One of the first things most trans women start looking at is makeup, and that can be a horribly intimidating experience. There’s a lot of makeup tutorials out there, but which ones should you listen to when half of them contradict each other? Having your egg crack is difficult and stressful. You’re overwhelmed, spinning out of control, but you’ve felt gender euphoria for the first time and you finally understand what it means to be alive, and you want to keep moving foward. I’m going to help you get started with makeup in a cheap, cost-effective way.

First things first: I’ve compiled all of the products I recommend for new folks into a spreadsheet. If you buy everything on this list, you’ll have enough for any occasion.

Transfem Makeup Starter Kit spreadsheet

Prices all in CAD and current as of June 2024, but there are also links to store pages so you can check your own and get product codes to find them in your location. You should be able to buy everything you need to get started for under $CA360 ($260 USD).

The rest of this article will teach you how to use it.

Jocelyn ( has also compiled a Skincare Starter spreadsheet with all the info and products you’ll need for great skincare, and written the “Prepare the skin” section of this guide.

Additional contributions around technique and application by Mama Rosa from EsportsMakeup.

Table of Contents

How To Use Makeup

The most important thing is to understand the order of application. As you learn and improve you’ll find there are a lot of ways to vary this to your particular routine and products, but here is a very simple starting guide.

  1. Prepare the skin

    • Cleanser
      • Clean the skin. You want to work with a consistent canvas, so this first step of cleaning will set you up for success.
      • Don’t pull or tug on your skin – massage the product in gently for about 30 seconds and then splash it off; dry by patting and not rubbing.
      • Depending on your skin type and the time of year, you may just be able to use water in the mornings.
      • At night to remove makeup and sunscreen, you’ll want to make sure to either do two-step (oil + water) cleansing, or a product that has both.
      • Makeup wipes do not clean your skin properly and aren’t a substitute for a proper cleanser!

    • Toner/Essences (optional)
      • Toner’s original purpose is no longer relevant, modern toners are mostly mild chemical exfoliants.
      • If your toner disagrees with your skin, it will irritate it so try some to see what works.
      • Some people opt to add essence before toner or substitute toner for it. Essences are gentler and include skin-soothing and -brightening ingredients.
      • Toners and essences can either be lightly patted onto your skin with your palm, or you can use disposable/reusable makeup rounds to press them into your skin.

    • Serum (optional)
      • These can address lots of skincare concerns, but a good one for everyone is Vitamin C in the morning – it increases the effectiveness of sunscreen.
      • After your essence/toner settles, you can pat a serum in to layer before your moisturizer.

    • Moisturizer
      • Moisturizer locks in all of the steps you did before, letting all those ingredients get to work on your skin while creating a layer that protects it from your makeup. As with cleanser, be gentle and rub it in without tugging/stretching your skin. Contrary to popular belief, moisturizing and hydrating are two different skin care operations. So if your skin still gets dry, consider a gentler cleanser + a more hydrating moisturizer.
      • There are many skin benefits to moisturizer, anything’s better than nothing, just pick one you can afford, preferably something gentle.

    • Sunscreen
      • Sunscreen not only protects you from the sun but also has anti-aging properties.
      • Loses its effectiveness after about 4 hours, so consider getting a lightweight one that doesn’t disrupt your makeup too much if you plan on reapplying.
      • Korean sunscreens are less harsh and provide more protection, and are formulated to act as both moisturizer and sunscreen if your skin isn’t extra dry, so they can also let you skip a step in your routine. To order from Korea, buy directly from a manufacturer or order from a shipper like Stylevana, Yesstyle, or iHerb.

  2. Create a base

    • Primer
      • An undercoat to prepare the skin and help the makeup stick to your face, while also sometimes minimizing pores or providing color correction.

    • Foundation
      • A base coat of color to smooth out your skin color. Ideally this should be slightly lighter than your regular skin tone as that will let you build as much as you need, and enhance contour/sculpting.

    • Concealer
      • Small area color correction. Use over blemishes, skin irregularities, dark circles under eyes, and to cover up facial hair roots. You’ll probably want two tones – one to match your foundation, and one slightly lighter for highlight areas.

  3. Sculpting

    How hard you go on sculpting will determine how fancy your makeup looks. For natural, laid-back, or chill looks, you may wish to skip this step altogether, or do it very gently. The more you apply in either depth, tone, or amount, the more you’ll go head into fancy done-up looks, but the more risk of doing it wrong and having to start over. Being over-made-up for your clothes or for the occasion can look out of place. If you’re just cleaning up, covering up, or heading to a casual situation, consider skipping or minimizing sculpting.

