When you’re sleep-deprived, highlighter can help. Whether it comes in the form of a powder compact, a liquid gel, or a creamy stick, a highlighter’s job is to instantly brighten skin by attracting light — ultimately creating the illusion of being well-rested.
Over the past few weeks, my dull, tired face put 15 options to the test. I took notes on everything from their blending abilities to how well each one woke up my skin without looking tacky or glittery. I found several that were brilliant for erasing dark shadows around my eyes, and more than one that produced an overall lit-from-within glow. Read on to see which ones I’ll be reaching for regularly.
The Dry Skin One
My dry complexion tends to favor cream formulas, but I’m happy to report that this pink powder compact illuminated with a slight sheen and a silky texture that didn’t cling to parched areas. Instead, it melted right in and didn’t look the slightest bit frosty. I focused it on my lids as a sheer wash of shadow and dabbed it over my concealer on the inner corners of my eyes. The result: an immediate brightening effect that made me look hours more rested than I actually was.
The No-Makeup Makeup One
RMS Beauty’s little pot of dewy goodness is like the anti-highlighter for the inexperienced and glitter-averse. Its effects are significant, but in the subtlest way possible — probably why it’s a favorite of the J.Crew catalogue makeup team. I swiped it on my cheeks, down my nose, and on my cupid’s bow. I found the formula so sheer, it required little blending efforts. It’s not sticky, glittery, or made with a single chemical. Win, win, win.
The On-the-Go One
This Champagne cream highlighter is subtle with a mild shimmer, brightening my complexion without a hint of glitz. I applied it on top of tinted moisturizer to the usual spots: my cheekbones, down the nose, cupid’s bow, and the inner corners of my eyes, and found it layered and blended easily. Of all the creamy sticks I tested, this is the only one that’s dual-sided with a sponge, so you can buff the highlighter without using your fingers. Don’t underestimate this benefit: it’s a huge plus for on-the-go touchups.
The Glossier One
Glossier’s highlighter has earned a permanent place in my makeup bag. Like all of the brand’s products, it’s foolproof to use. Moonstone is an opalescent shade allegedly infused with rose quartz crystals and a moisturizing oil core. It glided onto my skin for a dewy sheen with a very slight iridescence. Whereas the other sticks tested here were creamy, this one had a wet quality that felt super hydrating and produced a serious glow.
The Night Out One
Glossier may be my new go-to daytime highlighter, but this NYX stick is one I plan to use for nights out. It goes on with a purple sheen for a holographic effect that’s surprisingly only visible when the light catches your skin. Despite being purple, it’s not obvious or gaudy, but just makes you look really, really radiant. Some internet reviewers complained the stick swipes away your foundation. I, too, noticed a little tinted moisturizer residue on the stick, but this wasn’t a major issue for me — especially since it costs less than $10.
The Actual No-Makeup One
I mixed a pump of this gel formula into my face oil and dabbed it over tinted moisturizer using a damp Beauty Blender. The golden peach color is universally flattering, and I found my fair complexion looked glowy and rested. In fact, I skipped all other makeup for the day because I was so happy with my cheekbones. It’s not cheap, but a little goes a long way. Oh, and the lightly scented coconut fragrance smells so good.
The Flashy One
This palette contains three powders that turn to cream on the skin. Each one has a different color and a slightly different texture: purple (Aura), peach (Illusion), and green (Enchanted). Expect an intense metallic payoff and holographic finish. It’s a cool concept, but a little too flashy for my personal taste or for every day.
The Pat McGrath Dupe
This looks like a dupe of Pat McGrath’s highlighter (which was, sadly, limited-edition). With travel-friendly packaging, a subtle sheen, and a bargain price tag, Avon’s cream-to-powder stick checks all the boxes. I swiped it straight from the tube along my cheekbones, eyelids (it also makes for a pretty eye shadow), and cupid’s bow, and my dull complexion looked alive for the remainder of the day. You can build it up, too, and it never feels overdone.
The Sparkly One
True to its name, this highlighter was the most extreme (read: sparkly) of the bunch, thanks to reflective micro-crystals with a disco-ball-like shine. The palette is made up of three shades: a golden peach (Gammaray), a metallic opal (Helix), and lavender pink (Roseshock). If you’re going for glitz, you’ll love this palette. The textures are no doubt high-quality, but the intensity was personally a bit too much for me.
The Oily Skin One
This shimmer-free pressed powder invisibly brightens any area of the face it touches, and the super-fine texture is also meant for setting makeup. I never found it to be cakey and it doesn’t cling to dry skin or draw attention to fine lines. What’s more, if your complexion tends to get shiny, this one also has oil-absorbing abilities. I used it all over: my cheekbones, cupid’s bow, bridge of the nose, eyelids, and brow bones. The compact is also equipped with a great mirror. The only thing that’s missing is a brush.
What I liked about this four-piece palette is that it’s an all-in-one complexion enhancer. Once you’ve applied your base, this is all you need. It includes a bronzing shade, a blush shade, and two highlighters to create dimension. The pigment payoff is minimal, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What is unfortunate: the white shade (Moon Lune) cracked and broke apart after falling off my bathroom sink.
The Luxurious One
This jeweled compact is designed by an actual jeweler. With a decent-size mirror and small feathered brush, it’s completely portable. The lavender, mint, and peach highlighting powders contain two types of pearls. I was convinced the combo was too much for a morning playdate with 2-year-olds, but it was surprisingly subtle in the sunlight. It appears shimmery in the case, but softly illuminates without leaving the skin sparkly. I focused it on the dark shadows in the corners of my eyes and on my cheekbones. It definitely felt and looked like the most luxurious one of the bunch.
The Fenty One
Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line has been hailed a breakthrough for its wide range of shades and tones. Of all the products in the range, the Killawatt highlighter is perhaps the most buzzed about. The shades, which come either as a solos or duos, appear to be more intense and shimmery than they actually go on. This one (called Lightening Dust/Fire Crystal) illuminates the skin with a soft, pearl sheen that can be toned down for day or amped up for night.
The Buttery-Feeling One
If you find creams too creamy and powders too powdery, Becca’s pressed highlighter falls somewhere in the middle as a hybrid product. The formula feels like an ultra-fine powder that’s almost buttery, lightweight, and does not cake or sink into into the skin. I found it effective for illuminating dark shadows and brightening skin with a hint of shimmer. This shade, Pearl, is a soft white, but there are 10 others to choose from.
The Intense One
Brand founder Anastasia Soare joined forces with beauty influencer Amrezy to create this shimmering golden highlighter compact (her other highlighter was a one-time favorite of Kim Kardashian West). Everything about it is swoon-worthy: the packaging, the gilded sheen, the luxurious texture. Even so, I found it a bit too intense for daily wear. The next time I have a big event (and a spray tan), I’ll definitely reach for it, but until then, I prefer something more conservative.
If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.