Don’t Buy A Contour Kit

Contour kits are great! They come with instructions (for people who prefer paper to YouTube), they're portable (for people who carry their entire lives in their purses), and they usually have soap opera names like 'The Bronzed and The Beautiful' or 'Days of Our Lines' (for people who were babysitters in 1989). But they're also completely unnecessary. There's a 99.3% chance you already own everything that's in a palette, and the shades you have right now are probably better suited to your skin anyway. Which is why you might consider assembling your own collection of contour accoutrements. You only need four "ingredients," plus your usual base or tinted moisturizer. Here's a rundown of DIY kit basics, plus good substitutes if you don't have a ton of bronzer lying around:

1. Highlighter
Highlighter is like an instant nap/yoga class. It makes any area you apply it to look brighter and more prominent, which is why people love putting it around their eyes, on their cheekbones, and in the cupid's bow of their lips to create more fullness.

Pictured: It Cosmetics Hello Light Anti-Aging Luminizing Creme Stick is a favorite because the formula is hydrating, it doesn't sink into fine lines, and the luminizing particles are small, so you just look extremely healthy, not covered in a weird glitter film or something.

But you can also use: Your favorite light, shimmery eyeshadow—whichever one makes you look most awake when you put it on is probably the one you want for this. White shimmer is good for looking ethereal, but don't count out pink and gold shadows. If you have a bunch of options, dust a few on your hand and then choose whichever shade makes your skin look pretty without being too obvious. Oh, and great as glitter shadow is on eyes, stick to shimmer for the rest of your face unless your official look for Spring 2014 is Burning Man Elfin Princess Chic.

2. Bronzer
The yin to highlighter's yang. It's dark and shadow-creating, which is the other half of contouring. Shimmer is also good here, since it generates that much-coveted "glow" thing, but not necessary. Mainly, it should be dark—but not so dark that you can't blend it in—and have a terracotta, golden brown, or puce (terrible name, great hue!) base. Just stay away from colors that are grey-tinged; they make everyone look sickly.

Pictured: RMS Buriti Bronzer, which is sheer but highly pigmented and has a healthy dose of gold-brown flecks. It's coconut oil-based, too—great if you're sensitive to bismuth oxychloride or other chemical ingredients that are common in bronzers.

But you can also use: Cocoa or taupe eyeshadow is the classic substitute, but lipstick that's anywhere from copper to raisin can also work. The shade you choose should depend on your skin tone and what you you already know looks good on you. As a general rule, though, if you're warm-toned (which is almost everyone), go with an orange brown. If you're cool-toned, purple browns look great in an I'm-a-hot-vampire way.

3. Blush
Blush is...blush. It's basic, but really comes into its own when you're highlighting, since it makes the transition point between highlighted areas and bronzed areas (aka your cheeks) look soft and natural.

Pictured: Ilia Multi-Stick in Tenderly. It's slightly shimmery and light enough to brighten, so if you want to skip using highlighter on your cheeks you can. Plus, the ingredients are 85% organic and there are no synthetic dyes, which are an allergen for some people.

But you can also use: Sub in your favorite daytime lipstick by dabbing three dots along the tops of your cheeks and blending it out to your temples. Or grab a pan of eyeshadow in soft orange (warm undertones) or baby pink (cool undertones) and use it just like you would regular blush—the formulas are often almost exactly the same.

4. Brightening Powder or Cream
This is usually either a matte powder or concealer-type formula that goes under your eyes, across your forehead, and anywhere else that should be highlighted without being shiny.

Pictured: RMS Un Coverup, which is easy to blend and translucent enough to look natural.

But you can also use: Pressed powder (Make Up For Ever HD Powder is great), or a any concealer you like that's one shade above your skin tone.

Photos by Lacey Gattis.

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  • LD

    Love to see an article on contouring, but there's a bit of advice in here that makes me raise an eyebrow.

    "Just stay away from colors that are grey-tinged; they make everyone look sickly."

    Chanel's 'Notorious' contour powder is a beige-y gray, with a hint of purple. It was designed to mimic the colour of a shadow, and works on many fair to medium skin tones.

