When you've been testing and writing about makeup for as long as I have, and when you've gotten progressively dryer and more dehydrated with age, it becomes hard to find a potential Holy Grail foundation. In some cases, it's touted as being "glowy" and "luminous," but the ingredients list contains my skin's ticking time bombs, like alcohol denat. Other times, a product will be promoted as being dry-skin friendly, but when fellow desert faced reviewers test the product, they point out that it only works for them if they pack on moisturizer, oil, and setting spray.
I'm not judging, by the way, because if you're dry skinned, those sorts of products are your primer. But if you have to layer and layer and layer to get something to look halfways decent? Then I'm likely not going to get much use out of it.
But I've heard so much hype around the Koh Gen Do Aqua foundation. And while I didn't have an out-of-the-bottle shade match with their Moisture foundation, I thought the formula was beautiful, a rare glowy treat for very dry skin. Thankfully, Koh Gen Do offers sample packs of their foundations with free shipping, so I grabbed the full range and settled in for the test. If you decide to grab a full size of this foundation, you'll get one ounce for $62 in a glass bottle with a pump.
Natural light on top, flash on bottom. From left to right: Koh Gen Do Aqua in 012 and 113, NARS Sheer Glow in Siberia, and MAC Full Coverage in NW10.
Straight off the bat, this is another Koh Gen Do foundation that doesn't have a match for me out of the bottle. The lightest shade, 012, has strong pink undertones, and the lightest yellow shade, 113, is at least one full shade too dark for me. Since my yellow undertones aren't too pronounced, I decided to do my first round of testing with 012.
This foundation has a very thin, runny texture. I detected a very faint botanical-type smell, which I think is coming from some of the ingredients; it's not especially strong and I couldn't smell it after application.
One layer of this foundation applied with a buffing brush gave me solid medium coverage. It went on easily without streaking. I was a little surprised by how matte this looked on me, however, since so many dry skinned people claim this product is their ride or die foundation, and because Koh Gen Do's website claims it will give you "youthful appearing dewy skin." In all fairness, I am not "slightly dry" or even "dry"; I am very dry and rather dehydrated. A lot of products that look glowy on others go satin or matte on me.
That said, it also looked a bit flaky around the driest parts of my face--here's a macro shot of my jaw area to show you. It's absolutely not the worst I've ever experienced, and it was only obvious if got close to my face, but it's still worth mentioning. I did get a bit of settling in to my fine lines as well, but again, it was slight and you had to be close to see it. Overall, I'd say it has a very skin-like quality to it.
I think one of the reasons so many dry skinned people enjoy this is because it's comfortable. If you have parched skin, you know how easy it is for beauty products to leave you feeling itchy, or like your face is a piece of cellophane pulled taut across your skull. Koh Gen Do Aqua doesn't give me that feeling it all. It's completely weightless and very comfortable.
Here's the time lapse photos. As you can hopefully see, this wears pretty well throughout the day. I did notice the foundation breaking down a bit on my nose at the 3 hour mark, and it had worn off by the 5 hour mark. I still think you could use this if you're somewhat oily-skinned, provided you added in a primer and/or some powder. I also got dryer throughout the day, which resulted in the foundation being visibly flaky along my jaw and in my fine lines, but you can't really tell in these photos.
That's the other thing about this foundation: it photographs beautifully. Don't get me wrong, it looked nice in real life, but it didn't look quite as sterling as it does in this 5 hour picture. This may be due to the microshimmer in this foundation, because yes, it has microshimmer. I thought I was going crazy the first time I tried it; then I noticed it on the second, third, and fourth trial run. It's extremely fine and can only be seen up close in bright-ish light, yet it still irks me a little. I hate the possibility of looking all-over sparkly.
As a side note, while this is definitely too pink for me, it did not oxidize. My skin looks a little lighter in the picture on the left because there was daylight coming through the windows when I took it, whereas the second and third picture only have the camera flash for lighting.
The second time I tested shade 012, I applied it with a damp Beauty Blender for my Glossier Black Tie Set Review/Anti-Haul post. This gave me lighter coverage, which I prefer, but I don't think it made it look that much less matte. I used plenty of finishing spray on this day to make my skin look and feel less parched.
I concluded that while the depth of 012 is just about right for me, it's way too pink. I can't get away with it. Hence, I bumped up to 113 for my next two applications, mixing roughly 2 parts Koh Gen Do Aqua with 1 part NYX Pro Foundation Mixer in White. This gave me a shade I'd peg between NC10-15: darker than my neck, lighter than my face, which is usually what I strive for.
This shot ended up being weirdly cropped, as you can tell, but I think it shows you the color and the finish better than the previous photos. Notice that the foundation is very skin-like, but yes, rather matte and a tad dry on my face. This is even with a layer of Too Faced Hangover primer underneath and plenty of Clinique Moisture Surge spray on type. By the end of the night, it was nearly as dry and flaky as all of my other trial runs. I just don't see this looking dewy or even satin on dry skin without a damn impressive skincare routine to back it up.
That doesn't sound too bad, though. No, I would never recommend this product over the Moisture foundation if you are very dry skinned, and in fact, this has inspired me to revisit the Moisture foundation and fiddle with the yellow shades. But if you are dry to combination, slash, you have a prep routine that really works for you, you'd still probably enjoy this foundation. It's comfortable, skin-like, and easy to use. What's not the love?
I'll tell you what's not to love: the shade range. The fucking shade range.
ETA: Somebody on Makeup Alley asked for a version of these swatches with an updated white balance, so I produced it below. I hope it's helpful!
Here's the full range, swatched in the order Koh Gen Do has them listed on their website. You have three shades with strong pink undertones (012, 002, 013), three shades with neutral-to-yellow undertones (113, 123, 143), and one olive shade (213). 143 is the darkest thing they've got...and it's not that dark. As proof, here's a photo of someone wearing 143 from their Instagram:
That's it. That's the darkest they've got. Compare that to their Moisture foundation, which admittedly had only 8 shades when I first tested it, but has since added 4 deep shades for a total of 12. It's still a small range, but it stretches much further. For reference--and again, I'm using their own Instagram--here's a model wearing their lightest yellow shade in the Moisture foundation, 112:
And here's the deepest shade, 303:
Now, you might want to defend Koh Gen Do because they eventually got their shit together with the Moisture foundation, slash, they're originally an Asian beauty brand. But I'm not buying that. Aqua was around when I tried the Moisture foundation with its initially shitty shade range, and yet they haven't updated it. Furthermore, this brand has been available on the western market for quite some time now, and they've been selling in Sephora for at least 2 years. It's beyond aggravating that their range stops at "kinda sorta tan."
If it seems like I'm especially tough on Koh Gen Do...well, I am, because for better or worse, I hold them to a higher standard. They create products with formulas that tend to be leagues above the rest, and for that, I don't mind paying a little extra for them. But if they really want to be competitive on the western market, and more importantly, if they want to do those beautiful formulations justice? They have to work on a better shade range.
At the end of the day, shitty shade range or no, Koh Gen Do Aqua won't be a unicorn for me. I might, however, have better luck with the Moisture foundation this time, seeing as I'm armed with a workable white mixer. If you're very dry skinned, you'll probably want to join me on the Moisture foundation side of things. If you're not especially dry, you match one of the few available shades, and you're looking for something that provides light to medium coverage, feels weightless, and looks like skin, you may prefer Koh Gen Do Aqua. Personally, I'll be taking a pass on that full bottle.
RATING: 4 out of 5
This product is available at Sephora.