What Happened to All the Glitter Highlighters?

Sparkly powders are retiring, giving way to a new era of glowy formulas.

hailey bieber and yara shahidi wearing highlighter on a tie dye background
(Image credit: Future)

Once upon a YouTube era, a makeup look without a highlighter was incomplete, unheard of; even an abomination if you asked NikkiTutorials or Patrick Starr. Maybelline's Strobestick was in its prime, and every Rihanna fan was bathed in Killawatt.

The best highlighters had a long heyday: Charlotte Tilbury’s Glowgasm, which launched in 2019, was continuously sold out for years after its launch—so much so, that I vividly remember buying 12 Spotlights during a restock in 2022. Becca’s cult-favorite Champagne Pop was so universally loved that when the brand shut down, Smashbox snatched up and relaunched the formula, which continues to be a best seller across retailers.

patrick starrr wearing highlighter at the people awards

Patrick Starrr was photographed at the People's "Ones to Watch" event presented by Maybelline New York in 2016 with glittery, powder highlighter applied heavily across the cheekbone.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The early '20s brought new innovations to the fold: Merit’s Highlighting Balm, Saie’s Illuminator, and Iconic London’s Rollerball, all notably less in-your-face than the formulas that preceded them. Cut to somewhere between Q4 of 2023 and the present day, and the sparkle-glitter-opalescence of it all scaled back to such a degree, that I’ve found myself repeatedly scratching my head and asking: What happened to all the highlighter?

“There has definitely been a neglect of highlighter launches, with many different highlighter-like formats coming out of indie brands primarily,” notes Lisa Payne, Head of Beauty at Stylus, a trend forecasting company. The category has experienced a marked decline. It makes sense: the 2024 fashion month circuit had a bare-faced throughline, with “fresh” or “healthy” skin replacing the wet look that reigned supreme in years past.

Still, a search for glow persists, namely in the Scandi-obsessed, “clean girl” aesthetic pockets of the internet. It just looks entirely different, with products frequently ditching their “highlighter” nomenclature altogether in favor of “luminizers,” like Dior’s newest range, or “enhancer drops,” which made a comeback with Cover FX’s relaunch earlier this year.

“There’s been an evolution of highlighter as it crosses into different categories. We’re familiar with it as a standalone product, but now it’s showing up in the formulas of blushes, bronzers, SPFs, foundations, and moisturizers,” notes Nordstrom Beauty Director Autumne West.

The highlighter products currently commanding attention feature a softer cream base and are less obviously glittery on the skin, imparting a subtle sheen more akin to catwalk complexions. It might seem like we’re skipping the highlighter step altogether, but in actuality, the category is just getting a makeover—shimmery is being replaced by glowy and dewy.

patrick starrr wearing highlighter at the people awards

Like most runway beauty looks from the past two seasons, the models at Lacoste's 2024 show had dewy, radiant skin.

(Image credit: Launchmetrics)

The new-age innovations are a welcome addition to the category’s fold; they are the perfect I-have-nothing-on-my-skin, finger-friendly complexion accents. Still, the tried-and-true powder, high-impact formulas of yore will never fully exit the highlighter ether. The Bobbi Brown and Cle de Peau-like poignant shimmers have staying power—literally and figuratively.

Here, you’ll find the best highlighters of all time, from compact cult classics to newer highlighter-esque developments. Despite the industry’s momentary pause on high-impact shine, the best highlighters will always be relevant.

The Best Highlighters

Samantha Holender takes a selfie wearing highlighter

Beauty Editor Samantha Holender wears Charlotte Tilbury's Beauty Light Wand in Spotlight.

(Image credit: Samantha Holender)

beauty director deena campbell wearing Armani Beauty Fluid Sheer Glow Enhancer Highlighter

Beauty director Deena Campbell wearing Armani Beauty Fluid Sheer Glow Enhancer Highlighter.

(Image credit: Deena Campbell)

Quinci LeGardye wearing merit highlighter

Culture editor Quinci LeGardye wears Merit's Day Glow Dewy Hydrating Balm.

(Image credit: Quinci LeGardye)

Samantha Holender takes a selfie wearing highlighter

Beauty Editor Samantha Holender wears the Hyper Shine High Lite Kit on her cheeks and forehead.

