Unless you’re a matte make-up stan, it’s likely that you’ll be looking to achieve a radiant finish to your look. The lucky ones among us are blessed with a natural glow, but most of us need a helping hand in that department. Cue: the highlighter.
But what is it? “Highlighter is a light reflective product used to add dimensionality to the face, playing with light to bring desired features forward in a flattering way,” says Warren Dowdall, senior pro artist for Bobbi Brown. “It also adds instant brightness and radiance to the complexion for a well-rested and luminous look.”
There are plenty of brilliant highlighters to choose from, in an array of different textures to suit your glow-needs. The most popular formulas are liquid, powder and cream. But how does each one differ and which one should you go for? “Liquid has a softer lightweight finish, can be mixed into foundation for all-over radiance and is great for beginners,” Warren explains, while “a cream is easy to use on-the-go and can be used on bare skin for a no makeup glowy finish.”
Finally, powders are the most versatile: “They’re precise, can be used anywhere on the face and can be layered to create a custom intensity.”
Whatever you choose, if it makes the light bounce off your skin and leaves a radiant finish, it’s doing its job. But does it stay put? Does it look natural? Is it easy to apply? Does it sit happily on the skin? It’s all in the finer detail – here is our round-up of the highlighters that do it all.
How we tested
While testing these products to find our final cut, we first ensured that there was a variety of textures in the mix, and shades for different skin tones. For weeks, our testers tried each one while wearing make-up and then again without make-up to get a feel for how they perform on their own for a natural glow, as well as with the aid of other makeup like foundation and bronzer. We also considered everything from ease of application and how well each one blends into the skin to each product’s longevity and how many shades are available.
The best highlighters for 2021 are:
YSL touche eclat shimmer stick in light rose
Best: Overall highlighter
With its travel-friendly packaging, easy to apply formula and beautiful radiant finish, this shimmer stick is frankly the perfect highlighting cocktail. Either swipe it on directly from the stick and blend in with your finger or use a synthetic haired brush to blend it onto the areas where you need illumination. This shade is more suited to fair to medium skins (there are five shades available overall), and the finish is beautiful – it’s shimmery, not glittery, and catches the light in all the right ways. We really noticed how easy it is to blend this cream in. While some formulas disappear during the blending process, or are too dry to move around on the skin, this silky smooth, lightweight texture stretches nicely and still leaves a subtle gleam, all day long. It even has a floral, sweet fragrance too – not something you often find with highlighters but adds to that luxury feel.
Bobbi Brown highlighting powder in afternoon glow
Best: Powder highlighter
From the brand which brought you the signature shimmer brick face palette, this highlighting powder is equally pleasing to the eye and lives up to all expectations. It doesn’t gather or clog in fine lines and is everything you want from a powder highlighter – a sheer texture that’s available in numerous shades, it’s easy to layer and incredibly long lasting. So much so that as a test, we swished some on our hands then tried to remove it with a cotton pad and it didn’t budge. This golden shade, afternoon glow, is ideal for fair to medium skin tones but pink glow would be best if you’re very fair, while bronze glow would be gorgeous on dark skin. All skin tones can apply one layer of their suited shade over bronzer on the apples of their cheeks for an extra sun-kissed finish.
Benefit high beam liquid highlighter
Best: Liquid highlighter
This could quite easily be one of Benefit Cosmetics’ most iconic products – an oldie but a goodie. The “satiny pink” description on the packaging could not be more accurate – that’s exactly what it looks and feels like on application, as the slight iridescent finish makes it look like you have literally shone a torch on your skin. We particularly liked the doe-foot applicator which gives instant control over how much you apply – it’s especially handy as a little goes a long way with this one. If you use too much, the pinky hue can appear rather white – so as long as you’re savvy about quantity you’ll notice the quality. It blends in quickly and seamlessly and lasts a full day whether you’re wearing make-up or not, although it should be said that wearing it with make-up looks more seamless because of the intensity of this highlighter’s glow.
Laura Mercier face illuminator highlighting powder in inspiration
Best: Versatile highlighter
Not only is this beautifully presented highlighter versatile in the application department, it is also an all-rounder when it comes to the shade range, meaning that all skin tone bases are covered (if you’ll pardon the pun). Available in five varied shade, we tested inspiration, a rose gold shimmer that looks beautiful on medium to dark skin tones and can be applied, well, everywhere you want really. From the tops of your cheekbones as a highlighter, to the centre of your eyelids as a highlighting eyeshadow, this is a crowd pleaser in all areas. The formula is actually surprisingly sheer so don’t be fooled by its seemingly opaque finish when you open the palette. But sheer can only mean one thing – easily buildable – and the way the pigment catches the light is super flattering.
Collection Cosmetics gorgeous glow stick in highlighter
Best: For on-the-go
This is a great little handbag essential for when you’re on the move and your skin needs a quick pick-me-up. For a start, the packaging is chunky and sturdy meaning any worries about the lid coming off in your handbag can be forgotten. The formula is a shimmery cream – this shade is best for fairer skins –and is super soft on application. It feels slightly more oily than the Estee Lauder stick above, but that makes it perfect for those with drier skin. Even though it does have more slip, it doesn’t clog or feel tacky when you’re wearing it thanks to it settling into the skin nice and quickly. As far as longevity goes, it may need touching up at lunch time but hey, that’s why it’s the best one for when you’re on-the-go.
