How to Apply Highlighter So You Don’t Look Like a Disco Ball

How to Apply Highlighter So You Don’t Look Like a Disco Ball

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Highlighter is one of those makeup products where the line between subtle, elevated glam and overdone is very, very fine. In its best applications, it can make the high points of your face glisten and catch the light just right. But with too heavy of a hand—or the wrong product—you can quickly find yourself in “walking disco ball” territory. 

“Highlighters are a versatile tool in makeup that can elevate your look by enhancing the high points of your face and creating dimension,” explains professional makeup artist Tonya Riner. “They add luminosity to areas where natural light hits, accentuating your bone structure and imparting a lifted effect.”

So, how do you apply highlighter in a way that gives glowing goddess versus accidental shimmer fest? We asked professional makeup artists to break it down. 

How and Where to Apply Highlighter 

The thing about makeup is that it’s deeply personal and offers a way for us to each express ourselves. That said, there are some days—or even life eras—when glittering like a disco ball is exactly the end-goal. Other times, though, a subtler approach is more your speed.

“As an artist who loves to play with makeup both on set and at home, I am here for the range and creativity,” says Dominique Lerma, executive makeup artist for MŌDA Brush. “However, if you are aiming to subtly highlight the face and for the finished makeup look to appear radiant, naturally flushed, and angelic, then I would aim for the less is more approach.” 

For a subtle highlighter effect, do the following: 

  • Focus only on the highest points of your face, which is where light naturally reflects. These areas include your cheekbones, nose bridge, brow bone, and chin. 
  • Avoiding metallic sheens, “as these look very artificial and dated,” says celebrity makeup artist Bryan Cantor.
  • Use finely milled highlighters versus products with visible specks of glitter or shimmer
  • Apply with a very light hand (less is more) and slowly build to desired intensity versus going in with a strong hand.
  • Stick to cream or liquid highlighters, which Lerma says provides the “most natural, radiant, and fresh skin-like finish.” 

“When applying highlighter, use a light touch and build up gradually to ensure a seamless blend,” Riner advises. “Remember that the level of luminosity on your face should match that on the rest of your body.” 

Set the product with a finishing spray or powder, ideally with a luminous or dewy finish versus a matte one. 

What If You Apply Too Much?

If you accidentally apply too much highlighter, Cantor says to use a makeup brush or sponge you used to apply your foundation to go over the over-highlighted areas. You don’t need to add more foundation; you want just enough to remove a bit of product and tone down the highlighted effect. 

“You can also try buffing over the area with a clean brush to remove excess product,” he adds. “However, the best way to handle applying too much highlighter is to apply it sparingly and then build up the desired effect. It is much easier to add more highlighter than to remove it once you have applied it.”

Common Highlighter Mistakes to Avoid 

Along with following the above advice on how and where to apply highlighter, try to steer clear of these common mistakes: 

  • Avoid applying highlighter under your eyes, “as this can enhance texture in that area and just looks generally unflattering,” Cantor says. 
  • Be mindful of applying highlighter over large pores, fine lines, wrinkles, or active breakouts, Riner notes. Highlighter can make either appear more prominent. 
  • Don’t apply it to the center of your forehead or the sides of your nose. Cantor says this tends to make you look oily versus glowy. 
  • Lerma says you shouldn’t use a foundation with shimmer if you’re using a highlighter, as well. This can result in that disco ball, over-highlighted effect.

5 Highlighters Makeup Artists Love

There’s really no “right” or “wrong” highlighter formula, Cantor says. Each has its own unique effect, so it’s a matter of figuring out what look you’re going for and using a product that aligns with your complexion. You can also toy with different formula types—including powders, gels, oils, liquid, and sticks—to see which you like best. 

The only exception would be the glitter or shimmer factor. If you want a subtle highlighted effect, then any product with visible specks of glitter probably won’t deliver the results you’re going for. In this case, you’d want a more finely milled highlighting product, or you may want to stick with a highlighter that provides sheen via a gloss effect.

Check out these makeup artist-approved recommendations for a subtly highlighted effect: 

  • RMS Beauty Living Luminizer ($40, Credo): “This is a cult favorite, clean-label brand that blends beautifully and gives a natural dewy finish,” Lerma says. 
  • Milk Makeup Dewy Cream Highlighter Stick ($24, Sephora): Cantor says, “It looks incredibly natural, and its small size makes it a breeze to apply.”
  • Wander Beauty On-the-Go Blush & Illuminator ($38, Sephora): You get both rouge and highlighter in this easy-to-tote, dual-ended stick. Both ends provide a creamy, dewy finish. 
  • Pat McGrath Labs Skin Fetish Highlighter + Balm Duo in Nude ($50, Ulta): “This is a double-ended product that is perfectly blendable with a pearlescent finish,” says Lerma. 
  • Chantecaille Liquid Lumière Highlighter ($48, Nordstrom): “It’s a sheer, buildable highlighter that contains micro-sized pigments to reflect light and beautifully highlight the skin while blurring imperfections,” notes Cantor.


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