    Chill, natural looks: small amounts of product, applied in only key areas
    Bold, fancy looks: larger amounts of product, high color variation

    • Contour
      • Contouring is shading to artificially create shadows, making a more 3D shape. Wherever you put contour will appear to be further away.
      • Use contour under the cheekbones to make them more prominent / make you look thinner, along the jawline to minimize it, and around the hairline to make your face less flat.

    • Highlight
      • Highlight does the opposite of contouring – lighter areas appear further forwards. Apply highlight above the cheekbones, under the eyes, along the nose, in the T-zone (top of the nose / between eyebrows), and optionally above and below the middle of your mouth. Tiktok is a great source of ideas for highlight and contour patterns.
      • Some highlighting can be done with very light concealer, but most often when you see ‘highlighter’ used in makeup it’s referring to a shimmery substance that creates more light reflectiveness for brightness. You will probably want both – use the coloring to start, and then a shimmer under the eyes / above the cheekbones to make it pop.

    • Blush
      • Blush brings the apple of the cheeks out and focuses what the ‘center’ of the cheek is. Use it right on the cheekbones and follow them back and away to slightly above the ears. Placement and blending are key to making this look natural, it will come with practice and finding colors that work for the looks you’re attempting.

  4. Eyes

    Similar to sculpting, how hard you go here will determine how fancy you look, but also give you more opportunities to get it wrong.

    Chill natural looks: Minimal application of natural colors and warm neutrals
    Bold, fancy looks: Wider, thicker application, hard lines optional, bolder colors both dark and light

    • Eyeshadow
      • Start with a light colour all over with a loose small brush, then a darker color in the middle, and the darkest color at the outside.
      • You are going to pick up too much eyeshadow the first time you try this. Don’t be discouraged.
      • Again, application and blending are key. Start with a little, very soft touches, very soft brush, and build it slowly. When you get used to doing this you’ll be able to speed it up.
      • Use tape below the eyes to contain it for easy wing shapes.

    • Eyeliner
      • Liquid eyeliner for the outer top side of the eye, eye pencil for the inside and optionally, the lower eyelid. You want to be using this on the inside of the waterline, not the outside of the lashes.
      • The best wing shapes for you depend on the shape of your eyes, face, and eyebrows. It can be difficult if you have hooded eyes. Makeup works by making your best features more prominent, so rather than doubling down on replicating tutorials exactly, look at what they try to achieve for the person in question and see if that works for your face.
      • Black is classic for wings, but if you’re using a warm neutral eyeshadows you can enhance it smoothly by using a brown eyeliner.
      • Look up different eyeliner application techniques and patterns on Tiktok.

    • Mascara
      • Makes your eyelashes pop by thickening and lengthening.
      • Optionally you can use an eyelash crimper to make them go more upwards first.
      • Tubing mascara like above will also lengthen significantly.
      • Look up while applying and blink over the applicator, optionally wiggling it as you go.

  5. Lips

    Again, how bold your lips are will have a significant impact on whether your look is casual/natural, or whether it’s fancy. The further you get away from natural colors into bold (dark, or bright), the more you’ll need to dress up to the occasion.

    Chill, natural look: Natural colors, satin finishes, small variation in liner colors
    Bold, fancy looks: Sheens, gloss, or matte finishes, louder colors, darker colors, larger variations in liner colors

    • Lipstick
      • Lipstick shapes can be hard at first and since you’ve probably overshot your foundation and concealer, it’s pretty much mandatory. Don’t stress about having got those other products on your lips, they’ll help the lipstick .. stick.
      • Kiss down on a piece of toilet paper after to remove the excess.
      • Alternately, seal it in with a setting powder, but be aware it will inherit the color and lighten it.
      • It can be difficult to find a good color but try something that’s similar to your natural lip tone and go from there.
      • You will fuck this up the first time. The clown sausage lips look comes from overshooting the corners of the mouth so apply with your mouth open and veer inwards. You want to make sure you transition to the inside of the lip as you get towards the edges.

    • Lip pencil (optional)
      • Use a dark lip pencil just underneath the lips to accentuate them as if they’re casting a shadow, and a light one on top. This will make your lips look bigger.
      • Using a plumping / exfoliating scrub beforehand, or a plumping finish to naturally increase lip volume.

