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Best Makeup Brushes for Highlighters

Best Makeup Brushes for Applying Highlighters

Oh, you’re asking me about highlighter brushes? Well, that’s like picking a favorite child. There are so many good ones to choose from, and the type of brush I reach for can really depend on the product I’m applying and how intense (or subtle) I want to the highlighter to appear on my skin.

I would love to hear about the brushes you can’t live without for applying highlighters — share your picks in the comments! 🙂

For Light Application

These brushes are airier, less dense, and have very soft bristles, so the end result is more gradual, buildable pigmentation/shimmer.  They are ideal for use with softer powders (nothing too dense/cream-like) that have fine to moderate shimmer size (I would not use them with glitters unless it was a more softly-pressed glittery highlighter).  I find it impossible to overdo highlighter with these two.

Best Makeup Brushes for Applying Highlighters
SUQQU Cheek, Wayne Goss The Air Brush

  • SUQQU Cheek Brush ($123.60) is a feathery-soft brush with a rounded, tapered edge that diffuses color onto the cheek in a gradual manner.  It’s smaller in size (compared to most cheek brushes), so it can still offer more precise placement while still delivering a sheerer application of product.  I use this interchangeably with highlighters and blushes (particularly good for more pigmented blushes).
  • Wayne Goss The Air Brush ($35.00) is a small, flatter face brush with tapered bristles that come to a rounded edge.  Despite being flatter, it excels at blending out the edges of various powders on the face.  It’s one of my favorite brushes for all things face, but it is superb for anyone who wants lighter application of their colored cheek products.

For Moderate Application

These are brushes that have very soft bristles that naturally pickup a bit less product and give a more diffused application initially, but they still yield a more moderate application unless you have a very light hand.  You’ll start to see that they get more rounded in the middle and start to taper to rounded edges and then to more tapered edges.

Best Makeup Brushes for Applying Highlighters
Chikuhodo Z-8, Chikuhodo Z-4, Chikuhodo Z-2, Chikuhodo T-5

  • Chikuhodo Z-8 Cheek ($111.00) is a medium-sized, rounded blush brush that I reach for highlighters as well as blushes, so it’s more multi-tasking for me.  I like using this for more diffused application over a larger area or when I’m using a finishing powder.  This is one I often reach for when I use Hourglass’ Ambient Lighting Powders, which I’ll dust over greater areas of my face.
  • Chikuhodo Z-4 Cheek/Highlighter ($73.00) is an incredibly soft, almost airy small cheek brush that, as the name says, works for blush and highlighter.  It is smaller and less dense compared to the Z-8, so it delivers more precise application and can be used on the apples of the cheeks or on the cheekbones.  The squirrel hair picks up less product than goat or other hair-types, so it gives a more buildable, gradual application of product–ideal for light-to-moderate application of highlight.
  • Chikuhodo Z-2 Highlight ($78.00) is a smaller, tapered highlighter brush designed for more precise application with squirrel hair, which results in a softer, more diffused application compared to other hair types. Though it retains its shape well, it is less dense compared to most tapered highlighter brushes (see next section below).
  • Chikuhodo Takumi T-5 ($52.00) is a medium-sized, rounded highlighting brush that’s not quite as narrow or as tapered as traditional highlighter brushes (again, see next section below).  This is that halfway point between moderate and heavier application for me.  It’s plush, soft, and a bit denser than the previously mentioned brushes on this list.

For Moderate to Heavy Application

It may be typical, but I guess that’s for a reason–tapered highlighting brushes are my jam, and they are the ones I reach for most often to apply highlighters (and even blush!).  They’re just the right size for rolling and tapping on highlighter onto cheek bones and down the bridge of the nose, sweeping gently on the forehead or chin for more of an all-over glow.  I use the four below interchangeably.

Best Makeup Brushes for Applying Highlighters
Hakuhodo B5521, Wayne Goss Brush 10, Hakuhodo J5521, Hakuhodo S5521BBk

  • Hakuhodo B5521 Highlight Brush ($53.00) is a tapered, highlighting brush that is slightly less rounded than the others on this list.  It is a mix of blue squirrel and goat hair, so it is extremely soft on the skin, but it has moderate density and picks up a good amount of product without having to be heavy-handed.
  • Wayne Goss Brush 10 ($38.00) is a rounded, tapered, highlighting brush with a soft, moderately dense feel on the skin that works well for applying and blending out powders on the cheeks.
  • Hakuhodo J5521 Highlight Brush ($38.00) is a slightly rounded, tapered, highlighting brush with a soft, dense feel on the skin that blends out powder well on the skin while still having some precision during application.  I really can’t tell much difference (if any) between this and the Wayne Goss Brush 10.  Within the Hakuhodo range, the J5521 uses goat hair only.
  • Hakuhodo S5521BBk Highlight Brush ($47.00) is a slightly rounded, tapered, highlighting brush that uses a mix of goat and horse hair.  The horse hair makes it more durable and resilient, so it can pickup product well on stiffer and more densely-packed powder products.

