What’s the best way to apply highlighter?

Makeup trends have toned down over the last couple of years, but a dewy, radiantly healthy complexion doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. A good highlighter is an essential part of a modern makeup kit, but applying it properly — let alone choosing from the many available formulations — is easier said than done.

Here’s how to select the best highlighter for you, and how to apply it for that coveted lit-from-within glow.

What is highlighter used for?

Applying highlighter to the high points of the face creates the appearance of a healthy and natural glow, brightens dull complexions and helps define features. It can help you look more awake or add a special touch to night-out makeup.

What highlighter type should you use?

Highlighters come in several formulations, and each is suited to different application styles and makeup looks.

  • Pressed powder highlighters tend to be the most pigmented and the most shimmery. They’re also more likely to stay put in hot weather.
  • Loose powder highlighters aren’t as common, but they offer intense shimmer just like pressed powder. They can be mixed with powder foundation for a toned-down, all-over glow. Like pressed powder, they’re a better choice for oily skin.
  • Cream highlighters are generally more sheer and subtle than powder formulations. They give skin more of a dewy appearance, and they’re a good pick for dry skin. Cream highlighters come in compact and stick formats.
  • Liquid highlighters tend to leave the most subtle glow, but they can be layered for more intensity. They can be applied with your fingertips, but they have more of a learning curve than other formulations.

How to choose a highlighter

For a natural-looking finish, pick a highlighter shade no more than two shades lighter than your skin tone. Depending on your undertone, fair skin is generally best suited to more frosty shades like champagne, lilac or pearl, while deep skin tones glow with more pigmented bronze, copper or rosy highlighters. Medium skin tones are ideal for golden-hued highlighters.

However, just like all makeup, it’s OK to have fun with your highlighter. Be bold and play around with highlighters in unusual tones, such as purple or green, or try out a holographic highlighter for luminescence that stands out from the pack.

Do you need a highlighter palette?

eyeshadow palette

Just like eyeshadow palettes, highlighter palettes offer a tempting array of shades. They can be especially helpful to professional makeup artists who want a convenient product to help flatter all their clients’ complexions, but most casual users won’t need all the shades that come in a palette. You may be better off selecting a flattering single highlighter in your ideal level of shimmer.

However, a highlighter palette in your shade that offers both powder and cream formulations can be useful to get you through different seasons and climates.

How to apply highlighter and contour

Contouring is a popular use for highlighter as a way to strategically use light and shadow to alter the appearance of your features. If you want a highlighter for contouring, look for one with a matte finish to help give skin a more natural appearance. A traditional shimmery highlighter can also be used for artistic emphasis.

How to use highlighter in contouring

Exactly where to apply highlighter depends on your face. The idea is to bring forward high points with highlighter, while a contouring product amplifies shadows. Apply a matte highlighter to the parts of your face where light naturally hits and blend out using a brush or beauty sponge.

How to apply highlighter

Where to apply highlighter

Highlighter is usually worn along the tops of your cheekbones, starting under the middle of your eye and reaching back to your temples. Other popular places to highlight include the cupid’s bow, the bridge of your nose, under the brow bone and in the inner corner of your eye. Highlighter can even be worn on your collarbones or anywhere else you want a little extra shimmer.

Just remember to use a light touch to start, since it’s easier to build up product than it is to remove it.

How to apply powder highlighter

powder brush

Using a fan brush or a small, fluffy powder brush, pick up product and tap off any excess. Sweep a small amount of highlighter onto the desired areas and blend out for a seamless finish. Powder highlighters can be applied after setting powder for maximum impact.

How to apply cream highlighter

Apply cream highlighter before any powders, or it will cause your base makeup to pill up and the highlighter won’t stick to your skin. Using your fingertips, apply gentle pressure to warm it up and make it easier to blend.

Cream highlighters in stick formulations can be applied directly to your face, but you may prefer fingertip application for better control. Tap or press the highlighter onto your face and blend out with your fingertips or a beauty sponge.

How to apply liquid highlighter

Just as with cream highlighters, you can apply liquid highlighter with either a beauty sponge or your fingertips. Tap a small amount of highlighter onto skin and blend with gentle pats or by buffing out with a sponge. Apply liquid highlighter before your foundation, or mix in a drop or two during application for all-over radiance.

What you need to buy for applying highlighter

Hourglass Ambient Lighting Palette

Hourglass Ambient Lighting Palette

These luxurious highlighters come in three shade trios to flatter a range of skin tones. The high-tech formula is radiant, not sparkly, and gives skin a blurred, softened glow.

Where to buy: Sold by Sephora, Ulta Beauty and Amazon

Rare Beauty Positive Light Liquid Luminizer

Rare Beauty Positive Light Liquid Luminizer

Formulated with nourishing botanicals as well as pearl particles, this weightless liquid highlighter delivers a diffused, luminous finish. It’s available in eight inclusive shades.

Where to buy: Sold by Sephora

Fenty Beauty Cheek-Hugging Highlight Brush

Fenty Beauty Cheek-Hugging Highlight Brush

Specially shaped to distribute highlighter along your cheekbones, this soft, synthetic brush makes applying powder highlighters a breeze. It can even be used along your brow bone, nose or collarbone.

Where to buy: Sold by Sephora and Ulta Beauty


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Laura Duerr writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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