The first beauty product you probably fumble with is bronzer. Maybe it’s too orange (even Selena Gomez admits to being there), maybe it’s muddy, maybe you just applied way too much—bronzer, in all, is tough to get right. But not all is lost. We’re making headway every day in the beauty industry toward better shade ranges, easier applications, and overall better formulations. While we wait, we’re sharing all the need-to-knows about bronzer: how to apply it, where to apply it, how to choose a shade, and more. Wondering how to use bronzer to finally enhance your features? You’ve come to the right place.
What is Bronzer?
Bronzer is a way to add depth and dimension to your face, especially when you’re wearing a full face of foundation. “Bronzers are warmer with a redder undertone and are used to warm up your face and give a sunkissed look,” said celebrity makeup artist Renée Loiz. The skin isn’t naturally one color. Whether naturally or from being out in the sun, we’ll always have a few different shades in different parts of our faces, and bronzer is there to alleviate that.
People often use bronzer to contour their face, adding shading and shadows to create a slimmer or more chiseled appearance. It’s also used to give a summertime glow, like you just got back from vacation.
What is Contour?
On the contrary, contour products are for sculpting your face. You’ve seen makeup gurus contour their nose or TikTokers turn themselves into Harry Styles—all using contour. Contour is all about shading, so it’s typically a cool-tone, grayish color that mimics what a natural shadow would look like on your face, but you can also contour with a neutral bronzer depending on your skin tone and preferences.
When you’re looking at a contour product, assume it’s a cool or a neutral tone, while bronzer might lean warm.
Where to Apply Bronzer and Contour
Where you apply bronzer all depends on the shade and the look you’re going for. If the shade is only a little darker than your skin, you can apply bronzer all over with a fluffy brush and a light hand to give a sunkissed glow to the skin. If the bronzer is more than one shade darker, then you’ll want to focus it in the “3E” method: around the temples, under the cheekbones, and under the jawline, creating a “3” and an “E” on each side of your face. This method is pretty foolproof. You often see people applying bronzer and contouring in little dots all over their faces or in complicated shapes, and while that works, it doesn’t have to be so elaborate to get results.
“Don’t forget to sweep bronzer along your neck and chest to match your face,” Loiz suggested.
With contour, your application might depend on your face shape and what you’re hoping to chisel.
- If you want a slimmer nose, apply contour in two lines on either side of your nose. The closer together the lines, the slimmer your nose will appear.
- If you want to enhance cheekbones, apply contour just above the cheekbone and blend down. Make sure to focus this far back toward your ear too.
- If you want to make your forehead appear smaller, apply contour to the top of the forehead and blend upward toward your hairline.
- If you want a more pronounced jawline, apply contour right on top of the jawline and blend down, underneath the jaw. To really make it pop, add a bit of concealer between the jawline and cheekbone to carve it out and make that area look really enhanced.
- To make your face appear shorter, apply your cheekbone contour in a vertical line and blend out toward your ears.
How to Choose A Bronzer Shade
Bronzer is about adding warmth and dimension, which is often why people can go overboard if they pick the wrong shade. When you naturally flush, what shade does your skin go? That’s the bronzer you should choose, according to Loiz. Choose a shade that matches how your skin would change if you spent a day out in the sun (before you started slathering on buckets of sunscreen). It’s all about looking natural and enhancing your skin, not covering it up or changing its tone.
If you have a very cool undertone, a warm-tone bronzer will likely pull very orange on your face—a major no-no. In this case, you’ll want to opt for neutral or even cooler-toned bronzers that enhance your natural skin. This is also important for very fair skin.
On the other hand, people with very warm undertones will need a warm, even leaning red, bronzer that matches the undertone in their skin. Cool contours might look muddy on their face, as if they just rubbed dirt all over their faces instead of makeup.
As for depth, your bronzer should be one or two shades darker than your skin tone. If it’s any darker, it’s easy to go overboard. Any lighter, you’ll have to work pretty hard for the product to show up against anything else you have on your face.
What Bronzer Formula to Try
Cream bronzer isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s typically a bit harder to blend, but it’s easier than ever to find a thin formula that’s seamless on skin. Loiz explained that creams have a “softer, sheerer” finish, so they can look a bit more natural once blended out. A few years ago, the only cream bronzer we knew of was Chanel’s Sol Tan De Chanel, an orange-y shade that only worked on light skin tones (now they have one other shade, but that only just released this year). Now, cream bronzers can be in vast shade ranges, in easy-to-use formulations, and in better packaging.
To apply a cream bronzer, use a stippling brush to apply it, and then blend with either the same brush or a beauty sponge. If your product is in a stick form, you can apply it straight from the stick, but it might be easier to blend if you apply with a light hand from a brush.
Liquid bronzers are newer on the market, but they’re coming in hot with tons of new products launching just in the last year. A liquid formula is typically a bit runnier than a cream and comes in a tube or dropper. These are usually shimmery or radiant formulas to make your skin extra glowy, unlike a cream that can go both matte and shiny.
This liquid/cream hybrid makes applying your bronzer on-the-go a breeze. It has a unique sheen that isn't shimmery—but definitely isn't matte either—that makes your face glow.
Don't let the product images fool you. While these shades look majorly washed out in photos, IRL, they actually go quite deep.
If you want an all-over bronzey glow, this liquid bronzer will give it. This formula is unique because it's sheer and can be mixed with foundations, primers, and moisturizers to give a bronze sheen to your whole face. But it also works wonders when built up with a brush and applied like a true bronzer.
Apply a liquid bronzer the same as a cream: using a stippling brush or beauty sponge.
We all know powder bronzers. It’s probably the bronzer you’ve always used. But there’s a reason they’re still around. These bronzers are easier to blend than the others, and when you find the right shade, it’s basically a foolproof application. They have a bit more pigment, but the blendability makes them the most beginner-friendly.
No one was surprised when Fenty up and launched one of the best bronzer ranges we'd ever seen at that point, but it doesn't make it any less memorable. This range has every depth and undertone down pat—even olive and deep cool. Loiz recommended this as well for the impeccable shade range that works for just about everyone.
If you love Charlotte's famed Airbrush Flawless Finish Powder, this bronzer has the exact same formulation, just in deeper tones. This makes it blurring on the skin and super blendable. Plus, this package is refillable—granted, the component is so large, I'm not sure who would ever use one up.
There was a time where you couldn't get through a drugstore favorites video on YouTube without this popping up. It's still one of the most well-known bronzers, especially at the drugstore, because of its smooth texture, natural finish, and amazing coconut scent.
This bronzer, however, is definitely better for light and medium skin tones. Physician's Formula, please add deeper shades to this range.
The key to powders is using the right tools, like a big, fluffy bronzer brush that will cover a large surface area.
Matte vs. Shimmer
Matte and shimmer bronzers offer different looks, but there’s room for both in a collection.
A matte bronzer will focus on making you look sculpted and adding that dimension back into your skin. Matte bronzers are usually a bit harder to blend, as the formula isn’t as soft as something with shimmer might be.
A shimmery bronzer formula is all about the glow. You can usually focus a shimmery bronzer’s application higher on the cheekbones to act as a bronzer/highlighter/blush hybrid. They’re easier to blend into the skin, but if it has too much shimmer and not enough depth, you can walk away looking like a disco ball instead of a vacationer.
This tows the line between cream bronzer and highlighter, containing an ultra-glowy shimmer that never looks glittery or cakey. This bronzer adds just the right amount of color and shine so you truly can have that vacay glow all year 'round.