Highlighter is probably one of the most handy and transformative modern cosmetic inventions. Finding one that melts into your skin, with just the right degree of luminosity and in a shade that flatters your colouring like candlelight, is surely the holy grail of makeup, and certainly literally and metaphorically makes up for lost sleep, a few nights of lacklustre skincare discipline or simply a blah skin day. The thing is, lately, on the internet and now IRL, highlighter use has gotten a little out of hand. From glittery rainbow hues to disco ball effects at the end of noses, so called strobing is veering into alien territory, and, on many accounts really (*lollipop*), the Kardashians have a lot to answer for. Enter the experts to advise on using highlighter to gorgeous, glowy effect, plus a few illuminator pitfalls to avoid. If you’ve ever aimed for ‘radiant’ and ended up with sweaty upper lip, read on.
Why use a highlighter?
If my opener hasn’t sold highlighter to you like bottled sunshine, I’ll let makeup artist Nathalie Eleni do some positive PR on the illuminator account:
“Applied well, it can really enhance and awaken your complexion. For me the most flattering way to use highlighter is to create ‘skin lights’, mimicking how fresh, healthy and plump skin would naturally look when the sunlight bounces off it.”
International makeup artist and founder of the Attracta Beauty Awards Attracta Courtney agrees that, when applied sparingly, highlighter elevates an understated makeup look and can troubleshoot too:
“Using a highlighter will give your skin an instant refresh, accentuate your features and camouflage dark circles when applied with care. They’re my go-to products to create juicy, glowing skin, particularly when I’m creating a ‘no makeup makeup’ look .”
Makeup artist Lou Dartford also agrees that, far from being a glitzy add-on, highlighter can form a staple step of even the speediest makeup routine, as its immediate payoff is somehow subtle yet impactful:
“I put it on more or less everyone I would say. For me it adds instant radiance and gives skin that coveted healthy glow. It's definitely an everyday product for me personally.”
So getting your glow stick out daily is endorsed by the experts, but where to begin, and what to make of the unicorn palettes and pots of sparkle?
How to choose a highlighter
First off, the real talk. Because no one’s skin is Avatar or Shrek hued, that multicoloured mermaid shimmer may not paint your features in their best light, and let’s face it, will look iridescently obvious in the clear light of day. Attracta can only think of two places that candy coloured highlighters belong:
“Festivals and Instagram. That’s it. I wouldn’t use them in your daily routine.”
Take your highlighter cue from your natural skin colour, not a mythical creature, and follow Nathalie’s guidelines for picking a believable shade:
“Pale to medium skintones suit champagne and apricot tones, skin with a hint of sallowness should look for more pink in their highlighter, while olive and dark skins look beautiful with more bronzy, golden highlights.”
Now you’ve nailed your shade, there’s one other highlighter feature to sidestep according to Lou:
“Be wary of anything with too much glitter or sparkle, as this can look too obvious and fake on the skin, plus it’s far more likely to settle in pores or over uneven skin texture, which is unflattering and not the look you’re after.”
Floodlighting your pores isn’t the aim of the game here.
Cream, liquid or powder?
This is entirely personal preference depending on your skin type and the effect you’re after, however two out of our three makeup artists preferred cream for its ‘second skin’ capacity. Lou explains why cream highlighters take pride of place in her kit:
“I absolutely love a cream- I feel that it gives more of a natural look. Cream textures are amazing on bare skin or over a liquid or cream foundation. If you want a really subtle highlight, try applying a cream to bare skin and then apply foundation over the top to blend it in. Combining a cream highlighter with a cream blusher is essentially a shortcut to well slept skin in my book.”
Attracta also favours a cream or liquid texture “to give more organic, believable skin perfection, and I think that they compliment skin of all ages and types better than powders.” That said, Lou reckons that powders have their place:
“Powders are great to use after you’ve set your foundation with a light setting powder - I would use a powder highlighter as a finishing touch after blusher and bronzer.”
Nathalie on the other hand doubles cream with powder for extra vibrancy over the cheekbones when working with red carpet clients, preferring powder textures for the rest of the face. It’s different strokes for different folks, but the general consensus is to blend, blend, blend, which brings us to...
How to apply highlighter
Again, this is texture dependent, but a bit of finger painting will go far if you’re opted for a liquid or a cream, as Attracta affirms:
“It’s best to apply this type of highlighter with your fingertips for accuracy, tapping it gently onto and over the skin for a natural effect after you’ve applied foundation, so that it really sinks in and looks ‘lit from within’.”
