How Do Make-Up Setting Sprays Work?

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How to cite: Wong M. How Do Make-Up Setting Sprays Work?. Lab Muffin Beauty Science. August 9, 2019. Accessed April 23, 2024.

If you don’t already use a make-up setting spray in your make-up routine, you’re missing out. They make your make-up look less powdery and more blended, and can act as a shield against sweat and rubbing and general clumping as well. If you’re wondering how they work, or how to find a dupe, I’ve got you covered!

Check out the video on YouTube here.

Types of Setting Sprays

There are two types of setting sprays:

  • sprays that shield against sweat, rubbing and clumping, AND make your make-up look less powdery/more blended
  • sprays that only make your make-up look less powdery and more blended (this can also help with clumping)

Confusingly, the name “setting spray” is used for both. “Fixing” is usually only used for the first type that shields.

Setting Sprays That Shield

Let’s start with the shielding and de-powdering sprays. These contain polymers dissolved in a solvent, usually alcohol. Polymers are long molecules like plastics which are great at forming films that don’t budge.

When the setting spray is sprayed onto your skin, the solvent evaporates, leaving behind the polymer. The polymer droplets merge together to form a film that holds your make-up in place and provides some waterproofing power.

The solvent also acts to dissolve your make-up slightly and help it merge together so it looks more blended. Unfortunately, if you spray too much, the solvent will dissolve your make-up and make it run, so make sure you use a fine spray (test new sprays on your hand before you ruin your face!).

These types of sprays will generally have a polymer in the first 4 ingredients. The most common polymers found in setting sprays are PVP (polyvinylpyrrolidone) and AMP-acrylates copolymers.

If you’re looking for a dupe of a setting spray that works well for you, a good place to start are different setting sprays with the same polymer. While the other ingredients in the formulation will also make a difference (for example, the dewy and matte NYX setting sprays contain the same polymer, and some sprays like Algenist Splash Hydrating Setting Mist contain beneficial skincare ingredients), the polymer is crucial to how well it performs.

A lot of the same polymers are used as the holding ingredients in hairspray, so hairspray can work as a make-up setting spray in a pinch!

How Do Make-Up Setting Sprays Work?

Examples of settings sprays that shield, sorted by polymer and listed in alphabetical order:

PVP (polyvinylpyrrolidone)

AMP-Acrylates Copolymer

VP/VA Copolymer

Polyvinyl Alcohol

Acrylates/Octylacrylamide Copolymer

Acrylic Resins


Setting Sprays That Only Set

The second type of setting sprays are the ones that don’t hold make-up in place, but are used to reduce the powdery dry look and moisturise skin after makeup application. They also tend to have more beneficial skincare ingredients in them than the first type of mist, and they usually contain more humectant ingredients like butylene glycol and less alcohol. If the spray doesn’t have a polymer in the first few ingredients, it’s probably one of these.

For example, here are the first five ingredients in Urban Decay All-Nighter Setting Spray, which shields and sets:

Aqua / Water, Alcohol Denat., PVP, Dimethicone PEG-7 Phosphate, PPG-3 Benzyl Ether Myristate

And here are the first five ingredients in MAC Prep and Prime Fix+, which only sets (confusing since it has the word “Fix” in its name!):

Water, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Extract

One advantage of this type of spray is that you can usually use them as convenient skincare mists in their own right without having to worry about having a film on your face, but they won’t have anywhere near the staying powder of the shielding type. If you already have a humectant toner, you can try putting it into a spray bottle and seeing how it works – many of them will work to blend make-up this way!

Like for the first type of spray, make sure you have a fine mist, so that it doesn’t make your make-up run.

Here are some examples of this type of spray. I’ve focused on products that are recommended for use post-make-up, since those are the confusing ones:

How Do I Use Make-Up Setting Sprays?

Both types of spray are used the same way. After your finish applying your make-up, hold them at arm’s length and spray them across your face a few times. Most brands recommend doing it in “X” and “T” shapes.

Additional tips

  • Close your eyes when you spray!
  • Apply mascara after spraying, or wait for it to dry first.
  • Take a deep breath before spraying.
  • Spraying too close can lead to larger drops and your make-up running.

Now go forth and spray!

How Do Make-Up Setting Sprays Work? A Guide

The products in the photo were provided for editorial consideration. This post also contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and support Lab Muffin financially (at no extra cost to you), thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.

