How to Contour and Highlight for Your Face Shape

It takes approximately 60 seconds, promise.

Hi, hello, and welcome to today's brief beauty history lesson (I promise no pop quizzes): Contouring, baking, and extreme highlighting originated in the drag community decades ago as a way to shape the face with makeup. Got that? 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 entails. But it's 2019 now, and things have officially changed since you last picked up your bronzer.

“From 2012 to 2018, contouring based on your face shape was seemingly very important,” says LA-based makeup artist Jenna Nicole. “But now, in 2019, 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."

So, if you came here for a face chart specifically made for your face shape, 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.

What makeup do you use for contouring?

I mean, that's what you're really here for, right? Almost as important as knowing where to contour is knowing which tools to use for the most natural finish. For your perfect contour, Nicole says you need a cream or powder 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 colour (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.

As far as choosing a cream or powder, Nicole says to select the formula based on your skin type and texture. If your makeup tends to settle into fine lines, or you have really dry skin, go with a cream contour. If you have an oilier skin type, or you just want a matte finish, use a powder.

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 highlighter over your cheekbones, then apply your foundation on top, and then finish with the contour.

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.”

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, and instead giving an all-over sheen to your skin that looks really natural. The trick: Mix a few drops of face oil with a few drops of your foundation and swirl it over your skin for a seamless, built-in highlight.

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, just makes everything look heavy and cake-y). 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 and highlight?

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 customise it to your own face shape.

  • Step 1: Prime your skin with a moisturiser and a makeup primer.
  • Step 2: Apply a cream highlighter on your cheekbones, down your nose, on your brow bones, and on the inner corners of your eyes.
  • Step 3: Mix your foundation with a beauty oil to sheer it out a little, then blend it across your face with a damp makeup sponge.
  • Step 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 you cheekbones. If you love your nose, leave it alone!
  • Step 5: Set your T-zone with setting powder, then mist your face with a setting spray to blend it all together.