The real problem with ‘nude’ foundation.

Welcome to The Unspeakables, a series by Mamamia that tells unflinchingly honest stories about being a woman - whatever that looks like. You can find out more about   The Unspeakables here.

This article was originally published in May 2021 and has been updated.

Remember when Rihanna's Fenty Beauty hit stores back in 2017? The buzz was HUGE. And it wasn't because of Rihanna - this was far from just another celebrity beauty brand. It was because of the wide range of skin tones the brand catered to. 

Capping at 40 shades of foundation (there's now 50 shades available), this kind of diversity was totally unheard of in the beauty market. Fenty Beauty was inclusive in a way that no makeup brand had ever been before.  

It completely changed the game - and the standards.

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Up until this point, most makeup companies had almost exclusively catered to what they classified as "mainstream" skin tones - we're talking about those Western, Anglo-centric beauty standards. 

Fenty Beauty shook up the conversation around diversity, and suddenly brands scrambled to extend their shade ranges to accommodate a wider variety of skin tones. 


Having 40+ shades in a foundation range soon became the new standard. 

This whole movement (it's been coined the 'Fenty Effect') served as an important marker that beauty should be for everybody. It also proved to the industry that women of colour have spending power, and contrary to what brands and stores thought before - colour does sell.


At the forefront of this movement? Social media. 

Instagram has become an instrumental weapon in this shift towards inclusivity in the beauty industry, and it's now easier for consumers to hold brands accountable and call them out for non-inclusive product launches.

In 2020, Australian beauty editor, author and cosmetics entrepreneur Zoe Foster Blake informed followers on her Go To Skincare range Instagram account that she would be pulling two products from her range for not promoting “equality and inclusion” - something that the brand recently committed to.

Go To Skincare discontinued the Zincredible SPF15 Tinted and Pinky-Nudey Lips after being called out on social media in 2018 for its lack of diversity, as its tinted moisturiser only came in one shade.

“We now understand that a single shade tinted product isn’t inclusive. And neither is a pinky-‘nude’ tinted lip balm,” Foster Blake said in a statement on Instagram.  


This is a great example of beauty brands saying they are committed to inclusivity, and social media holding them to it.

And while some brands are responsive, others are not so enthusiastic about initiating an improvement. There are numerous brands out there ignoring feedback from their community and disengaging - or simply looking away from these important conversations.

The thing is, though, money isn't the only thing that makes or breaks a beauty brand. These days, the power is very much with the consumers. 

Beauty brands should of course be the ones taking the initiative and holding themselves accountable, however it's obvious that the fight for inclusivity and representation in beauty still requires a lot of consumers speaking up in order for there to be any significant change.

So, where's the problem?

While foundations and concealers now exist to cater for all skin tones, the problem is this: a lot of Australian stores only carry a certain selection of shades. 

While diversity is quickly becoming the new standard in the beauty industry here in Australia, chances are that your local supermarket or pharmacy's beauty section can be very hit and miss when it comes to shade range. 


The result? Women who fall outside the 'middle' range are often required to order online or hunt around for their shade. Or, shop high-end brands in bigger department stores like Mecca or Sephora.

If you're dark-skinned, or if you're someone with very pale skin, the chances are your search for a foundation in your local supermarket or chemist isn't going to be easy. 

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Which is disappointing - because some of the best products in beauty right now are those affordable, accessible products you can pick up in these kinds of stores.

A petition started in May by Australian woman Rebecca Willink has called for giants such as Woolworths, BIG W and Coles to stock beauty products that cater to all skin colours. 

The Melbourne mother-of-two visited her local grocery store after seeing a makeup brand was retailing at half price. She couldn’t find her shade in-store, or any shade darker than medium beige, despite the fact that the brand produces a full shade range.

"For the last two decades, I have struggled to find the right shade of complexion-based makeup such as foundations and concealers in department stores and supermarkets," said Rebecca.


"As a teenager in Australia, searching stores in vain for my shade of foundation and leaving empty-handed was just the norm. Despite many brands now manufacturing make-up in a range of darker shades, it is still impossible to walk into a store and purchase these products as they are not stocked."

"Browse any cosmetic aisle of Coles, Kmart, Big W, Woolworths, Target or David Jones and you will be met with a sea of 'nudes', ivories and beiges but nothing remotely close to browns or blacks."


Rebecca goes on to say that women of colour are often forced to purchase their makeup shades online or direct from brands - something that is not as accessible and way more costly if shipping is involved, pretty much defeating the purpose of purchasing an affordable foundation.

"Denying access to products to people of darker skin colours and forcing us to buy online (sometimes up to three times the price after including shipping) for the same product is a form of racial discrimination and is incredibly unfair, frustrating, and exclusive."

Aside from the cost factor, purchasing foundation online usually requires you to know your shade, right? And you can’t exactly do that unless you have the product in front of you. In case you've never tried it before, shade matching online is an *incredibly* difficult thing to do.

"There is undeniably an untapped market that is currently being ignored and excluded," said Rebecca.

"It is not enough for brands to appear to be inclusive and diverse by using people of colour to promote their products, when in reality those models would struggle to find their shades of the product themselves. For true inclusion to start happening, there needs to be better representation of diverse cultures in management boards of retailers and beauty brands to begin to make real change," she adds.

To get another perspective on why this is so important, we asked Mamamia's Emily Vernem about what her experience is when it comes to finding a foundation that matches her skin tone.


According to Emily, living in a post-Fenty Beauty world isn't all it seems. 

"I've always avoided buying foundation because I was too embarrassed of being turned away if they didn't have my shade," she said.