  6. Set and finish

    • Setting powder/spray
      • Sets the makeup in place and smooths it out. Since much of the above list is creams or liquids, you probably want to be using a powder for this, but setting spray can be good for helping melt and set your base.
      • Alternate order: You can use setting powder with a powderpuff as the last step in your base if you’re going to use all powder makeups.
        • If you’re going to keep using creams, you can use a setting spray and gently pat down with a blender to smooth it as the last step in the base, before using cream / stick / liquid contour, blush, etc

    • Finishing powder
      • The last step. Finishing powder adds a protective coat that further smooths and adds light-catching glow to the whole thing.

How To Use Brushes

In the spreadsheet, I recommend the Sephora Collection Complete Makeup Brush Set. Here’s how to use this to get started.

Powder brushSetting powder or finishing powder.
Blush brushBlush, obviously, but it’s common to also use the same brush for blush as for contour/sculpting.
Foundation brushIf you want to apply foundation with a brush rather than your fingers or a sponge, squirt some onto a flat surface or your hand, then smoosh it around, pick some up, and dab to apply.
Concealer brushGood for blending out cream concealer like the NYX corrector palette, use a sponge or beauty blender for the rest of your concealer.
Crease brushActually super good for applying eyeshadow as the shadow brush picks up a LOT of powder.
Shadow brushMostly for blending eyeshadow after it’s applied – this is too dense to use as an applicator unless you’re really going full panda.
Brow brushUse the swirly for your brows, and save the other end as a precision applicator for eyeshadow and powder eyeliner, or to drag your pencil liner around.

When to upgrade

You’ll know that you’ve graduated to needing more brushes when you either need separate applicators for different kinds, or you need something thicker, thinner, or more dense, or more sparse. This is just time and experience and understanding the looks you’re trying to create.

Please clean your fucking brushes

I cannot restate this enough. They are going to get all janky especially if you use liquids or creams on them. I use separate brushes for creams and powders because the powders gunk up way slower. If your makeup was looking good and now it is not, this is probably why.

What is blending?

Blending is how you take a product that’s on your skin and move it around to ensure a smooth gradient of color or even application.

FoundationFor foundation you’ll be just trying to get a consistent coat, so dab at first with little strokes to spread it around.
Beauty blenderA small soft foam teardrop. Apply the product to your face somehow, or directly onto the blender. Using a repeated dabbing motion, not too hard, press it down repeatedly, moving, to distribute the product. Wetting them gently can help spread product more and create a smooth finish.
Brush blendingSimilar technique to a beauty blender, but with a little pressure in a direction to spread the product slighty. Beauty blenders eat more product, brushes move it more but have more control. You can make longer strokes, but thicker products like foundations and concealers may be streaky. Save this for smoothing out powders or eyeshadow.
Your fingersYour fingers make perfectly good blending tools with more liquid products, the lighter the better. The Charlotte Tillbury wand range blends great with fingers alone.

How to apply..

PrimerUse your fingersThis isn’t worth overthinking.
Foundation (or other liquids)

Note: You can also get packed powder foundation, for which you use the packed powder technique below.
Apply with fingers, blendSelf explanatory, squeeze it onto your hand, apply streaks with your fingers, then use the brush to blend it
WarmingIf it’s cold, or your foundation is thicker, or you want a thinner coat, squirt it onto your hand or a flat surface, mix it around with the brush to get it moving, then dab onto the face and blend
Use your fingersWhat it sounds like. If you have good skin or don’t mind a thicker coat, this is easy and fast. Remember to wash your hands afterwards.
ConcealerDirect+blendMost concealers will have a wand. Dab or stroke it on, then use a concealer brush or beauty blender to blend.

Less is often more with concealer, so try applying in dots or small strokes along a line and then blending together. You can always add more product, it’s difficult to take it away. Start with dots and add until you’re satisfied.
Pick it upUse a brush to pick up the concealer, and then apply to the face with dabbing. Good for light coverage.
Packed powdersPractice a lot. There is no shortcut for learning how to apply powderPress/wipe the brush into the product, then dab it onto the back of your hand a little to get any excess off so that first stroke isn’t too thick.

Less is more – soft touches, press, move, dab, spread it around. Don’t be shy. It’s easy to add more, it’s harder to take it away.

Be aware of the edges of the brush. It’s very easy to spread blush around further than you meant it to, or to put too much contour on.

Test to make sure how much product you’re picking up – every product is different.

