Beauty School: The History of Highlighter

Beauty School: The History of Highlighter featured image
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

There’s something so mesmerizing about watching highlighter be swept ever so slowly across a cheekbone, creating an otherworldly glisten. Here’s how our love of luminizers has evolved over time.


Makeup artists commonly used Vaseline on the faces of Hollywood starlets like Marilyn Monroe to help highlight their cheekbones, brow bones, and even their eyelids on the big screen. “I think the influence definitely came from the idea of shadow and darkness,” says makeup artist Tim Quinn, who used to mix Vaseline ($6) with concealer in the beginning of his career to add shimmer to the face. “When you think of film noir and the way those films were shot, the lighting did so much, but then they would use highlighting to catch those certain areas to add some more mystery.”


YSL Beauty’s cult-classic Touché Éclat ($38) was born. “Mr. Saint Laurent’s obsession with light originated from the way he liked to see it highlight women’s beauty on his runways, which inspired the brand to create the first-ever highlighting pen,” says YSL Beauty national makeup artist Nour Agha. “It is a revolution in the art of makeup and for the brand, and it remains our number-one best-selling product to this day. Six pens are sold every minute.” Makeup artist Sandy Linter is also a big fan of Touché Éclat, which now comes in 14 shades. “It can look natural to the eye, and yet it really benefits the skin by seeming to lift hollow under-eyes and draw attention to cheekbones,” she says. “It’s really a hybrid of concealer and highlighter, rather than a traditional highlighter as we know it now.”


MAC Cosmetics launched Strobe Cream ($35), an iridescent highlighter made with mineral pigments that quickly became a makeup-artist favorite backstage during Fashion Week, on movie sets and more. Though Touché Éclat hit the market nearly a decade earlier, Strobe Cream is widely credited as being the first mass-market highlighter in the U.S. for its more conventional use to add shimmer to the high points of the face. (Some makeup artists also like to add a few drops to foundation to give skin allover luminosity.) Quinn says, “Strobe Cream was way ahead of its time, considering highlighters didn’t really catch on in the U.S. until many years later.”


The “strobing” technique of placing highlighter in larger amounts on the high points of the face became all the rage, and Pat McGrath’s Skin Fetish: Highlighter + Balm Duo ($48)—a clear balm on one end and holographic pigment on the other—was one of the most coveted products of the season. BECCA’s Shimmering Skin Perfector Pressed Highlighter ($38) in Champagne Pop—a soft gold powder with a peachy-pink effect—also took the industry by storm. (In 2020, it was named the best-selling highlighter in the U.S. by NPD Group, but unfortunately the brand is going out of business this fall.) “But whether you prefer a liquid, cream or powder comes down to your skin type,” says Linter. “Oily skin types tend to do better with powder; dry skin types do well with liquids or creams. For a longer-lasting finish, you can apply a liquid and set it with powder, too.”


Makeup artist Nam Vo became an Instagram sensation with her #dewydumpling revolution, showcasing dewy cheekbones with perfectly placed highlights (and that famous slow-motion sweep). “I’m always going to like more of a healthy, wet, dewy look rather than a shimmery one because shimmer doesn’t look good on everyone,” says Vo. “Shimmer has to go where the skin is smoother, but a wet look can go anywhere.” As far as her favorites, Vo loves Iconic London’s Illuminator ($40), Chanel’s Baume Essentiel Glow Sticks ($45) and Dior’s Diorskin Nude Luminizer ($48), which has more shimmer.


Quinn says shimmer bricks are always going to be around, but most of his clients are wanting less shimmer these days, especially post-COVID. “They just want to look glowy and sculpted with natural tones,” he explains. “I think more people are spending time with their dermatologists and better understanding their skin, and they’re trying to get it to look more glassy and less opaque. Highlighters have developed to that point too, with a more sheer quality.” Vo agrees, reiterating the importance of good skin. “Though I love highlighter, I always like to say, ‘Work toward good skin rather than having to create good skin with makeup.’ Get the lasers, get the masks, get the exfoliators, get your serums on, so you don’t have create the illusion and you actually have the real thing.”

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