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Bronzer vs. Contour—the Difference According to a Pro


One of the great things about the world of beauty is that it’s huge—there’s a product for everyone. There’s a different foundation formula for every skin type, a nude lipstick for every skin tone, and a mascara for every lash look. One downside to all this variety? Sometimes there are products that are similar, but not exactly the same. Case in point: bronzer and contour.

With beauty tips from the pros and the self-taught running up and down your TikTok feed, the difference between bronzer and contour has started to get a little, dare we say, muddy. If you’ve become confused about which does what, don’t worry—we’ve got you. Read on to get an expert-backed breakdown on the difference between the two products and how to incorporate each into your makeup routine for the bronzy, sculpted look of your dreams (it’ll be a reality in no time).

About the Expert:

Beth Follert is a Los Angeles-based makeup artist who has spent the last 15 years creating makeup looks for television, video, print, commercial, e-commerce, weddings, and the red carpet. See more of her work on her Instagram @bethfollertmakeup.

Bronzer vs. Contour: What's the Difference?

The primary difference between bronzer and contour is that bronzer is usually used to add warmth to the face, while contour "adds dimension and shadow," explains makeup artist Beth Follert. It’s helpful to think of contouring and bronzing in a sort of Venn diagram format: they have a few commonalities: both can come in liquid, cream, or powder form, and both can also add depth to the face—but in different ways.

Bronzing typically adds color in places where the sun would naturally hit. If you’re striving to make your skin look like you just returned from a tropical getaway, bronzing is the move. On the other hand, contouring is applied strategically in certain areas to sculpt and create the illusion of shadows and a more defined face shape. For example, contouring can create a sharper jawline, a narrower-looking nose, or more prominent cheekbones.

Contouring and bronzing also differ in color and finish. Bronzer can sometimes have warmer undertones like orange, red, and yellow and often has a radiant finish. Contouring is more neutral or cool-toned—like many earth-tones—and generally has a matte finish.

That being said, bronzer can also double as contour. "I mostly only use bronzer as contour," says Follert. "I like to use it to add warmth to the skin while also sculpting and shaping. Just a little bronzer applied with a soft full brush can create a beautiful sun-kissed effect." When she does use bronzer to sculpt, Follert says she typically uses a cream-based bronzer as it provides a more seamless and natural-looking contour.

How to Contour Like a Pro

1. Find Your Formula and the Right Tools

Exactly where you apply contour will vary based on your face shape and what effect you’re going for. For a basic contour application, you’ll need to find a contour shade that’s about two shades deeper than your natural skin tone. If you’re using a contour powder, you'll want to use an angled contour brush. For cream or liquid contour products, a damp sponge blender will work best.

2. Map Your Face

Next, you’ll start “mapping your face.” Here’s where you’ll need to play around and figure out where contouring will look best with your specific features. There are contouring techniques for almost every part of the face, but in general, you’ll want to pretend like you’re drawing the number 3 along both sides of your face (so that you contour your forehead, cheekbones, and jawline).

3. Apply the Contour

Start at your forehead and swipe your contour product along your temples or your hairline, depending on your face shape. Then, sweep the product down to the hollows of your cheekbones to make them look more defined (this is the middle part of your “3” shape). Finally, to contour your jawline, swipe the product just along the edge of your jaw in a forward motion.

4. Blend, Blend, Blend

Once you’re finished contouring, you can either use a sponge blender or a makeup brush (depending on which type of formula you used) to blend your contouring seamlessly into your face.

For a full rundown on how to contour, check out our guide to contouring like a pro.

The Best Contouring Products

NATASHA DENONA Alloy Cheek Duo in Super Glow + Blush & Bronze Powder

This cream palette features a contour shade and a blush shade—perfect for those vacays you have planned this summer. Plus, it features a buttery-soft, lightweight, natural look that stuns anytime, anywhere.

SMASHBOX COSMETICS Travel Contour Palette in Light/Medium

The easy-to-use kit includes a bronzer, highlighter, and contour powder, all in a small palette that you can take on the road. The powders are highly pigmented for an immediate payoff, and they double as an eyeshadow base. In just three simple steps, you can apply both contour and bronzer together while also illuminating the skin with a touch of highlighter.

TRÈSTIQUE Color + Contour Bronzer Stick in Brazilian Bronze

Looking for an easy way to precisely apply contour to exactly where you want it? Try this cream contour stick. Directly apply it to the areas that you want to sculpt, then flip it upside down and easily blend with the built-in angled brush.

