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Several years ago, Korean beauty brands started launching cushion compacts, a never-before-seen innovation that made carrying your foundation around super easy, thanks to a makeup-soaked sponge embedded in the compact.
The formulas differ slightly, but in general each provides light to medium coverage, usually containing the kind of nourishing ingredients you find in skincare products, as well as SPF protection, similar to BB or CC creams. They all come with a flat sponge applicator, which people tend to love or hate — I like them, and have never had an issue with blending.
Iope, a Korean beauty company owned by Amore Pacific (read more about the company here) patented the first one, and copycats sprouted up at tons of other K-beauty brands. But none is more beloved or popular than Iope's Air Cushion Sunblock XP ($38). It is the K-beauty cushion compact holy grail, and comes in four different finishes. I use the natural finish, which provides light coverage with good hydration.
Fast forward to now, when western beauty companies are co-opting Korean innovations, adapting them for American and European consumers, presumably hoping to get the all-important Asian market on board since many shoppers there are already familiar with the product category.
One of the biggest complaints against K-beauty brands is that they don't offer enough shade ranges, and while Iope is finally launching darker shades later this year, many have been incredibly slow to address this problem; this is where western brands can capitalize. Five brands — Lancome, MAC, L'Oreal, Clinique, and Physicians Formula — have all recently launched their own versions of cushion compacts. Here's how they stack up against the OG Iope and which one is the best all-around winner, in the opinion of a person who once had 13 Korean cushion compacts lined up on her bathroom sink and used a different one every day just for fun.
Clinique is the most recent player to offer a cushion compact, which it smartly branded with the company's well-known Super City Block product. It has an SPF 50 claim — one of only two western cushions here that offers sun protection — and comes in four shades ranging from fair to deep. With such a small shade range, I was expecting the formula to be really sheer, but it offered surprisingly full coverage. The sponge has bigger holes than the dense Iope sponge, meaning that more product comes out and gets deposited on the applicator. I would definitely define the finish as dewy, not That Wet Look level, but definitely wetter than Iope's. Towards the end of the day my combination skin looked a little greasy, but most of the product stayed put. Most K-beauty versions come with sponge refills, essentially assuring you get twice the product for the price, but Clinique doesn't offer refills at all, meaning you need to re-purchase the compact again.
Lancome's cushion is available in a whopping 11 shades (for comparison, most K-beauty brands only come in two or three shades). There were whisperings, which I've never been able to confirm, that Amore Pacific actually let Lancome use their patented cushion system. Regardless of whether or not this is true, it's great. The sponge, like Clinique's, is decidedly spongier than Iope's and releases more product, but the formula here really shines. It feels disconcertingly wet upon application, but dries to a beautiful, invisible, not-matte but not-dewy finish that lasted all day on my grease riddled face. It also doesn't come with refills, but you can purchase refills separately for $39.
L'Oreal's offering is the least expensive option — great for anyone who wants to give the technology a whirl — and it comes in 12 shades to boot. The sponge is wetter than Iope's, and while I was afraid this very watery formula would slide off by the end of the day, but it really went the distance and lasted all day. Also, be aware that the 'Lumi' in the name is descriptive. While not shimmery, the finish is definitely the dewiest of all five of the options. I don't strobe every single facial plane, but I do dabble a bit in highlighter and I didn't want to use any with this foundation for fear of looking like a strobe-happy Instagram caricature. I'd call the coverage sheer. Like the others, it doesn't come with a refill (refills aren't even an option).
MAC's version comes in 12 shades and its cushion is as satisfyingly dense as Iope's, meaning I could really control the amount of product on the sponge. It also has the most matte finish of all the ones I tested, including the Iope. By this I don't mean it's truly matte, but on the spectrum of cushion compacts, it's the least dewy. The finish was sheer, but truly buildable, and it stayed on all day without any shiny breakthrough. MAC offers sponge refills for $28.
Of all the cushions, this one definitely has the most lightweight formula with the sheerest coverage and a less dewy finish than Iope's It's about the same price as the L'Oreal option, but Physicians Formula has SPF 50, so between that and the light feel, it's a great warm weather option. I have two knocks against this, though. First, it only comes in three shades, the darkest being "medium." Second, the internal sponge that holds the foundation is too squishy and was actually bending away from the sides of the compact. It seemed like the sponge was either a bit too small for the compact or it wasn't secured properly. Regardless, it's a good inexpensive option for warmer weather.
SO, IN CONCLUSION:
Foundations, no matter what type, are highly personal, but the MAC cushion was my favorite and closest in quality and overall awesomeness to Iope's. Of the three higher end brands here, it's also the least expensive. Lancome's was fantastic for a dewier finish, if that's your thing, and came in a close second. You will hate every single one of these if you're looking for a truly matte finish or complete (and controllable) coverage, because cushions want to allow your skin to shine through, and they also skew dewy. But overall? Good job, western beauty companies.