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Light Up Your Look: How to Apply Illuminator for Gorgeous Dewy Skin


Shimmery, glowing skin is oh-so-pretty and oh-so-easy to create on your own with makeup products. But if you've been looking for that megawatt shine that's been lighting up both social media and the red carpet, odds are you've stumbled upon two different types of products: highlighter and illuminator. 

So, what's the deal? What makes illuminator different from highlighter, and how do you go about applying it for that professional-makeup-artist glow? We illuminate the answers to all these questions and more–plus our picks for the best products you can use to get that perfect illuminated makeup look.


What's the Difference Between Highlighter & Illuminator?

Turns out, there’s only one main difference between highlighter and illuminator: the finished effect. 

Highlighters are designed to be used only on certain sections of your face, or your face’s high points, like your Cupid’s bow, the tops of your cheekbones, and the bridge of your nose, to name a few (we explain how to use and apply highlighter in-depth here). As such, you’ll likely find many highlighting products to be more pigmented and made up of larger or more light-reflecting particles to give this sort of spotlighting–or, well, highlighting–effect. 

Illuminator, on the other hand, is designed to give an all-over, lit-from-within kind of glow, instead of just focusing on your face's high points. Think of illuminator as more of a light-diffusing product than a light-reflecting one: illuminating product is generally much softer and gives more of a subtle glow than what you’d get from a highlighter.  

Where it gets confusing is in the labelling. Nowadays, many highlighting products are often referred to as illuminators, and vice versa. To keep things simple, we categorize illuminator as any highlighting product that is more glowy than glittery and that gives more of a subtle, sheer shimmer than a traditional light-reflecting highlight would. Eddie Funkhouser’s Luxlight Illuminator, for example, is meant to be applied only on the high points of your face, like a traditional highlighter, but is labelled a liquid illuminator because of the beautiful barely-there glow it imparts on your skin, much softer than a traditional highlighting product.

IPSY Creator Micaela Klein wears illuminator under her foundation for an ethereal glow.

How to Apply Illuminator like a Pro

Much like how you apply highlighter depends on which highlighter product you use, how you apply illuminator depends on whether you're using a powder, cream, or liquid illuminator product. 

Since illuminators are meant to provide more of an all-over, subtle glow than highlighter, many makeup artists suggest actually mixing your liquid illuminator into your liquid foundation or moisturizer. For a quick-and-easy application, simply dab a few dots of liquid illuminator–like Clinique's Up-Lighting Liquid Illuminator–onto the back of your hand. Then, squirt your foundation or moisturizer on top of the illuminator, and mix until the two products are completely blended. Apply as you would normally apply your foundation or moisturizer, and that's it–super simple, right? If you're even more pressed for time, dot the liquid illuminator directly onto your face (we like to use a product with a wand for extra-easy application here, like Starlooks "High Life" Liquid Illuminator), then apply your foundation, and blend as you apply to mix the two products together. 

Cream illuminator is just as easy to use and apply. Just like liquid illuminator, you can either mix it into your foundation, or layer it on top of your finished foundation, focusing on the high points of your face. This second way is often the easiest because cream illuminators usually come in stick or pencil forms. Apply a product like Trifle Cosmetics' Sweet Strobe Creamy Stick Illuminator after you've applied your foundation, concealer, and bronzer, if you choose to use it. Then, either dab or swipe the product on top of your cheekbones, on your brow bone, and down the bridge of your nose, and blend with either a makeup sponge or your fingers. For an extra-gleaming effect, blend the product onto your eyelids as an eyeshadow base–this technique is a surefire way to make your eyes sparkle. 

Powder illuminator can either be used as a setting powder or on its own. However, unlike cream and liquid illuminators, it can be hard to use your fingers with this type of product. We recommend using a fan brush, like Ofra Cosmetics' Highlighting Fan Brush #7, to gently sweep the product across the top of your cheekbones and your Cupid's bow for a more subtle shimmer. Or, for an extra-dewy look, use a powder brush, like F.A.R.A.H. Brushes' Large Powder Brush, and an illuminating powder roughly the same color as your skin tone, and blend over your whole face after you've finished your makeup. Since illuminator emits a softer shimmer than highlight, you'll look naturally dewy instead of in-your-face shiny: but be careful using this method if you have already-oily skin, as it can emphasize any of your face's oily zones.

The Best Illuminator Products, Ever

We truly are living in the Golden Age of Illuminators–there are so many variations in products to choose from and, thankfully, a wide range of colors and formulas for every skin tone. Of course, you'll want to consider your skin type when choosing any makeup product: liquid illuminator products are a great pick for normal or dry skin types, for example, while oily skin types might choose to use less–or try a powder illuminator–because your natural oils will already give you a glow.

That being said, never be afraid to experiment and switch things up–who knows, you might just find your new favorite product!

LXMI Nilotica Goddess Glow is great for getting a rosy glow.

The Best Cream Illuminator for a Rosy Glow: LXMI Nilotica Goddess Glow

Unleash your inner goddess with this rosy-hued, hydrating cream product. Formulated with Nilotica Reserve, a naturally hydrating botanical from Uganda, this moisture and glow-giver in one is heaven-sent. Dab it on top of your cheekbones for an angelic lit-from-within glow, or mix with your foundation for a boost of shimmering hydration.

South Seas Skincare Mother of Pearl Illuminator is our pick for a subtle, pearly shimmer.

The Best Body Illuminator for a Subtle All-Over Shimmer: South Seas Skincare Mother of Pearl Illuminator

This body lotion not only leaves your skin ultra-moisturized and super soft, but imparts subtle, blink-and-you'll-miss-it sheen as well. Inspired by the South Pacific islands, slather this tropical-scented illuminator on your legs, arms, collarbones, and even your face for an instant beachy glow.

Suva Beauty Liquid Chrome Illuminating Drops give your skin a shimmery, pigmented glow.

The Best Liquid Illuminator for a Gleaming Complexion: Suva Beauty Liquid Chrome Illuminating Drops 

These liquid illuminator drops are so versatile and oh-so-pigmented. Use them on the high points of your face for a brilliant highlight, blend into your foundation for a gorgeous glow, or layer on top of your makeup for a unique strobing effect. Not only is this illuminator water-resistant, but it's vegan and cruelty-free, too–and can be used everywhere and anywhere you want some high-shine shimmer.

The Best Powder Illuminator for Understated Brilliance: Ciaté London Marbled Light Illuminating Foundation Powder

This gorgeous powder shimmer can be used to add shine to concentrated areas of your face, or applied all over as your main foundation for an ethereal radiance. It's light weight enough that it will keep your face from looking shiny, but pigmented enough that you'll sport a healthy, dewy shine throughout your whole day. Vegan and paraben-free, we recommend using this product as a setting powder for an extra dose of high-shine luminosity.

Red Earth Secret Potion Illuminating Skin Fluid is a moisturizing skin illuminator.

The Best Moisturizing Illuminator for Nourished, Hydrated Skin: Red Earth Secret Potion Illuminating Skin Fluid 

This super-hydrating fluid is so lightweight it feels like water, but it's chock full of antioxidants and good-for-you ingredients for your skin. Pick from one of three shades–Pearl, Rose Gold, and Bronze–and apply all over your skin for an instant boost of shine and moisture, or apply on top of your moisturizer and before your foundation for an extra-hydrating dewy glow.

A close-up swatch of a pearl-colored illuminator.

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Article Last Updated March 19, 2020 12:00 AM