For Liquids/Creams

I often use fingertips more than brushes (hey, less brushes to wash that way) with liquids and creams as I find application to work quite well either way, but when I use brushes, these have been my go-tos for years.

Best Makeup Brushes for Applying Highlighters
MAC 159, Real Techniques Contour

  • MAC 159S Duo Fibre Brush ($35.00) is a small-to-medium-sized, domed cheek brush that has more feathery, sparse bristles at the edge, which help with gradual, diffused application.  I haven’t noticed much difference between the new 159S (all synthetic) and the previous 159 (mix) since most of the work and feel are done by the white bristles anyway!
  • Real Techniques Contour Brush ($19.99) is a small, rounded synthetic brush that is soft, springy without being floppy, and dense.  It is, unfortunately, only available in a set of four brushes!

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44 Comments

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I actually really like the real techniques setting brush for highlighter applications. It is a truly versatile product in my opinion. It gives a strong application for sure, and makes even the most subtle product (cle de peau highlighter in pastel) look flawless, smooth and just the enough intensity. I want to pick up another one of these because it is also great for undereye setting (which is what it’s intended use is for I guess, haha!)
For cream products, I always use my fingers. The stick formulas (like Benefit watts up) need to be warmed up with a finger, and I usually take some product with my finger first then pat it in, instead of going in straight with the stick then blend out.
For liquid products, sponges are my go to. Liquid formulas are usually too intense for me so I need to sponges to pick up excessive product..

I second the Real Techniques setting brush. I was using the Elf highlight brush for awhile (it fit into my college student budget, haha), but I just picked up the Real Techniques one this week because I honestly didn’t like the Elf brush too much. I think the RT one is just the right density that allows you to easily create an intense highlight or a subtle one. And it’s super affordable!

That’s an interesting and useful question! I’ve fallen into highlighter a few months ago and new tools recommendations are always welcome!

For my Becca cream highlighter, I prefer using my fingers, because I find brushes will leave some… I don’t know, dirt or little particles on it. I’ll sometimes use Real Techniques Pointed Foundation brush.

For my Nudestix stick highlighter, I’ll apply it straight from the stick before foundation or after foundation with my fingers; sometimes with Real Techniques Pointed Foundation Brush or Zoeva 110, but rarely, because the texture is quite gel-like.

For my Cover FX Custom Enhancer Drops and my Becca liquid highlighter, fingers all the way.

And for my powders, a Mineralize SkinFinish by M.A.C and Milk Holographic Highlighting powder, I’ll use Smashbox Buildable Cheek Brush or Zoeva 110, depending on the result I want.

I’m quite curious about Smashbox Precise Highlighting Brush, so if anyone has an opinion on, I’d be happy to hear it!

Hope that helps 🙂

Sorry, for the powder, I meant Zoeva 105. I totally agree with the other comment about it, it’s a great brush for precision powdering as well and you should definitely check it out! Might be a dupe for Wayne Goss #10

I LOVE this series of posts- thank you so much for putting them together! I will have to try more Hakuhodo brushes.

I love the RT contour brush as well (I own multiples) and the setting brush (also own multiples) for more pigmented highlighter/if I want a lighter touch.

I love that the brushes are so inexpensive as well, so I don’t feel guilty for having three and five respectively. I mean… maybe sometimes I buy new brushes to delay washing my brushes… maybe that exacerbates the problem because then there’s more brushes to wash… maybe 🙂

It’s funny because I’m actually not at ALL picky about highlighter brushes. I have the Real Techniques contour brush and it’s my go to. Other than that I have the ELF Small Tapered brush which is too floppy for my liking but I use it sometimes. I don’t feel I need more than one highlight brush because my highlighters aren’t that different in tone that I would feel the brush is too dirty to use a pale highlight or whatever. Blush brushes on the other hand…. I basically want one for every blush I own.

I love your descriptions of the brushes and how you use them. Great tips. I own one Chikuhodo eye brush and it’s sooooooo soft. I bet these cheek brushes are like angel kisses.

I absolutely love the Zoeva #105, Luxe Highlight! It’s a perfect brush (as mostly of the Zoeva’s brushes) at a really good price point! You should try it! :-*

I have a double ended Tarte brush that I got from their big sale last year along with the first Twinkle palette. The big end is nice for cheeks and the small end is good for over brows, between eyes, etc. I also picked up a fan brush for about $12 at CVS that I like for a light application such as wearing glittery highlighter to work (like the new Natasha Denona Diamond powder). For creams, liquids and stick formulations I’m with everyone else, it’s fingers all the way!