You’ll probably end up doing a bunch of long strokes after the bulk of the product has come off to spread / smooth / blend.
Creams/sticksDirect + blendDrag it across your face then blend out with a brush or beauty blender. Every product will have a different consistency and go on at a different rate so TEST.
Note: lipstick is both a cream and a stick. You can also apply this the same way, but obviously minus blending, since that’s one of the few places in makeup you WANT a defined edge line.

You can get almost any kind of makeup in powder form, cream form, or stick form. These tend to be more expensive but you may find it’s worth it for just the right product.
Pick it upIf that’s too hard to blend or too thick, you can pick up most creams and sticks by applying a brush to it like you would with a packed powder, but they’re usually harder to pick up, so you’ll have to make more of an effort to get it on the brush.

Since there’s no loose powder to come off, you may not need to dab on your hand after picking up product this way.

Creams and sticks tend to be higher quality and thus more expensive, but you get more control, and it’s easier to fix if you fuck up.

General rules and suggestions

Hopefully, between the spreadsheet and this page, you’ve got some idea of what to do. This is a starting point, not a finishing point – the information above is the beginning of your journey. Not all of it will apply to you, and when you learn why the ‘rules’ are the way they are, you’ll be able to tell when to break them.

  • Cream to cream, powder to powder
    • Materials matter. Makeup always starts with cream (moisturizer, primer) and at some point, becomes powder. Creams blend easier with creams, powders blend easier with powders.
    • Apply setting powder when you are not going to put any more creams over the top of what you’ve done, then use powder makeups over that.

  • Powder goes on thick
    • Whenever you’re applying a powder makeup (like packed powder eyeshadow, blush, contour, or setting powder) pat it on the back of your hand to get the excess off the brush, or that first pat / blend is going to be much thicker than the rest and you’ll have to do work to distribute it.

  • Less is more
    • Most products are buildable, especially powders.
    • If you’re seeing colors look too dense or too strong (especially happens with eyeshadow, powder blush, and powder contour) you want to start with a light application, dusting the brush before applying, and keep adding repeatedly until you’ve got the color you want.
    • This will help you get a smooth gradient and avoid hard lines that look clownish.

  • Application options
    • Some people do makeup entirely with their fingers. Others put brushes into product. I like to put creams and liquids on a palette to mix and smooth them, then pick that up with a brush to apply it. Everyone is different, if it’s not doing what you want, try a different method.

  • Blending matters
    • You rarely want hard-set lines. Experiment when blending the makeup you’ve just applied.
    • Patting, dabbing motions will help distribute it smoothly to give nice gradients.

  • Powderpuffs
    • When applying loose powder for setting, a powderpuff can give you a smoother finish than a loose brush. Much like packed powder, pat some of it off first.

  • Blending sponges
    • You don’t have to use brushes for blending. Dabbing the makeup with a blending sponge can help give you a nice smooth surface, especially around the eyes.
  • Up and away
    • Gen-Z styles like lifted eyes, so when blending out highlight, blush, and contour, you probably want to be arcing up and away to give a lifted look.

  • Use the color wheel
    • Makeup blends multiplicatively, which means that opposite colors on the color wheel cancel each other out. Green cancels out red, so if your face is red, use green primer or concealer. This works for any discoloration, color, or facial hair roots – find the color on the wheel, pick the opposite side to cancel it out.
    • Color wheel, a color palette generator | Adobe Color
    • Set this to Complementary and drag one side of the bar to the color you want to cancel out. The opposite end of the bar’s color is what you use to neutralize it.

  • Experiment to decide
    • You’ll make mistakes in two ways:
      • Theory errors which were never going to look good
      • Execution errors where you’ve done the right thing badly
    • If something looks wrong, try to figure out whether you’ve just messed it up, or whether it wasn’t a good idea for you.
    • This applies especially to contour patterns.

  • Inspiration
    • Get on makeup tiktok. There are a thousand beginner tutorials on almost anything you can imagine.
    • Not every look is going to work for your face and that’s okay.
    • The type of product is more important than the brand, so don’t feel like you HAVE to use exactly what the influencers are. Use what you have and see how it works. You’ll discover the limits of your starter products as your skill and knowledge increases.

The End?

When you first start, this will likely take you up to an hour and a half to do properly. Within 18 months you’ll likely be able to do a quick full face of makeup in under 15 minutes. It’s just like racing – slow is controlled, controlled is fast.

This is a starting point to allow you to begin learning. I look forward to seeing you all venture out into the world, confident and happy.

About The Author

Writer, Editor, Photographer, Video Girl, Audio Engineer, Broadcast Producer. Esports Veteran. I play Gnar, AMA.

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