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 or 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 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.
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.
Wet n Wild MegaGlo Highlighting Powder, $8
Available in four high-impact shades, this ultra-affordable highlighter is as good as pricier options.
Oceanly Cream Highlighter Stick, $34
This foolproof, made-in-Canada cream highlighter is housed in compostable, plastic-free packaging and formulated with natural ingredients including hydrating phytoglycogen and softening algae extract. It comes in two shades inspired by sunrises (Golden Rose) and sunsets (Sunset Glow) and gives skin a gorgeous sheen.
Merit Day Glow Highlighting Balm, $42
If a lit-from-within glow is what you’re after, look no further than this hydrating balm. Need proof? It won the best highlighter category in our Beauty Awards.
Rare Beauty Positive Light Silky Touch Highlighter, $34
The glass-like sheen of this powder highlighter made it an instant hit among beauty enthusiasts when it first launched. It also doubles as eyeshadow if you want to take your look to the next level.
Drunk Elephant B-Goldi Bright Drops
Add these illuminating drops to your moisturizer for an instant glow-up. Bonus: They contain niacinamide to brighten skin as you wear them.
Charlotte Tilbury Beauty Highlighter Wand, $53
This mess-free wand went viral on TikTok, and it’s easy to see why. The gorgeous glossy gel formula comes in 7 shades—plus 3 limited-edition shades in collaboration with Disney—and either a radiant or shimmery finish. Pro tip: Pick the finish and shade based on the level of drama you want to add to your look.
Fenty Beauty Killawatt Freestyle Highlighter, $54
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
These fuss-free highlighter sticks are infused with tiny crystals and come 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.
While the products in this piece have been independently chosen by our editors, this article contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.
Originally published 2020; updated 2023.