BEAUTYBLENDER® Bounce Liquid Whip Long Wear Foundation

Here's a pro tip: you can also use foundation as contour. Again, you'll just need to make sure you're using a shade that's two shades darker than your skin tone. Using foundation as contour is a great way to ensure that the contour seamlessly blends in with the foundation you've applied all over the face (especially if you use the same exact formula just in a darker shade). If you're hesitant about contour looking too dramatic, this is a great way to help the makeup look extra natural.

DOSE OF COLORS Meet Your Hue Concealer

As with foundation, concealer is another great option if you’re looking for more precise contouring, like along the sides of your nose (which can make it appear narrower—magic!) and just below your jawline. Look for a creamy formula, which makes it easy to blend. Even better? This buildable concealer also comes in 30 shades, which allows you to find the right contouring color for your skin tone. (FYI: Similar to foundation, the rule of thumb is two shades deeper than your skin tone.)

How to Apply Your Bronzer

1. Find Your Perfect Shade

When choosing bronzing products, Follert says, "In general, choose a bronzer that's one to two shades darker than your skin tone. Neutral tones are my favorite—nothing too orange-y or red." However, she notes that olive skin tones are the exception to this rule as they can wear red undertones well.

Again, for cream or liquid bronzers, a damp sponge blender will be the best tool to blend with. For a powder bronzer, you can either use a bronzer/contour hybrid brush or a fluffy brush like what you might use for powder.

2. Apply It to Your Face's High Points and Swirl to Blend

When applying bronzer, aim for the high points of your face, where the sun would naturally hit your skin (and above where you applied your contour). Starting at your temples, sweep the product along your hairline. Then, swirl the bronzer onto the apples of your cheeks, and swirl it back out to the edge of your face to blend. Dust any excess onto the bridge of the nose. Be sure to blend in a circular motion so there are no harsh edges.

3. Customize Application for Your Face Shape

Like contouring, there are a lot of makeup techniques that allow you to customize bronzer for your specific face shape. For more tips and tricks on how to apply bronzer for every face shape, check out our full guide.

The Best Bronzers


Forget the sun and its damaging UV rays—this revolutionary cream bronzer helps to add a weightless, sun-kissed glow and multidimensional warmth to your skin that rivals any real suntan. Just pick up a small amount of this bronzer with a buffing brush, and apply lightly to areas where you want to add warmth or dimension. Then, blend until it’s diffused.

FENTY BEAUTY Cheeks Out Freestyle Cream Bronzer
Courtesy of FENTY BEAUTY

This weightless, water-resistant cream bronzer melts into the skin instantly without disturbing your expertly crafted makeup. Tap a clean finger in the product and then to your face to map out this bestselling cream bronzer on the face. Use it to create a sun-kissed effect or to contour, adding dimension and definition—it works seamlessly for both purposes.

GLOSSIER Solar Paint
Courtesy of GLOSSIER

If you're planning to use bronzer only as bronzer (as opposed to a bronzer-contour hybrid), a formula featuring a touch of shimmer can really help you nail that instant sunkissed glow. Made with light-reflecting pearls, it creates the ideal balance of warmth and dimension. Plus, the gel crème texture is infused with a unique blend of plant oils and extracts like jojoba oil and aloe to seamlessly blend and nourish the skin.

MORPHE Mini Bronzer

This classic, matte bronzer is a product that is just as trustworthy as it is versatile. Whether you're looking to create sun-kissed skin or emphasize natural shadows, this formula will work flawlessly for both bronzing and contouring. Plus, the powder formula can help to absorb excess oil, making it a great choice for anyone with naturally oily skin.

F.A.R.A.H 160F Face Brush

While almost any brush can double as a bronzer brush, a good one will have an angled tip that allows you to dust bronzer around the perimeter on the face—it’s a little more precise than your average powder brush. This one also works with any bronzer formula, whether you swear by liquid, love a cream, or tend to stick with powder. The synthetic bristles are also super-soft and fluffy, which allows for an even, lightweight application.

Ready to take your bronzer and contour game to the next level? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and TikTok @IPSY.

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About the author
Deanna Pai
Deanna Pai
Deanna Pai is a freelance beauty and wellness writer and editor based in New York; her work has appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, and many others.
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Article Last Updated July 20, 2023 12:00 AM