Highlighting and contouring

Highlighting and contouringHighlighting and contouring are used to “sculpt” your face as shown in the diagram, by accentuating the natural high points/shadows in your face. This is based off the simple principle that light colors bring an area forward, while dark colors make an area recede. So you would apply light colors to the areas of your face that are naturally prominent, while applying dark colors to the areas of your face that naturally recede.

Highlighting is applying a liquid or powder a few shades lighter than your skin on areas you want to bring forward, like the tops of the cheeks and center of the nose. This can make your face look more “glowy.” If you just want to highlight your cheekbones, you could use something matte or shimmery, whereas if you want to sculpt your whole face, including all the highlighted areas in the diagram, a matte product is best. While some people even use concealers, that can look cakey fast due to the high coverage in those formulas.

Contouring is using a powder or cream a shade or two darker than your skin in areas you want to recede, typically the perimeter of the face, cheekbones, jaw, and sides of the nose. This can help to define your cheekbones and make your nose look more narrow.

The best color to use for contouring is strongly dependent on your undertones. If you have very warm undertones, something warm (like a matte bronzer) can work, while a cool-toned or taupey color might pull blueish or purplish on you (you can see this effect in this swatch of NYX Taupe on warm-toned skin, where it looks a bit purplish). If you have very cool undertones, something cool-toned (gray or cool taupe/brown) can work, while a warmer color might look too orangey. If you have more neutral undertones, try a neutral brown like Urban Decay Naked eyeshadow (for light skin) or Kevyn Aucoin’s Sculpting Powder (for light to medium skin).

You can choose to just highlight, just contour, or do both if you like. Regardless, highlighting/contouring products would go on top of foundation. However, in the case of stick or liquid highlighters, you could try putting it on before foundation, then lightly patting your foundation over it, to get a sort of “glow from within.”

I won’t go into a lot of depth here, partly because I never highlight/contour and partly because contouring is more advanced-level makeup and is easy to screw up, so not best suited for beginners. However, here are some useful links:


Contouring products:



Below you can find specific recommendations of highlighting and contouring products for different skin tones. The “NC15, NC20,” etc. numbers refer to MAC foundation shades, which are commonly used as a standard reference point. You can find your approximate MAC shade by inputting your existing foundation shade(s) in Findation.

General highlighter selection tips:
In general, if you have warm undertones, try something gold (for light to medium skin) or a coppery or golden bronze (for dark skin); for cool undertones, something pinkish (for light to medium skin) or rose gold (for dark skin); and for neutral undertones, something beige, champagne (for light to medium skin), or a neutral shimmery brown (for dark skin). Of course, this isn’t set in stone – try out different shades and see what you like! Especially if your undertones are more towards the neutral part of the spectrum, you can probably wear a range of different highlighters.

Pale/light skin highlighter recommendations:

Medium skin highlighter recommendations:

Dark skin highlighter recommendations:

Pale/light skin contour recommendations:

I would recommend the grayish colors and cool taupes (ex. Revlon Greige, Sephora Cashmere Coat) for cool-toned skin, the neutral browns (ex. Illamasqua Heroine, MAC Sculpt) for neutral skin, and the neutral to warm browns (ex. Sleek contour kit, Burberry Earthy) for warm-toned skin. Note that you can also just get a L’Oreal True Match powder that’s about two shades darker than your skin; these come in N (neutral), C (cool), and W (warm) versions for each shade.

Medium skin contour recommendations:

Again, I would recommend the cool browns (ex. theBalm Bahama Mama) for cool-toned skin, the neutral browns (ex. Too Faced Chocolate Soleil or Kevyn Aucoin Sculpting Powder) for neutral or olive skin, and the neutral to warm browns (ex. MAC Shadester) for warm-toned skin. As I mentioned above, you can also try a L’Oreal True Match powder in a cool, neutral, or warm shade about two shades darker than your skintone.

Dark skin contour recommendations:

As above, I’d recommend the cool browns (ex. L’Oreal Deep Mocha, MAC Shadowy) for cool-toned skin, the neutral browns (ex. Black Radiance Rich Mahogany, Graftobian Hidden Magic) for neutral skin, and the neutral to warm browns (ex. Sleek contour kit, MAC Definitive) for warm-toned skin.


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