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So much of beauty is simply manipulating the way light hits and bounces off of your face. You can do a full face of makeup, but if your skin isn't reflecting any light, it can look flat or unnatural. Illuminators are my favorite type of beauty product because they put you in control of how your face reflects light, letting you accentuate the areas where your skin naturally glows, bringing out your best features, and even sculpting your face. Also, they're nearly impossible to mess up.
Have I mentioned that I'm obsessed with illuminators? I will try any beauty or skincare product that promises to brighten my face, so I've done the legwork to bring you seven real standouts, from a primer that makes you look lit from within to an iridescent shimmer so popular that it's almost always sold out.
Before we begin, though, let's talk about where to illuminate.
Everyone is going to tell you the same thing: Cheekbones, brow bones, the bridge of your nose, forehead, chin, and cupid's bow. Like everything in beauty, this needs to be translated to your own face. Basically, you illuminate the parts that you want to bring forward. If you're hardcore contouring, you follow up by darkening, or adding a natural shadow, to places you want to minimize with a matte sculpting powder (not a bronzer).
Highlighter on your cheekbones makes your face look lifted. Under your eyes, it hides bags and dark circles. And a dab on top of your cupid's bow is like instant collagen. This is how people change the shape of their nose, chin, and jaw without a trip to the surgeon. No, they didn't have any work done, they got themselves a damn contouring palette.
Personally, I lay it on heavy on my cheekbones, and on and above where I apply blush, extending up to my temples. Then, I hit the bridge of my nose, my brow bones, and under my eyes. I stay away from my chin and forehead because those are places I tend to get oily, and they certainly don't need any more shine.
Primers are a great way to get a subtle, all-over glow without having to put too much thought into it. If you're new to illuminating, an illuminating primer under the rest of your makeup will help you achieve an expert looking highlight while extending the wear of your makeup.
My personal secret weapon is bareMinerals Biolucent Mineral Brightening Treatment ($55). Not only is it an illuminating primer, it's a skin treatment that helps diminish dark spots and even skin tone over time.
Apply it all over, under moisturizer, and it gives you a soft glow that lasts all day. It reflects light in a way that naturally accentuates your face's best features without leaving a high-shine finish. It looks amazing by itself, with just a bit of moisturizer on top. It's also a great base for your makeup, adding a touch of luminescence that shines through whatever you layer on top of it. This is a low-key perfect product and I am high-key obsessed with it.
Liquids are what you should reach for to shine when the light is low. They offer the most serious highlight, suspending a ton of shimmer in a tiny amount of product. If you're sitting at a candlelit dinner or raving in a dark warehouse, a liquid will harness what little light there is in the room to brighten your face.
Benefit's High Beam ($26.00) is really an appropriately named product because you're not going to find a better, brighter highlighter than this. It's a pearly pink liquid you apply with a little brush and blend with your fingers or a makeup sponge.
Nothing has a more reflective, almost mirror-like finish than High Beam. Even when lightly tapped into your skin, it leaves behind a thin film that bounces light off your face, making skin look brighter, tighter, and more alive. The more you layer, the more reflective you'll be. If you want to stand out in group photos, which is what I always want, throw a little of this on and you'll be the center of attention.
LUSH has an extremely popular range of all-natural skincare and beauty products. I don't normally opt for natural products because I like my makeup like I like my men: full of chemicals and made in a lab. But Feeling Younger ($18.95) is one of my favorite illuminators because it gives a diffused, luminous shine.
Feeling Younger is very thick champagne illuminator that packs a whole lot of gleam into a little bit of product. It's made with cocoa butter, jojoba oil, and almond oil, which makes it easy to blend while also nourishing skin.
It comes in a sizable pot, so you can really get in there and go wild. Why stop at your face? Throw a little bit on the tops of your shoulders or even your clavicles! I can't even count the times I've had to say "Sorry I was late to work, I was contouring my chest."
Instead of applying blush and then highlighter above it, an illuminating blush does the job of both products with just one swipe of a fluffy brush. Illuminating blushes give you a subtle highlight that flatters your face in any type of light, natural or artificial. These are my favorite to wear when I'm out in the sun during a music festival or a patio brunch because their soft luminescence is best in natural light.
There are a ton of illuminating blushes out there and a lot are fantastic, but the best one can be found in your local drugstore.
Maybelline Master Hi-light Blush ($9.99) is a mosaic of four shades of blush with finishes ranging from satin to high shine, all in one pan. When blended on your brush, they give you a warm flush of color with a subtle glow. The blush-illuminator duo is easy to use, layering a soft, diffused highlight on top of the color.
Unlike lipstick or mascara, highlighter can be too fussy to reapply in the middle of your evening. Wands give you the ease and portability of a pen and—paired with a brush applicator—make touch-ups a breeze. Throw one of these in your bag and keep your glow in check anytime, anywhere. Wands are also great to quickly take your look from day to night without having to totally redo your face. Brush on a little more between the office and happy hour and you'll be glowing until last call.
Smashbox's Halo Highlighting Wand ($32.00) isn't just another boring illuminating concealer pen for under your eyes. It's strictly for an intense, glamorous highlight.
The pen is about the size of a marker with a large brush at the end. A couple of clicks, and it dispenses a shimmery illuminator you can brush on for an instant warm glow. There are some highlighters that are all about a subtle, "lit from within" glow, but this? This is not one of them.
It's available in two shades: Gold, which is really more of a champagne bronze (details!), and Pearl, an iridescent pink. This is for a night out when you're really feelin' yourself. One pass of the brush and you're left with noticeable shimmer; layer it on and it will actually turn you into Jennifer Lopez.
The same highlighter isn't always suitable for every skin tone, or every season. A lot of products are really bronzers with illuminating properties, but that doesn't make them true illuminators. A really great bronze illuminator is essential for those looking for a natural, warm glow.
NARS Laguna Illuminator ($30) is not an illuminating bronzer, it's a bronze illuminator, and while that difference may seem subtle, it's important. NARS knows how to do a damn good illuminator and Laguna is a standout because, in terms of bronze illuminators, it's one of the deepest you can find.
Laguna is actually a creamy brown base packed with multifaceted gold shimmer. This is a great illuminator for people of color because the warm glow is more natural and flattering on deeper skin tones than a bright pearl illuminator might be, and it leaves behind no trace of a white cast. NARS illuminators are some of the most versatile I've worked with, and they perform well with a full face of makeup or with just a bit of mascara and a lip.
A multidimensional illuminator is one of the most versatile products in beauty because it looks natural on every skin tone. These mimic your skin's own luminosity, lending a subtle glow that can be built to a high, natural-looking shine. Keep an iridescent illuminator close by if you find yourself needing to brighten up your look throughout your day, because no matter how you end up using them, they're always going to be flattering.
RMS Beauty Living Luminizer ($38) is the absolute holy grail of illuminators. It consistently sells out; people are that crazy about getting their hands on it. What makes it so special? It looks natural and works for all skin tones.
The Living Luminizer packs ultra-fine shimmer into a dense coconut and castor oil base, which gives a sheer glow. Tap it into your cheeks for a soft effect, or build it up for a dewy, wet-look shine. It works to both subtly highlight your best features, and to really amp up your face on a night out.
The multidimensional shimmer plays well on every skin tone because it's equal parts silver, pewter, and gold. It doesn't look too bronze on lighter skin, not does it cool darker skin off too much. There really is nothing else like it.