Why Are We So Obsessed With Highlighting All Of A Sudden?

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
Dewy, glowing, radiant, luminescent — there is no shortage of ways to describe the modern ideal of beautiful skin. A complexion that looks “lit from within,” is the status quo these days, both on social media platforms and IRL. But all that poetic prose is really just another way to say highlighting, which is a beauty technique that’s been a mainstay in the repertoire of professional makeup artists for decades.

But recently, that pro secret has exploded into the mainstream beauty world. According to the NPD Group, the prestige makeup category saw a 21% increase last year, with the majority of that driven by the "All Other Face" segment — which includes primers, contour products, highlighters, and sculpting kits. And 44% of the gains in that category came from highlighters alone.
Which leads to the question: Why is everyone suddenly so obsessed with this professional product?

To understand that fascination, we first have to go back — way back — to the advent of visual art. “The techniques of highlight and shade are as ancient as portrait painting itself,” says BAFTA Award-winning makeup artist Paul Gooch, the man responsible for Anne Hathaway’s resplendent White Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Fast forward to the birth of the film industry in 20th century Hollywood, where most filming was done outdoors in daylight, and the sunshine naturally defined an actor's face by reflecting off his or her cheekbones, nose, and jawline.

Once filming moved to indoor studios, makeup artists, directors, actors, and crew members had to get creative to mimic that effect. “Working in the film or television industry, lighting is essential and can make or break a makeup artist's work. Some directors of photography are brilliant at this. Experienced actors also know which lighting positions suit their face best,” says Gooch.

Using highlighting techniques for theater can help the actor to create a more believable character. It also helps the audience to see the actor's features from anywhere in the theater.

Romero Jennings, MAC Director Of Makeup Artistry
Advertisement
The film industry wasn’t alone is this skin subterfuge — theater actors also had to cheat the light. “Using highlighting techniques for theater can help the actor to create a more believable character. It also helps the audience to see the actor's features from anywhere in the theater,” explains MAC director of makeup artistry Romero Jennings. These unique conditions created highlighting as we now know it.

“As a makeup artist, you are trained in the structure of a face,” says Gooch. The bones of a face catch light first... they give contour and shape. Makeup can emphasize this by highlighting cheek and browbones. It can eradicate dark areas around the eyes and jaw line.”

For anyone who's ever woken up to dull, puffy skin and undereye bags, the appeal of highlighters is obvious. As Gregory Arlt, MAC’s director of makeup artistry explains, highlighting is a way to make a complexion look “hyper-real,” illuminating skin to bring out bone structure and create that dewy effect. “It truly brings out a person's facial shape, giving definition where needed,” he says.

And, thanks to a flood of red carpet looks on social media as well as Instagram and YouTube tutorials — not to mention the constant desire for selfie-ready, #nofilter skin — that pro technique blasted its way into the marketplace this year. And beauty companies took full advantage by releasing a slew of products that promise to perk up your complexion with just a few swipes of a powder, liquid, cream, or a solid stick.

MAC, credited with the first strobing cream on the market, has been churning out products for both the professional and mass consumer since the '80s. “Strobe Cream has always been the go-to product for creating a glow. Now there are reflective pigments, mineralized powders, and MAC's Extra Dimension Skinfinish, a strobing powder that is a game changer,” notes Jennings.

Hourglass Ambient Lighting Powder

Then there is the genius that is Hourglass’ Ambient Lighting Powders. The finishing powders were created to mimic different types of lighting environments — from candlelight to sunlight — using what the brand calls "micron-sized photoluminescent spheres." Explains founder Carisa Janes, “The optically transparent particles alter the appearance of the skin by manipulating and refracting favorable light. When illuminated by invisible UV light, the particles glow on the skin, minimizing the appearance of wrinkles and imperfections, and neutralizing discoloration.”

She describes it as the equivalent of having “your own personal lighting technician.” The success of the powder led Janes to create three more products: blush, bronzer, and strobing powder, all of which have an almost rabid following on social media.

While getting your hands on these illuminating products is now as easy as a quick browse online at Sephora or Ulta, the options themselves can be overwhelming. To find the one that’s right for you, Gooch recommends the good old-fashioned “apply it and then go outside to see it in the natural light” approach. “When it comes to choosing something for your own face, it really is a trial-and-error process. If it works for you and suits your skin, then it is the right one. If it doesn’t have the desired effect or is the wrong color, then try another.” He favors liquid highlighters for his work, citing Yves Saint Laurent Touche Éclat and Chantecaille Liquid Lumiere in Brilliance as favorites.

With hundreds of highlighting products on the market, and even more luminosity-enhancing technologies being developed, all our experts agreed that highlighters are not a flash-in-the pan trend — these light-diffusing wonders are here to stay. “The proper highlight can be as powerful as walking into a dark room wearing a bold-red, statement lipstick,” says Jennings. “It’s the ‘little black dress’ of makeup; it is always there to make you feel confident and never goes out of style.”

You might as well just take our wallets now beauty industry — our skin is craving whatever radiance wonder you’ve got cooking up back there. (We heard a rumor it's spray-on highlighters next.)
Advertisement