How to Apply Powder Highlighters for the Ultimate Glow!

Here are our top tips on how to apply highlighters, whether you want to achieve a lit-from-within glow or want to blind the people around you with how shiny your highlighter is, this is the place to start!  We’ll work through some guidelines on how to choose the right highlighter, what highlighters work better for some skin types, and how to apply highlighter for different effects!

What is highlighting in makeup? What is a highlighter?

Highlighting is applying a brightening or reflective product onto the high points of the face in order to reflect light.  It is possible to low-key highlight with a more matte product (one that is lighter than your natural skin tone), but highlighting in makeup most commonly requires some sort of shimmer, shine, or “glow.”  Highlighting is much like it sounds like; it is highlighting certain areas (and then de-emphasizing other areas by drawing attention away).  Highlighting is often paired with contouring, which adds definition and shadow to the face.

A classic example is defining and highlighting cheek bones where a contour sits under the cheek bone slightly to make them appear more prominent and sharper, while a highlight continues in the same vein by making the actual cheek bone stand out even more.

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Fenty Beauty Killwatt Duos

Best Highlighters for Your Skin Type

Remember, one of the few rules that I believe in when it comes to makeup is… there are no makeup rules.  It’s supposed to be fun, and it’s your face/body/eyes/lips/whatever so you do you.  The below is general advice and often is a good starting point, but if you don’t care about a highlighter emphasizing your pores a bit, rock that sparkly, metallic highlighter and enjoy it!

Some ultra-metallic highlighters are so shiny that they start to smooth out the skin, too, so you never know ’til you give it a shot.  You’ll want to play with textures, application methods, and base product combinations; the perfect face primer might absolve even the more texturizing highlighters for you, or you might find that a dewier foundation doesn’t work as well with a more glittery highlighter.

  1. DRY SKIN — Naturally, more emollient highlighters tend to sit better on dry skin without emphasizing dryness or catching on flakiness.  These will be denser, more silicone-heavy powder formulas along with the more expected liquid and cream options.  You’ll want to look for marketing buzz words like creamy, smooth, shiny, and wet.
  2. OILY SKIN — Oily skin types often notice their pores (and their size) more often, so chunky, more metallic highlighters can emphasize the texture of the skin, particularly the size and appearance of pores, so opting for smoother, more refined textures and finer shimmer in one’s highlighters can help minimize this effect. You want to look for marketing buzz words like subtle, glow, luminous, and lit-from-within.
  3. TEXTURE SKIN — Like oily skin types, highlighters can emphasize any natural texture found on the skin, so if that is a concern for you, you’ll want to opt for finer shimmer, more emollient textures, and less chunky sparkle/glitter.  You want to look for marketing buzz words like subtle, glow, luminous, and lit-from-within.
  4. NORMAL SKIN — Lucky for you, the world is your oyster — it’ll come down more to preference than a specific type or formula.

Where to Apply Highlighter

These are all typical areas where one can apply highlighter but keep in mind that it’s all about your face and what you want to highlight–you don’t have to do all of them by any means.  You may find that subtle formulas work well for a nose highlight or dusted lightly underneath the eyes to brighten and perk up tired eyes, while a more moderate glow is preferred for cheeks… or any combination.

  1. Cheek bones — tops of the cheek bones (use your fingers to feel for the bone, then apply just above it)
  2. Brow bone — this is the area right below your eye brow and can create the appearance of a lift of the brow
  3. Inner corner/tearduct [of the eye] — this is the area where the inner corner of the eye meets the bridge of the nose and works well to brighten the eye area (especially useful when working with darker eyeshadows)
  4. Nose — subtle highlight down the nose can make it appear slimmer, if desired; a touch of highlight on the tip of the nose will lift it
  5. Cupid’s bow — this is the area directly above your upper lip, about the halfway point where the upper lip has a slight V shape; highlighting here can pull lips forward and add volume to lips or help define the shape
  6. Under the eyes — where one would typically apply under eye concealer, this can be a space to brighten or highlight but typically would use a much more subtle highlight than other areas
  7. Center of Lips — you can pat on a little bit of highlight to the center of lips to help make lips appear fuller (can be done with traditional highlighter or putting a bit of gloss on)

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How to Apply Powder Highlighters

In my experience, powder highlighters are the easiest to apply as they tend to blend out with little effort and are easily accessible in a variety of shades, formulations, and at a slew of price points.  Also, if you’ve never tried a powder highlight but own eyeshadow, you likely have a shimmery, highlight-type shade eyeshadow in your arsenal that could just as easily be applied to the high points of your face.

