Illuminators, Illuminating Primer and Illuminating foundations are all the rage in the beauty world and for good reason – hydrated, glowing skin looks fresh and youthful. But when is a glow not a glow? When your wattage is too high, that’s when. If your nose stands out like molten metal your glow has gone metallic it’s no longer fresh and pretty but more Tin Man than Dorothy.  After a certain age, metallics might be ok on your eyes and even in your lipstick, but on your face it will do you no favours unless used most sparingly. To avoid the mistakes and to look your best, here’s a list of the best illuminators out there, and tips on what to avoid.

 illuminator makeup , contoured, highlighted makeup, contour and highlight on two girls
These girls are maybe….fourteen? It may look good on them (does it really?) but does it translate for the work meeting or the school pick-up? 

The ultra-highlighting or “strobing” trend is best left to the yoots, but to be honest, I don’t like it much on them either. Those of you lucky enough to have heard me rant on about the state of Brit makeup (sorry, friends) will know how I really feel about the over-processed beauty that shows up everywhere on the streets of London, Brighton, Newcastle, Liverpool or wherever my kit will take me. The constant glare of make-up as mask, metallic noses, huge dark eyebrows and ugly contouring is doing my head in and whoever is telling real women to wear it needs some serious talking to, IMO. Yes, makeup should be fun enjoyable and I encourage all women to try a trend if they fancy it, but if it doesn’t flatter, best leave it on the shelf. I have taken to counting the number of metallic noses coming my way on a daily basis. It’s not a fun hobby and though I’m sounding like a makeup granny who just doesn’t “get it” I strongly advise you to rethink your glow go-to’s if your aim is to look realistic and not robotic.

Black woman with very strong illuminator makeup on her cheekbones

Simply put, illuminators that give metallic highlight do you no favours if your skin is past perfect. Any fine lines, deep lines, redness, dryness, rosacea, or anything that falls into the “imperfection” category will simply be highlighted by too much highlighter.  Apply a little to the lines around your eyes or on your hands, get into daylight and have a look.  Applying powder over highlight to then disguise said imperfections turns into a too-much-makeup mess, so unless you’re taut and extremely smooth-skinned go for a glow instead.  Fortunately I am here to explain the difference and to tell you how to do it.

What to Look For In An Illuminator and How To Wear Them

Think cream or lotion, not powder or drops, for all the reasons mentioned above, and because liquids will boost hydration and nourish your skin at the same time, which is always a good thing. Think golden, warm tones, even if you’re very fair-skinned, because those are the tones that flatter and give us a healthy look. Anything pink/purple/cool-toned will ramp up the robotic, and even more so on dark skin. See above.

I am not a fan of drops, which are super intense and strobe like Studio 54. The effect we want is a dewy, natural look, and here’s how to do it, once you’ve found your best match.

How To Get Glowing Skin With An Illuminator

  • wear it alone (over moisturiser and your daily sunscreen of course :)) for a healthy no-makeup look: I have done whole films with actresses wearing only Wonderglow for the best natural look.
  • use it as your primer: so apply to your face, neck and decolletage before your base of choice – tinted moisturiser, foundation, BB Cream, whatever your preference. Note that this doesn’t work if you use a powder foundation, which I hope you’ve all ditched, because I really don’t like them. Powder foundations look like a load of powder sitting on top of your face and are one of my make-up pet peeves, so even if you have the oiliest skin, there is a liquid foundation which will work for you. If you need recommendations, leave a comment below.
  • mix with your foundation choice – this is my fave for a beautiful, glowing look. I use a 50:50 mix (mix it on the back of clean hands) and apply with fingers or the amazing Beautyblender Beautyblender Pro for a flawless look.
  • for an added boost of glow in the evenings (think candlelight, low light situations) pat a drop or two on your fingertips, and pat lightly over cheekbones and under your eyebrows for extra loveliness.

Those are the basic rules, easy. Remember we’re using makeup and beauty products to help us achieve the best versions of ourselves and to boost our confidence in the real world, right? Best Face Forward.

The Best Illuminators for the Over 30’s 

Four makeup illuminators lined up in a row on a shelf - Kiehl's Glow Formula, NARS Radiance Primer. Charlotte Tilbury Wonderglow, Armani Fluid Sheer #10
Simply The Best, Better Than All The Rest

These are my top picks and I’ve tried loads

  • Kiehl’s Glow Formula Skin Hydrator – credit where credit is due, Kiehl’s do brilliant skincare, so I am excited to see them branching out into more adventurous beauty products like this. The name says it all, delivering glow in a gentle peachy/gold-toned juicy lotion which is my favourite product of the year so far. This one’s beautiful on young and mature skins, is formulated with 95% naturally derived ingredients*, works with all skin types and skin tones, aids hydration and has the antioxidant properties of pomegranate extract. It’s a win-win beauty product with Kiehl’s brilliant skin science behind it.

