What type of look would you like to create?
This will help us personalize your experience.

How To Apply Highlighter, From Cream, To Liquid, And Powder

UPDATE how-to-apply-highlighter-thumbnail
PeopleImages / Getty Images

If you've recently strolled down the drugstore beauty aisle, shopped for makeup online, or scrolled through Instagram, chances are you've been inundated with highlighters. That's because highlighting (an age-old pro makeup artist technique) has become an everyday staple for the average person—and for good reason. Highlighting adds a natural-looking dimension to a full face of foundation (more on that below) by making your cheeks pop, but it can serve as a look all on its own.

But with so many options on the market, and what feels like hundreds more launching every month, you may not be sure how to get started on your highlighting journey. Consider this your guide to what highlighter is, which one's for you, and more importantly, the best ways to apply it. Now, get your brushes (or fingers) ready...this is highlighter 101.

About the Expert:

Trinny Woodall is the founder and CEO of Trinny London, a brand of portable, stackable, premium makeup that makes application easy and flawless, every time.

What Does Highlighting Do, Exactly?

Essentially, highlighting is the exact opposite of contouring. When you contour, you use a color darker than your skin tone to create the illusion that certain features (like your cheek hollows, jawline, and temples) are pushed inwards to give a chiseled effect. Highlighter, on the other hand, uses a shimmery shade that is much lighter than your skin tone to catch light and accentuate your features, making them look more prominent. Light-reflecting products are not only used to highlight and illuminate the skin, they help add dimension to your face, which is especially helpful when your features have been washed out by a full-coverage foundation. When combined with contouring, the effects can be dazzling.

Where's the Best Place to Apply Highlighter?

Woodall tells us, "I use highlight in the most classic places; I go a little above my cheekbone so that it reflects that lovely light when I move." For the most natural-looking glow, you'll want to stick to the high points of your face, which is usually found where the light would naturally hit, such as the tops of your cheekbones, your brow bone, the cupid's bow (or the little dip above the center of your top lip), and along the bridge of the nose. You can add a touch to the very tip of your nose, too. Once you've got those basics down, you can get creative and step it up. Woodall also suggests, "if you have a broad face, you can place it on your temples because it changes and gives your face shape and contour."

Really, highlighters can be used on any area that you want to stand out. Wearing a low-cut top? Dust a little highlighter over your shoulders and collarbones. Rocking a sleeveless dress? Run a bit down the front of your arms. What about a skirt or dress? A touch of highlighter down the center of your legs will look stunning. And even if body highlighter might sound like a lot for daily wear, it's actually the trick your favorite celebs use to look radiant on the red carpet. So the next time you've got a wedding, fancy dinner, or a special event, give it a try if you want to take your look to the next level. Woodall also adds, "what I sometimes do, is I mix my highlighter, Starlight, with my foundation."

What Type of Highlighter Should I Use?

Just like eyeshadow, foundation, blush—or really any beauty product—highlighter comes in infinite formulas. You can find highlighters that give you all different kinds of lighting effects—from a subtle sheen to a glossy looking finish, or highlighters that look like opalescent pearls. Highlighters can even make you look straight-up holographic. And those are just the finishes. In terms of color, there's every shade in the rainbow—and then some.

Highlighters can come in powder (pressed or loose), liquid, or cream formulas. Powder highlighters will deliver a bit more pigment payoff due to their being more buildable, and they’re also the best for those who have oily skin, as they don't tend to add any additional oils or emollience. Highlighters that come in cream or liquid form are usually more sheer, and they’re great for those with combo or dry skin types.  

  • For Fair Skin Tones

 When you're looking at colors and finishes, that choice is pretty much based on preference. In general, cooler tones in pearl or silver shades, like TRINNY LONDON The Right Light Highlighter in Starlight, tend to look more realistic on fair or lighter skin with pink undertones. They can also have a fun, futuristic effect on medium to deep skin with warmer undertones.

  • For A Sunkissed Glow

Peaches and pinks, on the other hand, tend to work better on medium skin tones. Sweep TARTE Amazonian Clay 12-hour Highlighter over your cheekbones, blending the bronze shade on the left into the lighter shade for a sunkissed glow.

  • For Deep Skin Tones

Golden or copper shades are beautiful on deeper skin tones. We love FENTY Diamond Bomb All-Over Diamond Veil in Cognac Candy. It also comes with a beautiful blush and bronzer, so you'll have everything you need all in one place to make your skin glow.

Based on your skin type and the look you want, you can find the best highlighter for you (and we've picked a few of our favorites to get you started). Once you find your go-to, here's how to get that glow.

How to Apply Powder Highlighter

First things first, if you're wearing liquid foundation or tinted moisturizer and want to use a powder highlighter, you will need to set your base beforehand with a translucent powder. This will help ensure that your highlighter will apply smoothly and won't skid or crease. If you're going in with a liquid or cream option, feel free to skip this step, as they'll blend easily together. Remember this makeup rule-of-thumb: powders go on top of powders, and liquids and/or creams go on top of other liquids and/or creams.

Once you're prepped, it's time to bring out your beauty toolbox.

Step 1: Dip a smaller, tapered brush lightly into the powder, tapping off the excess to avoid oversaturating your cheeks in highlighter. Powder highlighters like BENEFIT Cookie Golden Pearl Highlighter work best with a fan brush or small to medium-sized blush brush. A fluffy eyeshadow brush will also work—basically you just want something small for precision.

Step 2: Then in a sweeping motion, dust the brush across your high points. Reminder: They're your cheekbones, brow bones, Cupid's bow, and the bridge of the nose.

How to Apply Liquid Highlighter

Just like powders work best over powders, liquids and creams work best over (you guessed it!) liquids and creams. After you've applied your base, go straight in with highlighter before reaching for any powders.

Tip 1: Begin by dabbing the liquid highlighter (try RARE BEAUTY Liquid Luminizer Highlight in Positive Light) directly onto your high points, then sheer out those spots with your fingers or your foundation brush to blend them out.

Tip 2: If your liquid highlighter is packaged with a pump applicator, simply dispense a small amount onto your finger and apply to the high points of your face.

Tip 3: You can also use a makeup sponge. Looking for more of an all-over dewy luminescence? Mix a few drops of liquid highlighter directly into your foundation for an all-over, lit-from-within glow.

How to Apply Cream Highlighter

The same anti-powder rules for liquid highlighters apply to cream highlighters. Swirl your finger into a cream, like HUDA BEAUTY 3D Highlighter Palette in Golden Sands, to warm up your face. This will help it blend better with the rest of your makeup.

Step 1: Using your finger, tap the highlighter just where you want to glow.

Step 2: For a totally seamless look, blend those spots out with the makeup sponge or brush you used to apply your foundation.

Want in on all the IPSY Glam Bag fun with highlighters, luminizers, and more? 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 Twitter @IPSY.

Like this article? Share it with your friends by clicking the icons below!

About the author
Stephanie Montes
Stephanie Montes
Stephanie is a freelance contributor covering all things beauty. She writes about her adventures testing the latest trends in skincare, hair, and makeup. Stephanie's bylines have also appeared on Who What Wear, Elle, Byrdie, Bustle, and more.
Share Article
Article Last Updated July 7, 2022 12:00 AM