Fashion & Beauty

What Exactly is Setting Spray, Anyway?

We asked the pros if it’s really necessary, and more importantly, if it’s bad for skin

Ah, sweet, sweet summertime. It’s the season that Canadians wait for all year long—and if you were around this past winter, you know that sometimes the wait is looong. But, like everything else in life, even summer has its pros and cons. It’s also the season of sunburns (SPF, now and forever!!!), weekly weddings (uh, can’t help you there, sorry)… and of being startled by your melting face every time you pass by a mirror. 

If you ask any makeup artist, they’ll tell you that the secret to keeping your makeup locked in place is setting spray. But how does this beloved prod work, anyway? And more importantly, when mixed with sweat, humidity and sunscreen, could a mist that makes makeup stick to your face be all that great for skin? 

We tapped Dr. Monica Li, a dermatologist and clinical instructor at the department of dermatology and skin science at the University of British Columbia, and makeup artist Stephen Moleski—who has worked with celebs like Carrie Underwood and Mel B, and was the artist behind the Kardashians’ famous smoky eye looks back in the early years of the family’s fame—to learn what exactly is in the magical sprays we can’t stop reaching for. 

So, what is setting spray? 

Setting sprays are used to hold or stabilize makeup products such as concealers and highlighters against humidity, sweat and skin oil for longer periods than normal duration of wear,” explains Dr. Li. 

Sign us up! What’s in setting sprays that makes them work? 

“In general, the major components of a setting spray are polymers dissolved in a solvent, and that [solvent] is often alcohol,” says Dr. Li. 

Wait—isn’t alcohol bad for skin?

Well, the alcohol doesn’t just sit on your face all day long, if that’s what you’re thinking. “Alcohol in setting spray formulas evaporate after contact with skin,” says Dr. Li. She explains that this is “similar to other skin care products, and even topical medications, where as the alcohol evaporates,” it also takes moisture with it. So yes, they can be a little bit drying, especially for those with sensitive or reactive skin. But if you don’t react to other skincare products which feature alcohol as an ingredient, you should be good to go.  

Got it. Now back to those polymers. What, uh, are they? 

“Polymers are particles linked in a long chain that produce the robust film needed to shield makeup from wear and tear, explains Dr. Li. “Because of their shielding properties, these polymers can also provide some water-resistant effects for makeup products. Polyvinylpyrrolidone, or PVP, is one of the most common types used in setting sprays, thanks to its ability to provide water-resistance effects, help spread [makeup] colours, and improve the ’stick’ of makeup products on the skin surface.”

A “robust film” doesn’t sound ideal for skin… 

While the pros agree that they’re great for occasions like weddings, or when you need your makeup to last through a hot day, Dr. Li explains that you should think of a setting spray as an extra layer of makeup that requires more care to remove at the end of the day. “Given the purpose of a setting spray, consider [using one] when needed with shorter contact time on the skin whenever possible. Your skin will appreciate being in its natural state,” she says. So, think about that when deciding whether or not you really need a setting spray before running out for some groceries. 

Can setting sprays be used on top of any type of makeup?

Pretty much. [?] “I love a setting spray for longevity, especially if you’re using powders,” says Moleski. “The spray will pull the powder and make it merge with your foundation, and truly set it.” 

Will a setting spray cancel out the effects of dewy makeup? 

With the technology available today, you can set your makeup to have longevity, plus give you a glowy finish,” says Moleski, who loves finishing his clients’ makeup looks with a dewy setting spray to achieve a lit-from-within look. 

Here are six of the best makeup setting sprays for different skin types, budgets, and finishes. 


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