The Ins & Outs of How to Apply Liquid Highlighter

If you’re just learning how to apply liquid highlighters, 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.

Where to Apply Liquid Highlighter

Decide how you’re going to incorporate liquid highlighter into your routine.  Liquid highlighters are rather versatile; they can be mixed into your foundation, primer, or moisturizer for an all-over luminous effect, or they can be applied like powder highlighter to specific areas.  They can be applied all over the face after primer (not mixed in) and so forth.

If you just want to mix in, you’ll have to experiment with the right ratio for your desired effect, but there application is pretty much the same as how you’d apply what you’re mixing it in with (e.g. you wouldn’t change how you apply your foundation, you’d just be mixing in the highlighter with the foundation prior to applying it).

Best Tools for Liquid Highlighter

Choose your tool!  Over time, I find I really prefer fingertips when it comes to cream and liquid highlighters.  They are just efficient, effective, and easier than brushes–they are more reliable in my experience.  This is particularly true when mixing with other products, like moisturizer or liquid foundation, or when the liquid highlighter formula is less watery.

Use a beautyblender or sponge

Brushes can be more forgiving and minimize patchiness (as well as potential for lifting up base products, if you’re applying liquid highlighter on top of foundation and the like), and some formulas seem to apply better with brushes when applied as targeted highlighters (so on top of something).

I do prefer a brush when working with very pigmented liquid formulas, though, as the brush is better at getting a sheerer application.  You’ll want to choose a synthetic brush, and I like more traditional, tapered highlighting brushes or slightly flat, domed-shaped brushes (I like the Real Techniques Setting Brush, $7.99 and MAC 159S Duo Fibre Blush Brush, $35).

You can also use a dampened sponge when working with more pigmented liquid highlighters, and I sometimes find sponges work well for more watery formulas, too (but it hasn’t been as consistent).

3 Steps to Apply Liquid Highlighter

Pat on product across the area you want, don’t sweep.  For liquid highlighters, I like to pat on the product, let it sink in/absorb/set slightly (there’s usually more time to play with liquid highlighters compared to cream highlighters) before I get to blending.

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.

How to Apply Liquid Highlighter
Marc Jacobs Beauty Fantasy Dew Drops

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.

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