It’s well-worth learning how to apply cream highlighters for a dewy, luminous finish that gives a lit-from-within glow! This guide will help you learn how to work cream highlighters into your routine, when and where to apply them, and how to master the art of application.
There can be a bit of a learning curve, especially if you’re trying to get a more intense effect or if you tend to wear a lot of matte foundation or heavier coverage base products. Liquid highlighters share a similar application method as cream highlighters, but I’ve separated the two as they can be a little different at times (see this post for liquid highlighters!).
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When to Apply Cream Highlighter
Subtle cream highlighters work best on top of sheerer coverage foundations or tinted moisturizers or directly applied on top of bare skin. For a more “natural” look, spot conceal where necessary and then apply cream highlighter to the areas you want to bring light to. If you apply a subtle highlighter on bare skin and then apply foundation on top, there’s a good chance you’ll erase the work you’ve done.
More intense cream highlighters can be used under base products as they have enough intensity and coverage to shine through sheer-to-medium coverage foundations. This is a good way to get a seamless, more subtle-to-moderate glow and have the ease of blending over bare skin (without risking lifting up your base products). For a more intense finish, you’ll want to pat on top of base products (see below for application method!).
Pair your cream highlighter with the right base/complexion products. If you’re applying your cream highlighter prior to foundation, you’ll want to choose something with sheerer coverage or else you’ll just waste your time covering up all that highlight anyway! Full-coverage foundations are often heavier products and don’t always pair as well with subtle cream-based highlighters, so you may need to experiment with stretching out the coverage where you want your highlighter.
Similarly, an ultra-matte, totally flat, quick-to-dry foundation tends not to play as well as a more emollient product layered on top–this isn’t always true but can be useful to know when troubleshooting your application!
I recommend picking something with a natural matte finish and working quickly to get the cream highlighter on it before it fully dries down. You can always use a setting powder to mattify the areas you want matte for your base.
Where to Apply Cream Highlighter
The whole point of highlighting is literally highlighting specific areas by reflecting light, so cream highlighter can be applied in the rundown of your typical places to highlight, though one doesn’t need to highlight every single area on the list–experiment and play around with what works best for your preferences and facial features. Here are the areas of the face that are often highlighted:
- down the bridge of the nose
- above the cupid’s bow (of lips)
- center of forehead
- brow bone
- inner tearduct
Cream highlighters, however, are multi-tasking! They can also be applied gently all-over for a luminous finish; this works best with subtle shimmered formulas and ones that have more spreadability. If this type of effect is what you’re after, you might want to switch to liquid highlighter when you’ve finished your cream highlighter as liquid is easier to mix in with base and complexion products for all-over glow.
Best Tools for Cream Highlighter
Like with liquid highlighters, I prefer fingertips when it comes to applying my favorite cream highlighters. Fingertips are efficient, effective, and easier than using brushes (in most instances), and then there are no brushes or sponges to wash! Fingertips work better with more emollient formulas, subtle to moderate intensities, and in colder environments (the warmth of your fingertips often aids in spreading and blending out your cream highlighters).
I also like sponges for sheerer, stickier formulas that aren’t as emollient or as wet (sponges can soak up too much product if it’s watery). Sponges are great for gently pressing the product onto the skin with minimal lifting and movement of base products. I particularly like using a sponge to create a more seamless, one-with-my-foundation kind of effect if I feel like the cream highlighter formula is uneven, too heavy, and the like.
If you’re opting for a brush, synthetic brushes work best with creams and liquids, and they’re more tolerant of harsher (and more effective) cleansers to break down and remove all of the cream/liquid products later on. Brushes are good for diffusing more pigmented formulas and can give more control over initial placement. Sometimes, I’ll use a brush to apply the product initially and then use the edge of my index finger (without any product) to diffuse and blend out the edge.
For lighter coverage, choose a more feathery, less-dense brush–they’re often referred to as stippling brushes–and the feathery edge makes it easier to diffuse and blend out the edge without moving the product around too much, which is key to avoiding lifting up your base products. For heavier coverage, choose a smaller, more dome-shaped brush with a moderate density and gently pat and tap into place.
Steps to Apply Cream Highlighter
Pat on product across the area you want, don’t sweep. I find sweeping motions are more likely to disturb base products underneath the highlighter, so patting the product on in gentle pats across whatever area you’re hoping to have it on is better than sweeping in a fluid motion like I prefer for powder highlighter. Because of this, it’s better to pick up a small amount of product and then pick up more product as needed to cover the area to your desired intensity level. You’ll also want to try to get an even layer of product and then build up just where you want the effect the most intense at the end.
Use gentle buffing motions and pulling motions to disperse/spread product. I like using the edge of my index or middle finger to gently work the highlighter into a seamlessly blended application. The edge is clean of product, so I’m not adding more, and it has the right level of natural texture to move product without disturbing my base. When I work with a brush, I use gentle, buffing motions and gently pulling the product beyond the initial edge to diffuse and get a gradual blend.
You’ll probably want to skip the setting powder. Or apply setting powder prior to your liquid or cream highlight. Most liquid and cream formulas perform in two days: they go from wet to dry (and pretty much set themselves) or they stay wet (as wet as they go on or be a little less wet than the initial application). You can absolutely applying setting powder over a wet-to-dry formula, but it may not be necessary. For a formula that stays wet or glossy on the skin, setting powder can make the application uneven as the glossy highlight will almost “eat” the powder; you’ll also lose the wet effect, which is sort of the goal of that type of formula.
For more reading, check out our favorite highlighters.