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Illuminating Powders 101: Tips, Tricks, and Picks

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It seems that illuminating powders—a long-time professional artist staple—are suddenly everywhere. They’re essentially glow-ifiers, not unlike bronzers and highlighters, but much more subtle.  When applied the right way, illuminating powder gives the complexion a lit-from-within, diffused glow, kind of like the flattering look candlelight casts onto any face. And who doesn’t want a little radiance? But despite these products popping up all over the place, there appears to be limited specifics out there on how to use them. To shed some light (sorry, had to) on the topic, we consulted Los Angeles–based makeup artist Brande Bytheway, who broke down how to shop for and use illuminators based on your skin tone and type.

The important thing to know is that illuminating is different from dramatic contouring and highlighting. “Illuminating powders allow your face’s natural highlights and curves to shine through, whereas with contouring and highlighting you’re really trying to change the shape of the face and features,” explains Brande. Illuminating powders aren’t meant for color or coverage, but instead simply to finish, and in some cases, even set a look with a pretty “halo” effect. If applied correctly, they not only reflect light, but capture it in a flattering way, which makes the complexion look softer and smoother (in person and in photographs).

General Application Tips

No matter your skin tone, it’s best to avoid anything with too much sparkle. It can look tacky and even draw attention to wrinkles and imperfections. Brande says you can’t go wrong with something that’s basically translucent, with just a hint of pearlized pigment. “Generally speaking, you want to put it on after makeup, after blush, wherever light naturally hits the face,” says Brande, “like the bridge of the nose, cheekbones, and, depending on your skin type, a bit on the temples, forehead, and center of the chin.” A soft blush brush works well (Brande prefers one with more loosely packed bristles); swirl it to pick up the product, flick or shake off the excess, and buff on in a circular motion.

Dark to Medium-Dark Skin

On darker skin tones, a powder with a little warmth (think peach, gold, or beige) is the way to go to avoid ashiness. We like Kevyn Aucoin Celestial Bronzing Veil in Tropical Nights ($48, pictured above), which is an ombre compact that’s lighter at the top, darker at the bottom. For this look we shade all over the cheeks, temples, and forehead. “This product would work throughout the seasons. As your skin tone shifts you’ll still find a shade that will work,” says Brande.

Medium-Fair to Fair Skin

Brande likes a pearlescent shade for lighter complexions—but nothing shimmery. “You want it to reflect light just a little bit, but no glitter effect,” she says. If you find the right one and use a light hand, you can use it to set your makeup for a dewy finish that’s not at all oily. Too Faced Absolutely Invisible Softly Illuminating Translucent Powder in Candlelight ($30, pictured above) is great for medium to fair skin tones. Even though this product (like many) are described as “universal,” on darker tones it’s less translucent and may appear to sit on the skin.

Oily Skin

Those with really oily skin may want to avoid illuminator altogether. As Brande points out, “If you’re constantly battling oil, you’re not necessarily looking for shine.” However, because these powders are so much more understated than highlighter, we suggest giving it a try! Use your favorite mattifying, setting powder first and then do a light dusting of soft illuminator over the top. Look for a product that’s ultra light, like Hourglass Ambient Lighting Powder in Dim Light ($45, pictured above), which will give a little life to your face without shine. Hourglass is also wonderful for aging skin because “the particles of pearl are so fine that the product doesn’t look like it’s sitting on skin, and won’t draw attention to fine lines,” says Brande.

Best Overall, Splurge and Steal

If you can afford it, Hourglass Ambient Lighting Palette ($58) is worth the investment, especially for professionals. You get three powders in one compact (Dim Light, a neutral peachy beige, Incandescent Light, a pearly shade, and Radiant Light a golden beige), and can play around with using one, two, or all three shades at once. Brande loves the set for its thoughtful design: each powder is hump-shaped, so you can run a brush back and forth across all three without contaminating up any of the colors. “With all three, I’d do some down the nose and a bit on cheeks for the most subtle highlight—it’s beautiful!” she says.

If you’re on a budget, Physicians Formula Mineral Glow Pearls Powder Palette ($11) is a great option. It’s soft and virtually shimmer-free (versus many drugstore products that have a bit too much sparkle), and comes in four shades.

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