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Wait, How Exactly Do You Contour And Highlight Your Face?

It takes approximately 60 seconds, promise.
PHOTO: istockphoto

Hi, hello, and welcome to today’s brief beauty history lesson (I promise no pop quizzes): Contouring, baking, and extreme highlighting didn't come from your BFF who's, like, super into makeup. It actually originated from the drag community decades ago as a way to shape the face with makeup. Only in the last few years has the mainstream beauty industry adapted these makeup concepts so everyone can have a chiseled look in their everyday life.

And if you’ve tried contouring your face in the last, IDK, seven years, you probably followed a face chart based on your face shape—whatever that really means. But it’s 2020 now, and things have officially changed. So if you came here for the chart, sorry to disappoint, but I promise you won’t need it by the time you get through the end of this article. And let’s be honest, it was hard figuring out WTF your face shape was anyway.

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What is the purpose of contour?

The whole point of contouring is to enhance or change the shape of your face with makeup, but its effects don't have to be all that drastic. “From 2012 to 2018, contouring based on your face shape was seemingly very important,” says LA-based makeup artist Jenna Nicole. But now, she says, "Less is more, and we’re embracing natural, dewy skin. The old contour and highlighting trends were about changing your whole face to look a certain way, but now it’s about embracing your natural shape and giving yourself realistic-looking depth and dimension.”

What is the difference between bronzer and contour?

I get it, you've got two products that look like virtually the same thing, but I promise they're not and they each serve a different purpose. First of all, a contour product is always, always matte. With contouring, you're creating depth to make the angles of your face pop more, so you need a product that can create the illusion of a shadow (and shadows aren't shimmery). When using bronzer, think sunlight, not shadows. The goal with bronzing is to create the illusion of a warmer complexion by blending the product (which, by the way, usually has a sheen or shimmer to it) where the sun would naturally hit your face: temples, nose, around the edges of your face, etc.

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Do you put foundation on before or after contouring?

Just like the concept of contouring has changed, so has the order of the application. Before, you might have applied your foundation, then blended on some bronzer and highlighter. But now, Nicole says to first blend a cream or liquid highlighter over your cheekbones, then apply your foundation on top, and then finish with the contour to add dimension.

It sounds weird, but it also makes sense. By blending foundation over your highlighter, “you can still see the skin’s texture, instead of seeing an obvious highlight line,” she says. “Basically, your skin will just look naturally glowy, and that’s from highlighting underneath the foundation.”


What do I need for contouring?

For your perfect contour, Nicole says you need a product three shades darker than your skin tone that keeps within your same undertone family. Translation: If you’re super pale, don’t grab a dark-brown contour—look for a shade that’s just three steps below your current skin color (as if you were picking a too-dark foundation). As for undertones, use a cooler, grayish-brown shade if your skin is cool-toned, and stick with a warmer, red-brown shade if your skin is warm-toned.

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Next, you need to decide whether to use a cream or a powder. This is based mostly on your personal preference, but Nicole suggests factoring in your skin type and texture when selecting the right formula. If your makeup tends to settle into fine lines or you have really dry skin, go with a cream contour. Stuck in a pinch? A brown or taupe matte lipstick could work, too. To make liquid or creamy products melt into the skin, use the warmth of your clean hands or a damp makeup sponge when applying and blending the product.

How do you contour with powder?

If you have an oily skin type or you just want a matte finish, use a powder. Unlike creams, powder formulas don't blend well with your fingers, and A+ blending is very important when creating a natural-looking contour. Instead, choose a makeup brush, based on the look you want. For a super-sharp chiseled look, use a brush with blunt bristles. For a softer look, a fluffy angled brush will well you diffuse the product while you sculpt. And for contouring smaller areas, like the sides of your nose, you'll want a smaller shading brush. 

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As far as the actual application process, contouring with powder follows the same basic steps. First, apply the product where you want the color to be the most pigmented (more on that below). Then, use sweeping motions with your brush to blend out the harsh line and make it look more natural. Need a demo? Ask, and you shall receive:


Where do you contour your face?

I'll admit, right now would be a really great time to have a face chart to follow, but I promise you don't need it! First, decide where you want the focus to be and what you want to enhance. Once you've applied your foundation, your face might look a little flat, so a good place to start is right underneath your cheekbones to create depth. I like to throw a little along my hairline and along to my jawline to define my face a little more, and some like to shade a little on the sides or around the tip of their nose. It's your face, your call.

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Can I contour without highlighting?

Um, of course. You can do whatever you want. In fact, Nicole says many makeup artists are moving away from traditional cheekbone highlighting altogether, instead, giving an all-over sheen to your skin that looks really natural. The trick: Mix a few drops of face oil with some of your foundation and swirl it over your skin for a seamless, built-in highlight.

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Do you put powder over contour or highlighter?

Ah, yes, baking—the act of putting a bunch of powder over your cream makeup to supposedly keep it intact longer (but, in reality, it just makes everything look heavy and cakey). If you need your cream-based makeup to last all day, Nicole recommends instead lightly dusting a setting powder over just your forehead and under your eyes, skipping your contour altogether. Then mist a setting spray over your face to blend everything together and soften harsh lines.

Okay, so how do you contour step-by-step?

Now that contouring is no longer about changing your damn face shape (FINALLY), you don’t have to be a pro to figure it out. Here’s the basic step-by-step—you can follow it loosely and customize it to your own face shape.

  1. Prep your skin with a moisturizer and a makeup primer.
  2. Apply a cream highlighter on your cheekbones, down your nose, on your brow bones, and on the inner corners of your eyes.
  3. Mix your foundation with a beauty oil to sheer it out a little, then blend it across your face with a damp sponge.
  4. To contour, follow the shadows of your *own* face shape. If you feel your jaw isn’t as defined as you’d like, blend some powder or cream along the edges of your jawbone. If you want to chisel your cheeks, blend a line of contour beneath your cheekbones. If you love your nose, leave it alone!
  5. Set your T-zone with setting powder, then mist your face with a setting spray to blend it all together.
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DO'S and DONT'S Highlight & Contour For Dark Skin WOC || Nyma Tang


This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.