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What Is the Difference Between Highlighter and Shimmer?

Highlighters, shimmers, illuminators, strobing creams—how is one to keep it all straight?

Well, don’t worry about the first two on the list. We’re going to cover what the difference between highlighter and shimmer is in this post, as well as whether or not they’re interchangeable.

The Difference Between Highlighter and Shimmer

The difference is that highlighters are intended for the high points of the face. They’re complexion products.

In contrast, when we’re talking about a shimmer, we’re almost always referring to an eyeshadow.

Both highlighters and shimmers are intended to be shiny, and either might be referred to as “shimmery.”

But you wouldn’t likely use, say, a dark blue shimmer eyeshadow to highlight your cheekbones.

Sydney Grace's Abyss—a dark blue shimmer
Sydney Grace’s Abyss wouldn’t make the best highlighter for the face.

It’s also worth mentioning that highlighter can come in powder, liquid, and cream form. Eyeshadow can come in all these forms as well. But in this post, we’re focusing mainly on powder products.

That being said, the overall rules and advice here stays the same for all forms of shimmer and highlight.

Are They Interchangeable?

Yes, highlighter can absolutely be used as eyeshadow, and eyeshadows light enough to brighten your skin can make great highlighters! But not all are ideal for the switcharoo.

The trouble is when a shimmer eyeshadow is too intense or glittery and when a highlighter is made to be highly blendable and soft in pigmentation.

I’m fairly certain that most highlighters use a lower pigment-to-filler ration, which isn’t bad news for this particular product. Fillers makes the powder easier to spread and blend out, and we can all use that in a highlighter.

But sometimes when you apply a highlighter to the eyes, it blends to nothing.

The reverse is true for eyeshadow. Sometimes the intensity of an eyeshadow just doesn’t look right on the cheeks. It doesn’t spread in a way that’s flattering.

You just have to find the ones that work for you. To help, I’m starting you off with some tips and examples.

What Are Some Examples of Shimmers and Highlighters That Are Interchangeable?

First, an overall takeaway:

When choosing a highlighter to double as an eyeshadow, you’ll want to choose a pigmented highlighter.

Either that, or you’ll want to pick something with something special in it that you’d love to display on your eyes, like particularly sparkly micas that will look great under your date night restaurant’s low lighting.

As for shimmer eyeshadows that can work as highlighters, consider something in your collection that has a soft, smooth formula.

Put less on the brush than you would for your eyes when first trying one out. You want to make sure both the color and the texture is going to work out before you really slap it on.


The first example that comes to mind as a highlight that can double as an eyeshadow is Ofra Cosmetics’ famous, seen-from-space highlighters in shades like Star Island, Rodeo Drive, and Beam the Haters. These are known for doubling as good eyeshadows.

A highlighter in my collection that looks stunning as a shimmer eyeshadow is Looxie Beauty’s Mimosa. It’s a peach with lots of tiny sparkles that work on both the eyes and cheeks.

(Keep in mind I don’t mind tiny glitters in my highlights, but lots of people do, so take this with a grain of salt.)

Looxie Beauty's Mimosa, peach with gold mini sparkles
Looxie’s Mimosa highlighter does double duty.

Now, let’s talk shimmers that work as highlighters!

With a light enough hand, you can probably get a lot of shimmers to work for you. But that doesn’t mean some aren’t more naturally suited for the task than others.

You can dip lightly into Vermeer from Anastasia’s Modern Renaissance palette and get a lovely pinky champagne on your cheeks. (Try Primavera for this instead if you’re a bit deeper toned.) Modern Renaissance is a versatile piece, and its shimmers are real multitaskers.

I’d also recommend J.D. Glow’s non-glittery shimmers as highlights; that is, if you’re okay with your highlights being more colorful.

I have the shade Peachy Keen from JD Glow, which is a nice peach duochrome with green-yellow reflects, and it’s smooth enough to work beautifully as a highlight.

JD Glow's Peachy Keen—a peach that reflects yellow
JD Glow’s Peach Keen works well as an unusual highlight because of its smooth texture.

What Are Some Shimmers and Highlighters That Aren’t Interchangeable?

Again, I have some tips first. And these tips are subjective. You may find you disagree as you try things out. I’m going the more traditional route with my recommendations here.

If you have a lightly pigmented highlighter—one that sheers out and spreads well on the cheeks—it might not be in the cards to use it as a shimmer shadow.

Likewise, if you have a shimmer that’s full of chunky glitter particles or is too in-your-face with its intensity, it may not make for the best highlighter.

Okay, with that, let’s look at examples.


Essence makes a highlighter called Pure Nude, and it’s famous for giving a more subtle glow. It would show up as barely there on the eyes, so you’ll probably want to keep it to the high points of the face, not the eyes.

Benefit’s Watt’s Up cream highlighter also isn’t the best pick for a shimmer. It’s too easily sheered out on the eyes for impact.

Same for Clionadh Cosmetics’ beautiful and unusual Aftershock highlighters. They’re simply too sheer to make a scene as a lid shade. But both these products are lovely when used as marketed—as highlighters.

As for shimmers that don’t work as highlighters, that’s another thing that depends on your preference.

Most people dislike any glitter on the cheeks, so these types of shimmers wouldn’t be my first pick when giving general advice.

And anyone who isn’t going to the club should probably avoid highlighting with glitter-heavy, silicone-y shimmers that turns to a foil-like shine on the lids; it’ll be a stripe of chunky color on your cheeks.

That means eyeshadows like those you’ll find in post-Modern Renaissance Anastasia palettes (like the original Norvina palette) won’t be good to reach into for a highlighter.

Also, If you find a highly pigmented, beaming eyeshadow, like the second shade in e.l.f.’s Bite-Size palette in Cream and Sugar, it will emphasize pores, even if you have lovely skin.

And if you have acne that you’d rather hide, forget it.

e.l.f. Bite-Size palette in Cream and Sugar, with a particularly powerful shimmer.
That second shade from the left in this e.l.f. palette packs a wallop, and it might do less-than-favorable things for your complexion. Source.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this was helpful to you as you sought to learn the difference between shimmer and highlighter. Here are the main takeaways:

  • The word “shimmer,” when used as a noun, almost always refers to an eyeshadow.
  • The word “highlighter,” when used in a makeup context, refers to a product you apply to your cheeks, nose, cupid’s bow, etc.
  • Some soft shimmers and pigmented highlighters can play both roles.
  • Some chunky shimmers and less pigmented highlighters aren’t as suited to play both roles.

I think the most important thing I can share with you as a concluding thought is this: have fun experimenting! Now that you know you can use these things interchangeably, you might have a whole new use for something in your collection. For instance, I have a highlighter (JD Glow’s Daddy, now discontinued—sorry!) that was far too glittery to look good on my cheeks, but I put it on my eyes and BAM! A stunner. It’s now my favorite eyeshadow.

How many things like this lie within your collection? Go take a second look!

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