    Note also that many bronzers have shimmer, which is reflective, i.e. the exact opposite of what you want in a contour shade designed to hollow the cheek. And anything with too much warmth in it can come off very Jersey Shore when trying to contour, since even the warmest tones would have a slightly cooler shadow.

    Something like MAC Harmony, which is a flat, matte light brown, is perfect. If you really want to use a bronzer, try Too Faced Milk Chocolate Soleil (fair skin) or Too Faced Chocolate Soleil (medium to darker skin) -- they are neither cool nor warm, and not shimmery at all, so the "sunken" part of the contour will actually, y'know, sink.

    • ITGLacey

      Hey! I actually don't love Notorious, because for the average person purple-grey is hard to blend in a way that looks natural. It can look extremely striking, but it's just not something I'd advocate for in a general use kit.

      And with bronzers, I totally get where you're coming from, but I'm not anti-shimmer. You're right that the results are more subtle, but I'm willing to make that tradeoff because it also makes my skin look better.

      • LD

        Thanks for the reply, Lacey. :)

    • mermaidsdream

      You got me so excited about Notorious.. and then I realized it was LE and going for $200+ on eBay :(

      • LD

        Aw man, sorry about that. It's my HG contour powder, and I really regret not buying a back-up at the time; $200 is insane. I should have mentioned the LE status in my comment.

    • Clever Girl Reviews

      I'm the kind that needs a shade like Notorious to look contoured!

      • lena

        I suggest illamasqua cream pigment in hollow to anyone that is fair to light that needs that grey tone to look contoured.

    • Celine

      Funny, that line about grey-tinged colours brought Chanel's Notorious to mind for me too - which looked great on a certain beauty blogger... But I do wonder if it's one of those things that photographs well but doesn't translate to real life :/

    • Michele Ahlswede

      LD bravo perfect response with correct info. No such thing as an orange shadow in nature and they never shimmer.

  • Mademoiselle nature

    Hello, I am not an english native speaker and just wonder the exact definition of "contour"..although this words is french but does not have the same meaning in that context..thanks!

    • ITGLacey

      Hi! It's more like définir or accentuer in this context!

      • Mademoiselle nature


  • Sophie Isabella D.

    I swear by Benefit's highlighters; high beam and watt's up being my faves- and for creating a shadow, I use mac harmony. If I want something warmer, YSL's terre saharienne bronzer is fab, and I'm white as a ghost FYI!

  • Cupcakesandskirts

    Seriously love tips like this so I can cut down products I'm using/taking out with me.

  • Alyssa Gapske

    I bought a contouring kit and was so not happy with it. I've been using the items in my makeup kit and it works so much better!

  • Sarah

    I love MAC's Prep + Prime highlighter and Mineralize Skinfinish in Soft and Gentle. It's true, a compact isn't the be all and end all but its handy if you travel a lot!

  • Molly

    yay! love the emphasis on natural/green products. thoughts on RMS Living Luminizer as highlighter? i've heard great things. also i love the looks of the RMS bronzer but can't fathom putting a cream bronzer on and somehow not looking like i got into a shimmery mud fight at Bonnaroo.

    • cat butt

      Both products are 100% amazing. I got them together as a way to ease into highlight/contour and also to replace powder Bronzer, which is no longer suitable for me (wrinkles!) I adore both of them. Worth every penny.

    • sarah

      The RMS Living Luminizer is amazing! Very subtle and just makes you look glowy. As soon as I started wearing it people kept telling me how great I looked. Definitely worth it.

  • Teckie

    MAC Pro Sculpting shades are really good, and they're designed for
    contouring. They have those grey-ish undertones. Bronzing still looks
    good if you do it right - just depends on your preference, I guess. I wouldn't use shimmer to contour the nose, jaw, etc., though.

  • isa

    Would you be willing to do a picture series showing you using these products to contour? :)

  • tvo

    I love Becca Shimmering Skin Perfector for highlighting though I do wish it came in a more portable version. For now, I just pump some in a little container to bring it on the go - a little goes such a long way!

  • ThoughtsofGlam

    This is great! I use high end and budget friendly products but always find myself going back to my cheap finds. My favorites right now are ELF and NYX, you can't beat the prices and they really do the job.