(Image credit: Samantha Holender)

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What Texture Highlighter Should I Choose?

The highlighters synonymous with the '10s and early '20s (think: a pearlized shine) come from pigmented powder formulas. “More recently, the inspiring looks are resonating more with natural finishes and more subtle, fresh look—think: quiet luxury, but beauty,” says Payne. They’re coming in cream or gel-based formulations with less glitter and sparkle, and more of a radiant sheen.

In addition to considering the intended finish or a formula, you should consider your skin type. “A person with oilier skin may opt for a powder highlighter, while a person with a drier skin type would benefit from a cream or liquid option,” adds Fleming.

What Color Highlighter Should I Use?

Choosing the best highlighter shade is pretty low stakes—you can’t go wrong. Wear whatever shade or tone you like the best. “A pearly, iridescent pink highlighter can work on a range of skin tones,” says Fleming. But, if you’re looking for the most flattering, natural payoff, try a product that matches your skin’s undertones. “Golden tones will compliment tanned and deeper complexions the most,” adds Fleming, while cooler undertones should opt for pinks and peaches.

model wearing the westman atelier highlighter

Westman Atelier's highlighter provides a sheer, dewy effect to the skin.

(Image credit: Westman Atelier)

How to Apply Highlighter

The best application technique heavily depends on what type of highlighter formula you’re working with. Most liquids and creams are finger-friendly, whereas powders best apply with a medium, fluffy blending brush. “The lack of density will give a less intense application, leaving room to build and layer the glow,” explains Fleming.

Where to Apply Highlighter

Placement is a personal preference. You can mix highlighter in with foundation for an all over glow, brush or swipe it across your eyelids, or stick to the basics and put it on the high points of your face, like the cheekbones and brow bone. “I like to place highlighter a bit above the brow arch, on the back of the cheekbones, the inner corners of the eyes, and sometimes above the lip,” says Fleming. “A pop of glow in the center of the nose can also give a glowy pop to the center of the face.”

Meet the Experts

Lisa Payne

Lisa leads Stylus' Beauty team and is responsible for tracking the latest innovations in beauty product development from around the world, providing analysis on emerging shifts in the industry, key consumer groups and future-focused directives. She has been with Stylus since its launch in 2010, bringing over 10 years of trend forecasting experience in fashion, beauty, and arts and culture. She was instrumental in growing our beauty content in line with increasing demand for industry insights, and is particularly proud of her Commercializing Pleasure Spotlight, which expands the remit of personal care to include sex as a valuable business driver.

Autumne West

Autumne has 18 years of experience in the beauty business, it all started with simply being a fan of makeup and becoming a make-up artist for fun. Her passion ultimately grew into her profession.

Jennifer Fleming

Texas-bred, Jennifer Fleming’s passion for makeup began with the red painted lips of her family’s matriarchs, igniting an appreciation for the power and ability of makeup to enhance and transform.

Years later in a packed Mustang, she made the leap to the lights of New York City. Working backstage assisting on fashion shows, photo shoots, and celebrity red carpet helped inform her foundation for makeup. She found her niche in advertising and men’s grooming for several brands including Maybelline Chase, and the National Basketball Association.

Today, she continues to draw inspiration from art, travel, nature, and history- while being inspired by current digital beauty trends.

Beauty Editor

Samantha Holender is the Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, where she reports on the best new launches, dives into the science behind skincare, and shares the breakdown on the latest and greatest trends in the beauty space. She's studied up on every ingredient you'll find on INCI list and is constantly in search of the world's glowiest makeup products. Prior to joining the team, she worked as Us Weekly’s Beauty and Style Editor, where she stayed on the pulse of pop culture and broke down celebrity beauty routines, hair transformations, and red carpet looks. Her words have also appeared on Popsugar, Makeup.com, Skincare.com, Delish.com, and Philadelphia Wedding. Samantha also serves as a board member for the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). She first joined the organization in 2018, when she worked as an editorial intern at Food Network Magazine and Pioneer Woman Magazine. Samantha has a degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. While at GWU, she was a founding member of the school’s HerCampus chapter and served as its President for four years. When she’s not deep in the beauty closet or swatching eyeshadows, you can find her obsessing over Real Housewives and all things Bravo. Keep up with her on Instagram @samholender.