it kinda doesn’t make any sense. Yellow and pink are not that far from each other in the spectrum, in fact, they’re right next to each other. And if the absolutely WARMEST thing in our universe is yellow, how can you say, with a straight face, that yellow is cool? I guess they wanted to be different … well, yeah, wrong IS different! :) It’s screwed up logic, and I have a friendly argument with the girls at the counter every time I go. They are brainwashed, though, like from some cult religion! Yikes! :)

  • Pook says:

    What Sabrina said is the most correct. It’s a combo of your general skin color and the undertones. You can have beige skin with pink undertones. My skin is neutral, with pink undertones, but most “neutral” makeup that is made is usually too orange. But for me, the only thing yellow does is take out the pink undertones. It doesn’t change the basic color or shade of my skin.

    P.S. The chart you posted is great. It’s a little vaguer than it should be as it’s much more complicated than what it shows, but the clues are good and at least it makes more sense than Mac!

  • Renee says:

    I actually have MAC NC30 shade skin but MAC lipsticks that are red like “swelter” (cool heat slimshine lipstick) and “Must be Red!” (MAC Julie Verhoven) are red on fair and medium skins, and PINK on me!! they bring out the yellow in my skin! im olive skinned and this drives me nuts, i have to check carefully before i buy any red from mac, in case it turns pink. frustrating!! but i love mac when i get it right..

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