"They'd either recommend another brand that might have my colour, or try to convince me to buy two of their foundations to mix and get my shade."  

"My sister has a lighter complexion than me and we'd always share the same foundation colour or I'd be one shade darker than her. It wasn't until we both bought Fenty Foundation that we realised we were actually four shades apart," said Emily.


"There are four other skin tones between mine and my sisters that we didn't even know existed. That blew me away. Foundation brands in Australia are doing an extreme disservice to the women of colour living here."

Why is it so hard to find diverse foundation shades in Australian stores?

Now that makeup brands are making a wider range of shades, why is it that in many Australian supermarkets and chemists, they're not available? 

Why are we still struggling to factor inclusivity into makeup aisles?

In response to Rebecca's petition, Woolworths and Coles have said that what they stock all comes down to 'supply and demand'.

"Across the entire supermarket we select products based on the volume of demand, but we understand a different approach is needed to offer a more inclusive range in cosmetics," Woolworths said in a statement to Channel Nine.

"We’ve previously trialled a broader selection of cosmetics tones online and will continue to listen to our customers to help improve our cosmetics offering both in-store and online."

A Coles spokesperson also told Channel Nine: "We work with our suppliers to provide a range of cosmetics that is inclusive and meets the needs of our customers. We appreciate customer feedback and are always looking for ways to improve our offering. We will review the opportunity to increase our range online in line with customer demand."


Again, these responses come back to the concept of darker shades 'not selling' - which is an outdated way of thinking. The fact is that everyone deserves equal access to makeup.

Shouldn't it just be a standardised thing across the board, where all supermarkets and chemists are stocked with the full range of shades?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

With more brands and products than ever before, the beauty and makeup industry is crowded. And there are some hurdles when it comes to obtaining shelf space. 

Stocking full ranges of foundation with every shade, while still allowing room for new products, is not always feasible. 

In response to the recent petition, MCoBeauty's spokeswoman said:

"In an ideal world, we would love nothing more than our full shade range of products to be stocked at Woolworths and Big W, but our retailers do have limitations on shelf space and are only able to stock a few shades. It is uncommon for any supermarket beauty brand to have their full shade range stocked in the cosmetics aisle."

In the case of in-store promotions, MCoBeauty said this issue is taken into account when it comes to shipping costs.

"We regularly offer promotions online at where we price match our brick and mortar retailers and provide customers with free shipping."

The bottom line: while most brands will stock their full shade range online, they are only permitted to stock a few shades in store due to shelf space, and these particular shades are guided by sales figures. If a shade isn’t selling huge volumes, the retailers will take it off the shelves. 


The fact of the matter is that everything is driven by sales data - so in reality, brands are only able to stock their best-selling shades in store and make the rest of the shades available online.

We know what you're thinking - surely there's a consumer demographic for more diverse shades, no?

Well, it's not exactly as clear cut as that. Australia's population is roughly 25 million, and while we take pride in ourselves as one of the most multicultural societies in the world, it's surprising that we actually rank relatively low in terms of diversity in comparison to, say, the United States. 

While this is something that is certainly shifting, the most recent Australian census shows we are still predominantly an Anglo society - with Anglo ancestries making up more than 50 per cent of the population (excluding the 33.5 per cent  of people who identified as Australian). 

But this does not mean we shouldn't cater for all demographics. Everyone has the right to wear makeup. And it's clear that as long as there's a lack of change and progression, the problem won't go anywhere.

Everyone has the right to wear makeup. Image: Getty. 


Rebecca said, "What is infuriating is that beauty products for consumers with darker skin are never stocked on shelves, so where does this supposed sales data come from? How do they know that the stock will not sell if they have never tried?" 

"The assumption that only the light shades will sell well is not a good enough excuse to marginalise a section of the community by not catering to them."

Rebecca said that since starting her petition, she's heard an influx of stories from other women who say they would gladly spend their money to buy these products if they were given the chance.


"They are tired of being told to “just go online” or to order samples online or to go to specialty make up stores. They are tired of being unseen and unheard. I’ve heard stories from women who spent their teenage years watching their friends buy affordable makeup freely while being forced to spend more money on high-end makeup in order to fit in."

"One woman expressed the shame she felt during her wedding week after being unable to find her shade of foundation from multiple brands in David Jones. One mum of young children shared that finding the time to hunt down her shades of makeup while working full-time feels “almost impossible”, and instead resorts to mixing her own colours from her local chemist."

Digital Creator and beauty influencer Alisha Bhojwani is one of these women. She's also waiting for the day when she can walk into a store and find cosmetics that are available in her shade.

"To me it's kind of crazy, a little redundant and ridiculous that Australian supermarkets - where the whole premise of is about having a multitude of choice - are unable to stock all the colours when it comes to cosmetics," said Alisha.


"Now, I know a lot of this has to do with demand and shelving space, but that's the whole point of a supermarket. They can tailor to people's dairy intolerances and gluten intolerances and other lifestyle changes, so why aren't they able to cater to all colours of Australian women?"

Alisha goes on to say that this lack of representation reflects the notion that consumers of these shades are not valued.

"I always think that by supermarkets not stocking every colour when it comes to cosmetics - whether it be foundation, bronzer, concealer or whatever - it's basically telling the consumer, 'you don't matter and there is no shelf space available for you in our store'. And that's not very inclusive."

"In 2021, you'd think we could do better." 

To support Rebecca Willink's mission for better representation and equality for BIPOC in the Australian beauty industry, sign the petition here or follow her on Instagram.


What are your thoughts? Do you have an experience you'd like to share? Drop a line in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty/Mamamia.

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