If you’ve ever admired how the light hit someone’s face just right, chances are that they were wearing highlighter. From subtle radiance to serious shimmer, light-reflecting makeup products are all the rage right now thanks to their ability to brighten up dull complexions, give skin a healthy glow and enhance natural features.
But here’s the thing: highlighter is a little confusing. How is it different from blush? Where does it go? What is it applied with? We enlisted the help of Tracy Peart, a Toronto-based makeup artist and on-air beauty expert, and Atefeh Shojaie, a Vancouver-based makeup artist, to learn how to get our glow on.
What is highlighter?
A highlighter is a makeup product that reflects light. “Typically, it’s used on the highest points of the face and areas that you want to pop or stand out more,” says Shojaie. You can apply highlighter on your cheekbones, temples, brow bone, and even on your cupid’s bow and along the bridge of your nose.
It’s worth noting that highlighter is often formulated with mica, a shimmery mineral that has traditionally been sourced in rural India using child labour. Thankfully, some brands now use lab-made mica and major cosmetic companies—including Estée Lauder and L’Oréal—have pledged to improve traceability within the Indian mica industry to create a more ethical supply chain.
Do I need a highlighter if I’m already wearing blush?
“A blush adds colour to your skin. Its purpose is to make you look flushed,” explains Peart. A highlighter, on the other hand, helps emphasize a feature by making it pop. While blush and highlighter are two separate makeup products with different end goals, they compliment each other. If you’re looking to boost your glow without adding an extra product to your routine, a shimmery blush that adds colour to your cheeks while also reflecting light is a great option.
Are certain formulas better for specific skin types?
Highlighters come in powder, cream and liquid formulas, and choosing one that will work best for your skin is crucial. Oily skin types should steer clear of cream and liquid formulas and stick to powders, which will stay put for longer. “If you have oily skin and you put on a liquid highlighter, there’s more likelihood of it moving around,” warns Peart. If you have dry skin, you’ll typically fare better with creams and liquids, which are more forgiving and will diffuse any rough or uneven texture on the skin, says Shojaie. For those with combination skin, any formula is likely to work well, so it’s all down to personal preferences.
What is the best way to apply highlighter?
Both makeup artists prefer using a sponge—like a Beautyblender—to apply cream and liquid highlighters. Avoid using a sweeping motion to apply, says Peart, which will disrupt the makeup and cause streakiness. “I like to lightly stipple or dab it, so it’ll go on beautiful and smooth,” she adds. For best results, dampen the sponge with water and use a paper towel to squeeze out any excess liquid before applying your highlighter.
For powder formulas, look for a soft, fluffy brush and apply using a light, sweeping motion. “You don’t want to press the brush too harshly into your face because then you’re disrupting what you’ve laid down already,” says Peart. For smaller areas like your brow bone or cupid’s bow, switch to a small eyeshadow brush for a more precise application.
Should I apply highlighter over my foundation or under?
Think of your highlighter as a finishing touch. Save it for the end of your makeup routine, after you’ve applied your foundation and blush. “It’s the last thing you add to the points of the face, where you want to have that glow or sheen when the light hits you,” says Shojaie.
Can people of all skin tones wear highlighter?
Anyone can wear highlighter—it’s just a matter of finding the one that best suits your skin tone. For a natural-looking highlight, choose a hue that’s just a couple of shades lighter than your complexion. If you have very fair skin, opt for an opal or pearl shade. Peart recommends pairing it with some contour—whether it’s blush or bronzer—in order to create depth (think: light and shadow). Golden or peachy highlighters tend to look great on medium skin, while those with darker skin tones might want to give gold, bronze or copper shades a whirl.
What should I do if I’ve applied too much?
If you’ve accidentally applied too much product, grab a clean makeup brush and buff out any excess, advises Shojaie. The same goes if you’ve used a sponge: use a clean sponge to tone it down. Another option is to add a bit of concealer (cream or liquid works best), or a powder product (like a pressed or setting powder) over top. “Lightly go over it so it brings down the effect of the highlighter,” says Shojaie.
Ready to get glowing? Here are a few of our favourite formulas.
This versatile illuminator comes in four hues. Add a few drops to your go-to moisturizer for a natural, lit-from-within glow.
NYX Cosmetics Born to Glow Liquid Illuminator, $14, nyxcosmetics.ca
Available in solo or duo formats, this buttery highlighter comes in a wide variety of shades for all skin tones. The fine shimmer means you can either keep it soft and subtle or radically amp up your glow.
Fenty Beauty Killawatt Freestyle Highlighter, $49, sephora.com
These fuss-free highlighter sticks come in four sheer, iridescent shades—opal, rose, champagne and bronze—and effortlessly melts into the skin thanks to soft natural waxes.
Nude by Nature Touch of Glow Highlight Stick, $28, shoppersdrugmart.ca
This mess-free wand went viral on TikTok this year, and it’s easy to see why. The gorgeous glossy gel formula comes in radiant or shimmery finishes—pick one based on the level of drama you want to add to your look.
Charlotte Tilbury Beauty Highlighter Wand, $52, charlottetilbury.com
For a radiant glow, Peart likes this dual powder highlighter, which lets you dip your brush into one or both shades. Choose from two skin-flattering options in gold and rose-gold hues.
Vasanti See The Light Powder Highlighter Duo, $29, vasanticosmetics.ca
Originally published 2020; updated 2022.