Revlon skinlights prismatic highlighter in daybreak glimmer
Best: For a natural look
For those who like a natural finish, this powder is just that. Plus, it leaves a subtle, lightweight finish. Where liquid or cream highlighters can deliver a strong glow off the bat, powders can be more subtle and easily buildable. This one is the sort of highlighter that can easily become a staple in your daily make-up routine thanks to its longevity, reasonable price and all-round non-cakey texture. It adds shine without the glitter and allows the light to bounce off it without looking streaky or obvious. It blends in with other natural make-up but also looks beautiful when worn alone. Either way, it adds radiance in one quick layer.
No 7 custom blend highlighting drops in bronze
Best: Custom highlighter
Don’t be fooled by the somewhat miniscule bottle – this highlighter might be small in size but it’s mighty in performance. There’s no messing about with its liquid formula – we tested the bronze shade for dark skin, and when worn alone, it spreads onto the skin like wildfire. In other words, you only need the very smallest of drops. For less intensity, you can mix it into your foundation to achieve an all-over glow but our preferred method is mixing a few drops with moisturiser to create either a tinted moisturiser or just a glowy base for foundation. We liked that we could wear it in three different ways, whatever our mood, plus its beautifully bronzed glimmer finish is gorgeous. Wear alone or with make-up for a sun-kissed, radiant finish.
Charlotte Tilbury glowgasm beauty light wand in goldgasm
Best: For glam
This shimmery gold shade was tested on medium to dark skin and it really didn’t disappoint. For a start, a little goes a long way so don’t be put off by the price. You won’t need to make a top up purchase for a while. The intense sheen that this gives is perfect for glamorous evening looks, but may be a bit too much for daytime wear, depending on your preference. We enjoyed the finish best when wearing make-up. Its twistable, on and off applicator is a clever way of saving on product wastage when you’re not using it and we love how the sponge applicator gives such a smooth, easy application.
Max Factor facefinity highlighting powder in nude beam
Best: Lightweight highlighter
Listen up, subtle make-up fans! This pressed powder highlighter is as light as a feather and you’ll never know you’re wearing it unless you catch a glimpse of your own radiance in the mirror. Its lightweight formula is just the right mix of subtle and glowy. Powder highlighters often get a bad reputation for creating a face full of glitter – this one certainly has sparkle but it is not glittery and leaves just the right amount of sheen. Apply with a large brush for an all-over glow, a small brush for precision or use your finger to dab it into small nooks like the inner corners of your eyes or cupid’s bow. We didn’t need to reapply it over the course of the day either – lightweight and low-maintenance.
Does highlighter make you look older?
On the contrary, using a highlighter actually adds a youthful sheen to the face. While mature skin can often appear dry and flat, applying a highlighter will give it more depth and allow the skin to look healthier. That said, if you have mature skin, steer clear of highlighters containing glitter or sparkle as this can draw attention to fine lines and avoid applying thick highlighting textures in the lines around your eyes so that the product doesn’t clog inside them.
The performance of your highlighter also depends on your pre-make-up skin prep. Make sure your skin is cleansed, toned and moisturised before applying your make-up so that your highlighter stays put and doesn’t slide off or, equally, dry up. The purpose of a highlighter is to keep the skin looking fresh and young looking, so not doing a proper skincare routine before you apply it would prove to be counteractive. If you have mature skin, choose cream or liquid textured highlighters instead of powders to keep dry skin supple and glowy.
Where should you use highlighter?
Highlighter should be applied to the high points of your face so that you can create the illusion of a prominent bone structure. This means along the tops of your cheekbones, on your brow bones, down the bridge of the nose and on your cupid’s bow. The light will bounce off wherever you put it so try not to overdo it – subtlety is key. However, if you prefer a little more radiance, dab some in the upper-centre of your eyelids, in the inner corner of your eyes and even near your temples on the sides of your forehead, but not in the middle as that area is naturally more oily and you don’t want to add more shine to an already oily T-zone.
How do you choose the right colour?
Highlighters are applied to add light to your face and also to enhance your features, so choose one that is one or two hues lighter than your natural skin tone. The idea is for it to create a natural, seamless glimmer of light on your skin, rather than a harsh, noticeable strip. Fair skin tones should opt for pearlescent or champagne shades, medium/neutral skin tones suit iridescent, pink or golden tones and dark skin tones look best in rose gold or bronze highlighters. When you’re more tanned during the summer you can go a little bit darker.
The verdict: best highlighters
For a highlighter that does it all (and smells good in the process), our best buy is the YSL touche eclat shimmer stick. If you want to spend a little less money but still use a flattering cream texture then Collection Cosmetics gorgeous glow stick will do the trick or, for a super-glam finish and a product that lasts and lasts, we love Charlotte Tilbury glowgasm beauty light wand.
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For more must-have complexion products, read our review of the best bronzers
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