Subtle Highlighters for the Glitter-Averse

I like highlighter in theory, but I have large pores and scars and skin texture. Also, I am an Actual Adult who goes to class with teenagers, and I feel weird wearing blatant glitter on my face. (I’d probably feel less weird if I were around folks my own age or older, but I am trying to avoid this:)

As a result, I tend to wear a mellower highlight (if I wear one at all); I’ve tried a bunch, kept a few, and have some recommendations for those who — like me — do not need an Instragram-level highlight.


Wet’n’Wild Color Icon Bronzer in “Reserve Your Cabana”  ($3.99/.46oz; $4.49 at Walgreens)

As you can tell from the visible pan, I < 3 this.

This “bronzer” isn’t — even at my winter-whitest, it doesn’t exactly ~bronze~ (though it is a tad darker than my skin in winter, and can be used to add a glowing warmth). Spring and fall I prefer to use it as a light allover finishing powder for a subtle glow, and in summertime I’m tan enough to build it up on my cheekbones for a low-key velvety gleam. There’s no visible sparkle, no noticeable shimmer — just soft, light-reflecting powder goodness. Because it doesn’t add dewiness and plays nicely on top of powder (powder on top of powder = good; powder on top of cream/liquid = good; cream/liquid on top of powder = not good), this might be a fabulous option for those with oilier skin who shy away from the general glitteriness of most powder highlight offerings.

Bonus: this is my favorite powder for fixing blush “oops” moments — layering it on top of a too-heavy application to tone it down a notch, or blending out the edges of a stubborn formula — because it won’t mattify a glowing blush finish.

Did you notice you get nearly half an ounce of powder product for $4 with this? (That’s like … more than two normal-sized blush pans.) You can probably risk it.


Burberry Fresh Glow Luminous Fluid Base in “Nude Radiance No. 1” ($48/1 oz at Sephora)

I’ve only ever used up one of these tiny deluxe samples, and it’s my go-to liquid highlighter. A whole bottle of this would last me literally years — and yeah, I’ll probably invest in one when I finish up my remaining two deluxe samples.

If you’re going for less of a “maybe she’s born with it” highlight and more of a “maybe she’s born with what?” highlight, this is my top contender. This stuff is SHEER — you won’t notice it on the skin unless the light hits it, as there is zero visible shimmer and no base color that I can discern. (Pretty sure it’s just subtle pearl floating in a liquid base.) Though it’s meant as an allover primer or foundation mix-in, I like this best tapped on the high points of the cheekbones and blended out with a finger — it’s quick, adds a touch of luminosity to my very dry skin, and gives my face juuust a little bit of lift. Plus, the fact that it’s so sheer and subtle means it can be applied without a mirror/on the go — as someone who regularly applies her face in the car, this works well for me.


Becca Shimmering Skin Perfector Liquid Highlighter in “Moonstone” ($41/1.7oz; $19/.68oz at Sephora — mini size only available in Moonstone and Opal)

I have no idea how you’d work your way through 1.7 oz of this — but if you want to splurge on the full-sized, be my guest.

If you find yourself sampling the Burberry Fluid Base, thinking “WTH is Finch talking about, this isn’t even a highlighter, it’s basically wet sheer pearlescent nothing” then this might be a better option for you. This stuff is the most highlighter-y of these three (and the only one intended as a highlight), but it’s still pretty chill for a highlighter — far less shimmery/POW-y than Becca’s poured formula, which is itself less sparkly/BLAM-y than their powders. (So if you’ve tried Becca powders and found yourself freaking out about the high sparkle factor, fear not! Though they share shade names and brand name, THIS “Moonstone” is not THAT “Moonstone”). It works best for me applied with fingers, then sheered out with a damp beauty blender — unlike my no-mirrors/no-tools Burberry Fluid Base, this has enough of a sheen that I try to make sure I apply it evenly. This one may disturb base products if you apply it too heavily OR blend too vigorously OR over powder (don’t apply liquids over powder), but I’ve only had a problem with it when I foolishly did one of those things.

Though the Burberry is my most-used due to the convenience factor, this one is my favorite. There is zero visible glitter and only the most finely-milled pale, pearlescent gold shimmer (which I can’t see unless I smoosh my face up next to the mirror — no one sitting next to you in the boardroom is going to think you have glitter on your face, and anyone making out with you probably has better things on their mind) — resulting in a decided (but non-blingy) glow.

If you’ve been curious about Becca highlighters in general, Sephora currently has a $20 kit that includes a deluxe sample tube of liquid (with doefoot applicator, which I actually love for this product) and a mini pressed powder (both in Opal).

OBLIGATORY ON-HAND SWATCHES FOR COMPARISON PURPOSES : Left to right, Wet’n’Wild, Burberry, Becca. You can see that the Burberry doesn’t even read as “highlighter” unless it’s in direct light at just the right angle. SUBTLE INDEED.


ONE THAT DIDN’T WORK: I tried the Becca Backlight Filter Face Primer as a highlight, and it just didn’t work — the texture disturbed my base product, and it didn’t give as much ‘glow’ as I was hoping. (And given that I’m happy with the amount of glow from the Burberry Fluid Base, that’s saying a lot.) Regardless, it’s a lovely luminous primer and I use it as such — just wanted to give you a heads up that not every primer is going to make a great highlight.

ONE THAT WAS GORGEOUS, BUT WRONG FOR MY PURPOSES SO I RETURNED IT: I can’t even explain the finish on the Hourglass Ambient Lighting Powder in “Mood Light,” but it was something special — if the Wet’n’Wild is a velvety glow, this one is silk velvet (probably spun by Galadriel or whatever). Even compared to the other Ambient Lighting Powders I swatched, the finish was striking — the others were either more subtly powdery or had visible shimmer, but this one was just … pure luminosity. (Okay, I might be leaning towards hyperbole — but it was an unusual finish for a powder, okay?) Unfortunately, I needed an allover finishing powder and it was decidedly too pink-lilac for that purpose … but if you want a subtle-yet-gorgeous cool-toned highlighter, I’d strongly recommend checking this one out!


Got a favorite low-key glow? Tell us about it! This whole section is called “ENABLER” for a reason…