As for powder, get your more niche brushes out:
“For fine mineral and powder highlighter I would recommend to apply using a fan shaped brush for an ‘angel’ dusting effect, ideally after you have applied a translucent setting powder.”
You're trying to emulate a natural sheen on the skin, so you shouldn’t see where your product starts or finishes
If you’ve ever wondered what that rare bird of the beauty tool collection the fan brush is for, there’s your answer. Nathalie uses an eyeshadow blending brush for a soft finish in nooks and crannies (we’ll get to those in a moment), while Lou has some layering guidelines:
“There is a general makeup application rule- layer creams on creams, and powders on powders. Seeing as rules are there to be broken, sometimes I will take a product with a cream texture and dab it over a powder as my finishing touch, but I will only ever trace my fingers over the cheekbones with my cream highlighter very, very lightly, otherwise it can go a bit blocky.”
Blocks and stripes are the nemesis of ethereal highlighting- here’s Lou’s counsel on how to avoid them:
“Whatever texture of highlighter you’re using, make sure you really blend it in- there is nothing worse than seeing a stripe of highlight. We’re trying to emulate a natural sheen on the skin, so you shouldn’t see where your product starts or finishes.”
Where to apply highlighter
Nathalie gives us a rough road map of where highlighter should live:
“I love to use it on the cheekbones, inner corners of the eyes and I also tend to add a tiny bit to the Cupid’s bow above the lips to make them look fuller. As for the controversial issue of nose highlighting, I occasionally dust a tiny amount onto the bridge of the nose, but it’s not an everyday thing.”
Highlighter can be one the least faffy ways to make eyelids ‘pop’ according to Lou, and she uses highlighter to bring out cheekbones too, but precision application pays off:
“I’ll always highlight cheekbones, however, it’s most flattering to keep it to the bone and not stray too close to the eyes, otherwise you may end up highlighting fine lines too.
“The Cupid’s bow is another great place to bring in a bit of light, but again be wary of applying too much, as it can end up looking like a sweaty upper lip, especially in photos.”
Unfortunately, highlighter moonlighting as perspiration is a common hazard...
Where not to apply highlighter
Before applying any highlighter, anywhere, consider your environment. I realise that this sounds like some kind of Bear Grylls exercise, but not accounting for your surroundings can result in the dreaded sweat effect according to Lou:
“It’s important to consider the effect of flash photography when applying highlighter for a night out or special occasion- what can look lovely and dewy to the naked eye can look sweaty in a photo.
A day when you’ll be photographed a lot is not the right day for intense highlighting
“Also, ‘highlighter’ is so called for a reason- it will quite literally light up whatever it hits, so don’t if there’s a feature that you don’t want to accentuate, don’t go there. For instance, I’d never put highlighter on my nose.”
Attracta also has some no-go zones:
“I always avoid the apples of the cheeks as this can be very unflattering and make the face look narrower, as your attention will always go to the ‘lit’ area.”
Nathalie’s bugbear, meanwhile, is the overly shiny 80s style brow bone, and generally ‘carving’ highlighter at every plane of your face:
“Don’t use it to ‘reshape’ your face- this always looks unrealistic. I also don’t like sheeny, highlighted brow bones as I think that they look dated (and not in a vintage, retro way). You can always lighten your base just under the brow to enhance the shape are arch of your eyebrows with a concealer that’s one shade lighter than your normal shade if you feel that you need to brighten or open up the eye space.”
Meanwhile, Harley Street Medical Group makeup artist Bryony Blake isn’t a fan of blanket highlighting in every situation- she thinks that highlighter isn’t always the answer to a bridal glow, for one:
“ Bridal makeup can be tricky. You want to apply more than you would on a daily basis but not go overboard (for example - you’d not put on as much as you would for a performance on stage!). When applying foundation and base try not to go too heavy as this can be exaggerated on camera. It’s a case of enhancing your features without being too heavy handed. A day when you’ll be photographed a lot is not the right day for intense highlighting. Go easy on the shimmer and instead opt for something that can create a dewy, natural look, that looks like your skin glows from within. I always like to prep the skin with a hydrating serum first so that the skin has a natural radiance, then take it from there.”
If serums aren’t cutting it alone, Nathalie recommends a radiance enhancing primer such as Sisley Instant Glow , £60, or Attracta advocates adding one to two drops of a liquid highlighter such as The Body Shop Drops of Glow , £12, blended into a liquid foundation “for an easy, healthy luminosity, and a summer skin effect without the fake tan.” Get lit with this lot.