Everything You Need To Know About Using Highlighter

Get glowing.
By Mishal Cazmi
Everything You Need To Know About Using Highlighter

(Photo: Courtesy of Fenty Beauty)

If you’ve ever admired how the light hits someone’s face just right, chances are that they were wearing highlighter. From subtle radiance to serious shimmer, light-reflecting makeup products have the 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 makeup artist in Vancouver, to learn how to use highlighter to get our glow on.

What is highlighter?

A highlighter is a makeup product that reflects light. “Typically, it’s used on the high 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, corners of your eyes and even on your cupid’s bow along the upper lip or 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. 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 complement 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 typically want to 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 likely fare better with creams and liquids, which are more forgiving and will diffuse any rough or uneven texture on the skin, adds 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.

A pink Beauty Blender recommended by makeup artists for how to apply highlighter.Beautyblender Makeup Sponge, $27

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.

The best highlighters to shop in 2024

E.l.f. Halo Glow Liquid Filter, $18

E.l.f. Halo Glow Liquid Filter for an article on how to use highlighter.

A dupe for a viral product that's over three times the price, this liquid highlighter keeps selling out. You can use it under your foundation for a subtle all-over glow, or dab it on the high points of the face to catch the light.

The large doe-foot applicator makes application completely foolproof, and the liquid formula is easy to blend with a brush or wet sponge. There are 12 shades to choose from, so matching it to your skin tone to get a natural glow is easy.

Wet n Wild MegaGlo Highlighting Powder, $8

Wet n Wild MegaGlo Highlighting Powder for an article on how to use highlighter.

Available in four high-impact shades, this ultra-affordable highlighter is just as good as pricier options. The fine, velvety powder is easy to swipe on for a natural look.

Merit Day Glow Highlighting Balm, $44

A stick of Merit Day Glow Highlighting Balm for an article on how to use highlighter.

If a lit-from-within glow is what you’re after, look no further than this hydrating balm. The formula contains skin-friendly vitamins and amino acids to hydrate, and zero glitter. It's now available in four shades—including Solstice, a brand new bronze hue—that melt into skin without looking dry or patchy.

Rare Beauty Positive Light Silky Touch Highlighter, $34

Rare Beauty Positive Light Silky Touch Highlighter

The glass-like sheen of this powder highlighter made it an instant hit among beauty enthusiasts when it first launched. It’s available in six ultra-wearable shades and it also doubles as eyeshadow if you want to take your look to the next level.

Trinny London The Right Light Highlighter, $45

Trinny London The Right Light highlight for an article on how to use highlighter.

This cream highlighter comes in an easy-to-use pot that’s ideal to pack into a carry-on. It goes on smoothly and naturally catches the light to give skin a subtle glow without any shimmer. We’re big fans of the peachy Candlelight, but it also comes in champagne, golden and bronze hues.

Saie Glowy Super Gel All-Over Luminizer, $40

A bottle Saie Glowy Super Gel All-Over Luminizer for an article on how to use highlighter.

This gel-like formula comes in two shades and can be used in a multitude of ways. Apply it on bare skin, mix it in with you foundation or dab it on wherever it's needed to give skin an instant boost. It contains glycerin and rosehip seed oil to care for skin throughout the day.

Dior Forever Glow Maximizer Liquid Highlighter, $56

A bottle of Dior Forever Glow Maximizer Liquid Highlighter for an article on how to use highlighter.

With seven versatile shades, this multipurpose liquid highlighter can also be used as a blush, bronzer or eyeshadow. It brightens skin instantly with a subtle shimmer finish.

Live Tinted Hueglow Liquid Highlighter Drops, $54

A bottle of Live Tinted Hueglow Liquid Highlighter Drops for an article on how to use highlighter.

These liquid highlighter drops contain hyaluronic acid and squalane to plump up skin. There are four shades to choose from, and they can be mixed with moisturizer or foundation for a custom glow.

Charlotte Tilbury Pillow Talk Multi-Glow, $50

A compact of Charlotte Tilbury Pillow Talk Multi-Glow for an article on how to use highlighter.

Inspired by the brand’s beloved Pillow Talk lip liner, this high-shimmer powder compact gives skin the same melt-in-the-skin, lit-from-within glow as a liquid highlighter. It comes in two shades: Romance Light, a range of nude and pinks that best suit cool undertones, and Dream Light, which features warm pinks and bronzes.

Fenty Beauty Killawatt Freestyle Highlighter, $54

A compact of Fenty Beauty Killawatt Freestyle Highlighter for an article on how to use highlighter.

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.

Glossier Haloscope Highlighter Stick, $30

Glossier Haloscope Highlighter Stick for an article on how to use highlighter.

This fuss-free highlighter stick is infused with tiny crystals and comes in three sheer, iridescent shades—Moonstone, Quartz and Topaz—that effortlessly melt into the skin thanks to a blend of coconut, castor seed and sweet almond oils.

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