How to Get Subtle to Moderate Glow

Choose a more refined, more luminous, and less sparkly powder highlighter to start with.  You’re looking for a highlighter that isn’t blinding but has enough sheen or shimmer to still have a noticeable effect.

Choose your toolFan brushes are ideal for the lightest, sheerest application of product, so if you want to start off sheer and build up or if you only want a subtle glow, choose a fan brush (I like the Wayne Goss Brush 15, $25; Sonia G. Sculpt Three, $32; and IT #116, $18).  In general, you’re looking for less-dense brushes, and if you’re working with a denser brush, you’ll want to use a lighter hand (see step 3 below).

Tapered brushes are the “standard” for highlighting and for good reason; the tapered end works well for applying and blending out highlight, particularly on the cheeks) and can yield moderate to heavy application, so they are quite versatile (I like the Wayne Goss Brush 02, $35; Hakuhodo J5521, $38; and Real Techniques Setting Brush, $7.99).  You can also try a small, flat brush (I like the Wayne Goss The Air Brush, $35), which I find most ideal for subtle to moderate highlight on the cheeks as well as under the eyes.

Use a lighter hand!  If you find yourself more heavy-handed, hold your brushes toward the end of the handle, which will give automatic reduction in pressure.  The rest is just practice and understanding that heavy pressure will pick up more product and then deposit more product.  With makeup, it’s typically better to use a light to moderate pressure and build up to desired intensity and coverage as it’s easier to build than it is to reduce later on.

Sweep on the product in a fluid motion by starting in one space and then gently spreading the product across the area.  For the cheeks, it’s often best to start toward the center of the face and then diffuse and spread the powder highlight toward the outer area of the cheek bones. For the brow bone, this would be to start just before the arch of the brow (closer to the nose) and pull up and down just beyond the arch (for maximum lift).

Use translucent powder to soften your highlighter.  If you find that the effect ended up too shimmery, a dusting of translucent setting or finishing powder can help mattify and soften the look of the shimmer without taking it away entirely.

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OFRA Star Island Highlighter

How to Get an Intense to Metallic Glow

Choose a more metallic, sparkly, and/or shiny formula.  If you’re going for intensity and high-shine, it’s better to start with a more intense highlighter instead of building up a subtle one using ten layers of product (unless you’re just trying it out or it’s a one-time thing, then use what you have!).  Less layers means less chance of cakiness and emphasizing of texture.

Choose your tool!   Tapered brushes are the “standard” for highlighting and for good reason; the tapered end works well for applying and blending out highlight, particularly on the cheeks) and can yield moderate to heavy application, so they are quite versatile (I like the Wayne Goss Brush 02, $35; Hakuhodo J5521, $38; and Real Techniques Setting Brush, $7.99).

Alternatively, a traditional blush brush–one that might be a little smaller than average–has the right density and a good shape for highlighting areas like the cheeks. You can use eye brushes that you’d normally use on the lid to get to smaller areas and then use a larger, more typical face brush (or even an eyeshadow blending/crease brush) to diffuse and soften if needed!

Use a moderate hand!  Unless you’re working with a very stiff formula, a heavy hand shouldn’t be necessary to achieve high-shine results.  A moderate hand will pick up more product in a single application and allow for efficient blending but should not disturb any base or complexion products underneath it.  If you’re too heavy-handed, it can result in more uneven application or lifting up your foundation (which then causes patchiness).  It’s always better to layer and build up the intensity as you need it rather than having to diffuse/sheer out an over-application of product.  This way, you can control just how shiny it is and where; for example, you might want an extremely shiny effect right on the top-most part of your cheekbones and a strong sheen everywhere else.

Sweep on the product in a fluid motion by starting in one space and then gently spreading the product across the area.  For the cheeks, it’s often best to start toward the center of the face and then diffuse and spread the powder highlight toward the outer area of the cheek bones. For the brow bone, this would be to start just before the arch of the brow (closer to the nose) and pull up and down just beyond the arch (for maximum lift).

Apply your highlighter wet!  Most highlighter formulas can be applied with a dampened brush, but if you’re unsure, you can always pick up product with a dry brush, then spritz your brush with water or setting spray before applying to your cheeks.  Powder highlighters applied wet typically take on a more intense, more reflective shine as it almost melts the powder onto the skin.