Skincare Guide

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20 thoughts on “How Do Make-Up Setting Sprays Work?”

  1. I just purchased the UD All Nighter today, my first setting spray was the pixi Makeup Fixing Mist, but I was never sure if it actually helped.
    Now that you explained the theory behind it I can compare more easily!

  2. One of the best and so well informed article from everything I’ve read. Thank you, you made me understand a lot of things I had questions about regarding make-up sprays.
    Will follow your insta feed for sure from now on! ?

  3. Great, thanks! I’ve never used a setting spray before…might you do a follow-up review of these to give your recommendations?

  4. I was wondering how setting powders worked? If I don’t using a fixing spray, can I still use a translucent powder (i.e. NYX STUDIO PHOTOGEIC) to hold my makeup in place?

  5. Hello! firstly – I love your website, i’ve been reading through various articles for the past couple of hours (I could spend a day on here..!) and already feel so much more well-informed, thank you. I was wondering if you could recommend one of the first type of sprays (- the fixing and shielding type) from your list sorted by polymer? I wasn’t sure which type of polymer is better or if indeed they were all similar? Apologies if you have already mentioned this elsewhere. I’m 35 with normal/combo skin (oily-ish T section/big pores/blackheads with ‘normal’ skin elsewhere). I don’t mind spending more if it makes a difference but i’m not a sucker for brand-names, just would love something that made my foundation/concealer etc stay put! Thank you so much. Jess

  6. Hello Michelle! Can you please make a post about diet and acne, like is a vegan diet / dairy free diet/ gluten free diet ect. really gonna improve your skin?
    Thank you for a great blog!!

  7. Thanks, Michelle. I have never used a setting spray and am happy to see my favorite brand makes one. Now I know what to look out for when I go to buy one, as I think I could use one, my makeup does not last more than 5 or 6 hours before falling apart. I need the polymer fixing type spray.

    I have a question when you say they shield against sweat, are they like an antiperspirant? Or do they simply hold the makeup in place, in spite of the perspiration/humidity? (I live in a very humid climate) Thanks!

    • They just hold the make-up in place. Antiperspirants would have to be applied on bare skin, and generally contain aluminium salts.

  8. OMG this post is the answer to my prayers. Haha 😛 After learning that setting sprays don’t necessarily actually ‘set’ makeup, I was devastated. Hehe ok I’m exaggerating a little. But this is so great, I really appreciate the breakdown. I totally rely on setting sprays and I was worried that they were useless, this gives me hope. I love Mac fix+ though, for a mid-day refresh, and now I understand how it works and why it’s not good for setting/shielding makeup. Thanks!

  9. This is very informative and helpful! I have a question about primers. I understand how silicone-based primers work, but what about non-silicone-based primers (e.g., Laura Mercier Foundation Primer, Too Faced Hangover Primer)? Do they have ingredients that smooth skin texture and help make-up stick? Thanks!

  10. This was a very helpful article. ^_^ What I always wonder though with synthetic ingredients is what happens if they come in your mouth (you spray your lips, so..) and if they’re biodegradeable. I wish there were more sprays with polysaccharides!

  11. There’s a lot about setting sprays that people should consider I for one would like something that’s not harsh on the skin and friendly to acne-prone or combo skin. Thanks for the great read! Love your website!

  12. That was a wonderful video breaking down the types of sprays.

    My Topic Suggestions:

    1) The science behind micellar water in cleansing off make-up.
    How to choose from all the options?
    How to know if some will work better than others?
    Are these new to the cosmetic industry or have they been around for some time but known by another name?

    2) The science behind colloidal silver as cosmetic ingredient and YAY or NAY on it….

    Many thanks for all you do!

  13. A topic suggestion that I’m sure many people will find useful – can we use setting spray or setting powder over sunscreen? Could this possibly decrease the effectiveness of the sunscreen? This is a topic for which there is almost nothing on internet and also no scientific studies but I assume it can theorized. As we all know most of the sunscreens leave the skin looking oily. Personally, I haven’t found a sunscreen that meets my criteria and at the same time is not looking shiny. So I use I setting powder over it to mattify it. I’ve noticed that this way my sunscreen last way longer but I’m not sure if it actually affect its effectiveness.


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