How To Pick The Right Colours For Your Skin Tone

Your chosen hairstyle and God-given face shape can work in unison to make or break your overall look. But did you know the tone of your skin and the colour of your clothing can act in much the same way?

Have you ever tried on an outfit or garment only to find that for some reason it didn’t look right? It could be that the shades involved weren’t complementing your complexion.

But it’s not purely about aesthetics. Knowing what works for you and using it to your advantage can make you feel more confident. And manipulating colours in certain ways can even make others perceive you as being more assertive, powerful, friendly or loyal.

The power of colour should never be underestimated. However, if you really want to harness it for yourself, you’ll first need to establish where you sit on the skin tone spectrum and stock your wardrobe accordingly.

Determining Your Skin Tone

The first step in your quest for complementary clothing colours is to identify what type of skin tone you have. Naturally, this will seem like a bit of a no-brainer at first, but it could be trickier to work out if you’re somewhere in between.

In order to keep things as simple as possible, we’re going to talk about four key skin-tone groups, of which you will certainly fall into one. They are pale, light, olive and dark.

Here we explore the typical traits of each, the colours that work best for them and the ones that are better off avoided.

Pale Skin

If you’re prone to freckles, get burnt to a crisp at the mere mention of a sunny day and don’t ever really tan at all then it’s likely you have pale or fair skin.

You’ll probably have noticed that certain shades have a tendency to wash you out or make you look paler, but mixing things up with a little know-how can help you to overcome this.

Colours To Avoid

There aren’t really any specific colours you should steer clear of, just colours you should avoid wearing on their own. Light pastel shades are a good example of this – washed-out hues will sap any colour from your skin and make you appear duller than you really are.

The same can be said of neutrals. Try to stay away from black and white as the former will contrast too harshly while the latter contrast too little.

Colours To Wear

When going neutral, stick to grey, beige and navy, which will bring out the colour in you more effectively.

Many of the lighter colours you should avoid can also, in fact, be worn to great effect if they’re mixed with darker shades. For example, You can experiment with a rich pastel tee so long as you layer it beneath, say, a navy bomber jacket or a forest green overshirt. The aim is to create contrast… just not too much of it.

Light Skin

Skin that is light-ish in colour yet tans relatively easily without burning falls into this camp.

The good news is you have lots of options. But there are still a few considerations to be made.

Colours To Avoid

Give colours that closely resemble your skin tone a wide berth. Again, this means pastels (unless you’re sporting a bit of a tan), nude shades and anything else too bland or pale. You want to be aiming to bring out your natural glow and these sorts of subdued hues will do nothing but drain it by offering too little contrast.

Some bright colours are also best left alone. For example, if you’re prone to a red face, electing to wear anything vivid will only make matters worse. So put that yellow T-shirt back on the rail and back away slowly.

Colours To Wear

Earthy tones such as greens, browns and khakis can work very nicely for you when offset by the pop of a white T-shirt and some raw indigo denim.

Likewise, autumnal shades of burnt orange, maroon and subdued yellow can have a similar effect when used in the same way. Play around with layering these types of colours, using a monochrome base layer to keep things anchored.

Speaking of which, black, white and greys will complement your complexion no matter how you use them so it’s smart to keep a rotation of staples in these shades in your wardrobe for tying looks together or even building entirely monochrome outfits.

If that sounds a tad too dull, throwing on a statement jacket in a vibrant green or blue can bring even the most basic ensembles to life.

Olive Skin

You may make others envious with your natural, year-round glow but there are still certain colours that you’ll want to swerve if you’re to stay looking your best.

Men with olive skin tend to tan easily, have a yellowish/greenish undertone and a warm complexion. If that sounds like you, here’s what you need to know when stocking your wardrobe.

Colours To Avoid

It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating: avoiding colours that are too similar to your natural skin tone is the golden rule of getting your match right. This means that any yellows, greens or browns that come too close should be cast aside.

Bright colours can work well, however try to be sparing with them and offset them in your look with neutral shades. This will work to create a sense of balance.

Colours To Wear

The good news is that you’ve been blessed with one of the most forgiving complexions. This is very helpful when it comes to colour options.

Aside from the clothes that too closely resemble your skin – you don’t want to look naked from a distance, even if you have manscaped to perfection – it’s pretty much a case of anything goes.

Obviously, the usual rules apply: play with contrasting colours to create balance in your overall outfit then use simple, pared-back pieces to keep things grounded. Aside from that, feel free to experiment.

Dark Skin

Those with a skin tone any darker than olive have hit the colour-matching jackpot. You will be able to successfully play with almost any hues you choose and have them work nicely.

From pale, light shades right through to bold, vibrant ones – your skin is perfectly suited to complement a rainbow of potential hues and combinations. Aside from using browns sparingly (you don’t want to appear ashy or naked) and being wary of keeping things balanced, it’s basically anything goes.

Colours To Avoid

As mentioned above, shades of brown can be worn, but are best used sparingly. It’s fine to throw a shirt or T-shirt into the mix, but avoid going out head to toe.

Black, while extremely dark, is a solid option so don’t feel like you should avoid it. In fact, it’s one of those rare “colours” where even if it is close to your skin tone, wearing an all-black outfit can still look great.

Colours To Wear

Where lighter complexions can easily be made to look washed out by light-coloured clothing, dark skin doesn’t suffer from the same problem and offers a natural contrast that looks superb. This means you’re free to wear pastels, pale shades and whites without any negative aesthetic consequences.

Bright colours work nicely too. Try using one vividly-coloured piece (pinks are particularly on trend this year) in an otherwise simple outfit for best results.

Paddy Maddison

Paddy Maddison is Ape's Style Editor. His work has been published in Esquire, Men’s Health, ShortList, The Independent and more. An outerwear and sneaker fanatic, his finger is firmly on the pulse for the latest trends, while always maintaining an interest in classic style.