  • CreeZy

    I feel like bronzing and contouring are two different processes. I think of bronzing as warming up my face where I would naturally tan and contouring as darkening the hollows of the face to create definition. In this case, I would want golden brown with a little shimmer for bronzing and neutral matte brown for contouring,

  • Lilly

    Hi Lacey, I love your picks! Lately I have been more into powders to do my contouring, but in keeping with the theme of your post I loooove the Ilia Beauty Illuminator in Sway for contouring (very subtle shimmer and the shade is very similar to Nars Laguna bronzer). For highlighting, I love the RMS Beauty Living Luminizer and Cream Eye Shadow in Lunar, which is a bit warmer in tone and has a similar finish to the luminizer.

    While I love palettes and kits, I do agree with you that a contour kit is not necessary!

  • Jo

    That Buriti Bronzer is gorgeous! Thank you so much for the tip!

  • megan10

    I'm not even sure if there's a solution to this problem, but I'm so pale it's near impossible to find a shade of highlighter than even does anything for me. Most end up looking like a shimmery version of my skin tone. Nars Albatross blush is the only thing that's ever come close but I'd prefer a little more opacity and a little less shimmer. Any thoughts?

    • Alice

      You may be interested in the new Nars contour kits, the lightest one has an highlighter shade that is almost white. The idea of highlight is just to add a glow or shimmering look, not to deposit colour(or a lot of it, at least). You may try layering a matte blush underneath the highlighter.

    • e

      have you tried mac eyeshadow in the shade "nylon"?

    • LD

      Try using stark white concealer or foundation. When blended well (like, REALLY well), they create an awesome highlight for contouring.

    • doublecurl

      MAC nylon is good, really similar to Nars albatross. I'm hoping for something halfway between YSL touche eclat and shimmery highlighters. Is that a thing? Touche eclat isn't even light enough to do much of anything. Next step, theatrical white foundation.

  • fibee

    I wouldn't use a shimmery bronzer for contouring, wouldn't it have the opposite effect?

  • Chanel Foxworth

    I disagree with the comment about "grey being sickly" as well. The idea of contouring is to fake a natural shadow, and an orangey tone under the cheek just looks obvious. I use Kevin Aucoin's "The Sculpting Powder" It's the perfect light grayish / brownish-red color. You need to have a light hand when applying and be sure to blend thoroughly. Here's a great video:

  • Veronica

    Most of this article is very sound advice, though I would suggest that you do want a greyish contour if you're very fair and cool-toned like me. I'm currently around a MAC NW10, and most traditional contours and bronzers pull way too warm and orange on me. I actually use MAC Quarry eyeshadow as a contour, and if hadn't sold out before I could grab it, Chanel Notorious would have been my HG. (For those curious, I use NYX Taupe for the summer when I'm a more neutral NW15.) It definitely takes a very practiced hand when you're working with shades of that nature, but it's what I find works better. Darker and more neutral/warm skintones should be fine with bronzer, though. :)

  • Z.

    Bronzers are more for giving the face warmth than defining it. If you want a SHADOW, then definitely use something with a grey tone. Most contour products will always be more taupe and/or greyish than brown and/or bronze. The grey/taupe colour creates the perfect natural shadow and doesn't make your face look muddy and full of makeup. This is why one should purchase a CONTOUR product, and not a bronzer!

  • CP

    Using a bronzer to contour is usually not a good idea. Bronzers are usually warm-toned and shimmery because they're supposed to make the skin look sun kissed. Contour powders are cool-toned matte and "grayish" because shadows are naturally that color. In most cases, using a bronzer in place of contour looks unnatural.

  • Allie

    I agree with the everyday person not wasting their money on an expensive contour kit that includes multiple colors they probably won't ever use. But you can't contour with bronzer. Bronzer is used for warming up your face NOT for creating shadows. You will need a grey-tone color for creating shadows. Otherwise, good article :)


It Cosmetics
It Cosmetics Hello Light Anti-Aging Luminizing Creme Stick
RMS Buriti Bronzer
Ilia Multi-Stick
RMS Beauty
RMS Un Coverup
MAKE UP FOR EVER HD Microfinish Powder