I guess the small end is hosed because I store it small end down (vertically) in my acrylic makeup bin! I basically have a powder room sized full bath. Space is at a premium.

I like my Wayne Goss fan brush (I have the original w/brown hair so I cannot speak to the current fan brush.) It provides a more subtle application which is what I prefer. I also like the way I can control placement with this brush in that it never leaves definitive “edges”, my glow looks highly but natural.

I usually use the Wayne Goss fan brush, but I sometimes use the WG #14 brush if I want to spread the highlighter over a larger area (like a blush topper). I have the WG Air Brush too, but I use it for setting powder and contour instead of highlight!

I love the Morphe E49 for a medium intensity powder highlight. The shape is more like the Wayne Goss Air Brush so could be a very budget friendly substitute and it is super soft too.

The Zoeva 105 is also excellent. And I agree with the recommendation for the Real Techniques Contour Brush for creams.

I would love to know where to buy the Japanese brushes in the UK.

Great post, Christine, got excited when I saw it on insta. I was hoping you would have a rec for gelee formula highlighters and blushes? I’ve been using the Goss 10 which is fine but can’t help feeling like there must be a better brush for that formula? Any suggestions?

I use the brushes listed in the post for moderate to heavy application – I find any moderately dense highlighting brush that holds its shape works well! You could try denser blush brushes, but you might lose precision!

I love the Hakuhodo J5521 sooo much, it’s excellent! I also would like to offer up Mac’s 127, I got it in a value kit with Double Gleam and it’s really nice for a very soft, sheer highlight, lately it’s been my go-to.

I like nice brushes as much as anyone but I haven’t been able to bring myself to splurge for a highlighter brush. I use the Real Techniques Setting Brush (pink handle) or the elf highlighter brush. The RT is denser and gives a more intense look.

I have to say that the RT brushes I have are excellent for the price. Am less impressed by elf, even for the price.

Hi Layla,

I understand that they may not be in your price point – these are the ones I personally reach for most often, and I didn’t want to pick brushes solely based on price since it was about sharing my favorites. I did, however, go through the types of brushes and why I liked them, so you could always peruse brands that are a better fit for you to see if maybe they offer something in a similar shape!

Hi Layla,

That’s definitely not what I said nor what I intended to say, so let me try to rephrase: these posts were simply my favorites, and when I do that, I don’t worry about things like accessibility or price so that I can give a genuine list of my personal favorites. If there’s a particular brush you’d like suggestions for, I’m happy to provide to see if I know of an alternative, especially if you let me know what price range you’re looking for or what brands are most accessible for you.

Your price point is just that… yours. Someone’s price point or range isn’t always about what someone can afford or not – they may or may not see value in spending more on brushes. I have no idea what that means to you individually! No different than someone who doesn’t see value in high-end mascara and opts for drugstore mascara but then enjoys luxury lipstick.

As always, I review a variety of brands and products – from indie to long-established brands to $2 lipstick to $90 lipstick. I cannot test everything, and I absolutely intentionally review more mid-end and higher products because it can be harder to find reliable reviews for those products and there is more “risk” because they are more expensive. Many of my readers live in countries without return policies or live in areas where they don’t have access to physically go to Sephora and rely on reviews and swatches online to make their purchases.

Christine, you are so kind to even respond to comments like that. If someone is going to get their knickers in a twist over highlighting brushes of all things they are not worth your time. You have provided such a lovely roundup here and within all the brush posts where you give reviews that are honest—something that feels more and more like a rarity online.

I just want to say that your site is filled with so much information that is so helpful to so many people. This post and so many others are an absolute godsend, something many of us appreciate.

I’m really enjoying these posts, Christine!

Powder highlighters:
I tend to use the original WG fan brush (love it!), Bobbi Brown Angled Face brush, the WG 02, and really the edge of any brush that I’m using for blush (even the backside of the gorgeous WG Holiday 2017 brush).

For hard/stubborn highlighters or highlighters with an overlay, the Charlotte Tilbury Powder and Sculpt brush works wonders.

Cream Highlighter:
I tend to place with my fingers and blend with WG 10 or a foundation brush like WG Anniversary 01 or Bobbi Brown Full Coverage Face brush.

Liquid:
I typically apply/blend liquid highlighters with my fingers but lately have been experimenting using brushes. A flat, pointed foundation brush works well; a Bobbi Brown Full Coverage Touch Up brush (dense, rounded) shows promise; the original WG 18 is good for uber-precise placement. I also like using the edge or pointed end of a (non-flat) foundation brush to gently tap in and blend a liquid highlighter.

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