A small blob of Kiehls Glow Lotion Skin Hydrator on an arm to show the colour

  • Charlotte Tilbury Wonderglow – Primer – 40ml is a lightweight and moisturising gold-toned illuminator which is lovely on all skin tones from porcelain to black. Paraben-free, with hyaluronic acid  and light-diffusing particles that help make imperfections “blur”, it’s vegan-friendly, gluten-free, paraben free, sulfate-free, and not tested on animals. This one gives a really soft skin enhancing effect while adding a bit of a golden hue, the colour of which is mostly imperceptible so do not be afraid, this is one of CT’s best sellers and for good reason.  A travel sized version has arrived on the shelves recently, but it’s not heavy so the full size is better value and will last ages.
A blob of Charlotte Tilbury Wonderglow to show the colour of it
Wonderglow spread on arm to show the effect
…is gentle and wonderful
  • Nars Radiance Primer SPF35 is one of the juiciest and best smelling primers around, it’s been a staple in my kit since it launched in February last year as one three new NARS primers. Formulated with SPF 35, an added bonus, it looks lovely on the skin and is oil-free, so is great on skins that over-produce, if that’s a concern for you. My skin is definitely on the parched side and I don’t normally do oil-free but I still love the feel of this one on.  Not as golden-toned as the others but  delivers a natural beautiful glow, not a metallic.
blob of Nars radiance Primer on an arm to show the colour of it
This one’s a bit peachier..
Nars Radiance Primer spread on arm to shoe the peachy colour effect
…and juicy like peaches with a spicy aroma

  • Armani Fluid Sheer #10 – the Armani Fluid Sheers were my first illuminating loves and still hold a special place in my heart. But only because they are incredible. A few drop mixed with Nars All Day Luminous Weightless Foundation became my favourite foundation for film and looks beautiful not only on camera but in real life to make skin come alive after sleepless nights and long winters. You may think it looks too warm for light skins but it’s not – once it’s on it’s basically imperceptible and as these are the tones that occur naturally in skin you only need a tiny bit to get glowing, so less than a pump added to your base of choice is the way to go. Pricey, but a little goes a long way so it’s a beautiful beauty investment.

swatch of Armani Fluid Sheer #10 showing the gold tones

  • Oskia Get Up & Glow has been on my wishlist since I spotted it a few weeks ago and although I don’t own it yet it deserves a special mention for a couple of reasons.  This one is a superfluid gel that’s all glow with not a metallic in sight, with some serious beauty science behind it. Milk Peptides and light reflecting particles for lift and brightening, plus their signature antioxidant Swiss Apple Stem Cells to boost collagen production and fight free-radicals so it’s not only a beauty booster but a skincare heavyweight.
swatch of Oskia Get Up and Glow
Oskia Get Up And Glow is very liquid, slightly luminescent and very nurturing.

The Best Illuminator For Black Skin

  • The Armani Fluid Sheer#10 above is the best illuminator for black skin, beating all the others hands down. On black skin it can be worn alone for lovely luminousity.
  • if your skin is very olive toned, Armani also do a Fluid Sheer #4 which works beautifully to warm up medium to dark skins (a couple drops) or as a sultry natural blush.
swatch of Armani Fluid Sheer #4 showing red tones
As with all of the illuminators, only a tiny bit is needed to get the effect of glow.


The Worst Illuminators and Why You Should Avoid Them

Mentioning names would be rude (so tempted as some of the best sellers are right here) but if they look like this, put them back on the shelf.  Look carefully at the undertones and the ingredients of any Illuminator you’re interested in – anything with an opal / pink / purple / undertone will ramp up the robotics and if there’s a high mica (a naturally occurring shiny silicate mineral found in granite and other rocks) content, you’ll end up with a Tin Man Tint, and we don’t want that.

An arm showing 4 swatches of very metallic looking illuminators


Hydrating Facial Mists – Another Way To Get A Glow On

Hydration boosts glow, makes senses doesn’t it, and facial mists are my favourite way of boosting glow throughout the day, helping skin feel it’s best as well as looking I t’s best. I love Jurlique Rosewater Balancing Mist – the rose scent is so calming and delivers instant surface hydration. It’s in a glass bottle and fairly heavy so if you want one for your handbags the smaller version would be good, or there’s Hydrating Milky Mist from Pixi with hyaluronic acid.

I hope my recommendations and tips have been helpful. I am so happy to report that Skin Is In, that beauty trends are moving on from the mask  of heavy makeup and that the beauty houses are trumping blush and flush, freckles and glowing skin again. Hurrah to that. Let’s hope the High Street embraces it too. May your search for the perfect illuminator be over because now is the perfect time to get glowing x


*retaining more than 50% of their molecular structure after being processed from a natural source.

PRODUCT REVIEWS does not receive any monetary compensation to review products. Most reviews are based on products purchased personally, and preferred, or not. Occasionally I will receive products from makeup companies and will choose whether or not to review them here. Receiving products has no bearing on the opinion of the review, nor whether I choose to review it or not. All opinions are just that, and are honest and unbiased. Recommendations are based on the knowledge I have gained during almost twenty years as a professional Make-Up Artist. is not to be held responsible if you decide to purchase an item and are dissatisfied with it. – all the products in this post were purchased or tested (Oskia) by me. 

I'm a British / Canadian Pro MakeUp Artist with a colourful career: have kit, will travel, have info, will share! This blog is all about My Life In MakeUp. I hope you enjoy your time here and learn a little something along the way xo

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