For many of my makeup-wearing years, I failed to understand all the hype surrounding bronzer. I actively fought it, even; as a very fair-skinned person, refusing to acknowledge that I could benefit from a little bit of color (or /KUL-ah/, which is what my mother, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, often tells me I need as she lunges at me with a powder brush) I felt noble, like defending my right to be pale. Like, hey, this is me, I’m does-she-live-in-a-basement pale, love it or leave it, just don’t try to change it with makeup.
At some point, I realized that I was not being noble. I was just being stubborn and stuck in my ways, and I was only hurting myself. I mean, I wasn’t actually hurting myself, I was just spending a lot of time looking see-through and at times vaguely unwell when I didn’t have to be. Bronzer isn’t just for J. Lo, people trying to look like J. Lo, and Lindsay Lohan at a probation revocation hearing; everyone can benefit from a swipe of color across their cheekbones for definition, or a light-handed full-face approach for general improvement and appearance of good health.
My favorite way to apply bronzer these days is to opt not for the pretty-yet-predictable powder stalwart, but for one-and-done products that brilliantly combine the stuff with highlighter, blush, or both, or sometimes even just other shades of bronzer for a multidimensional effect that’s practically transformative for all skin tones. What you’re getting here is much more than your straightforward “glow”: It’s a total facial overhaul in a single palette, compact, or twist-up stick, helping to both shorten your beauty routine and make it more impactful on the whole. Makeup, man. It’s crazy stuff.
This gradient three-in-one palette, which seamlessly blends a highlighter into a blush into a bronzer, is very, very pleasing to look at, and the powder is soft and highly pigmented, so you'll get serious color payoff with little more than a light touch. The coral shade, Siena, is perfect for all complexions with cool undertones, and Capri, a rosy pink, makes warmer-leaning skin tones glow.
Kevyn Aucoin The Neo Bronzer, $58; at Sephora
Time is money, and you can save both with this ingenious bronzing stick. One side highlights, the other helps create definition, and the middle adds warmth to the skin for a foolproof contouring-lite effect in just one swipe. The SPF 30 definitely doesn't eliminate the need for sunscreen, but it's still nice to have.
Physicians Formula Super BB #InstaReady SPF 30 Contour Trio, $10.36; at Drugstore.com
You won't find any dramatically sculpted cheekbones and face-slimming shadows here—but for a soft, candlelit effect, it doesn't get much better than this. Both of the color choices (Luminous Bronze Light is ideal for fair and light complexions; Radiant Bronze Light for medium and deep) blend pearly bronze shades with lighter highlights for a natural, sun-kissed glow.
Hourglass Ambient Lighting Bronzer, $50; at Hourglass
Swirl the four colors together for a subtle all-over brightening effect, use each quadrant on its own, or mix and match to your desired effect—the possibilities are endless, a fact made all the better by the price tag.
e.l.f. Bronzers, $4; at e.l.f.
There are five—count ’em, five—complementary shades incorporated in this hand-mixed palette of sorts. The result is a museum-worthy composite best described as a warm golden bronze with a light, cool pale pink shimmer that reads as healthy-looking and natural on skin, never sparkly.
Laura Mercier Baked Blush Bronze, $40; at Laura Mercier
As pretty in the pan as it is on skin, this finely milled powder is the perfect middle ground between a shimmery glow and natural-looking, more matte warmth. You can focus your brush on either side of the pan to get more of one or the other, or sweep it all together for waterproof color that lasts all day.
It Cosmetics CC+ Radiance Ombré Bronzer, $34; at It Cosmetics
With light-diffusing particles and intense pigments, this bronzer-highlighter-blush trifecta is the easiest one-step way to smooth over imperfections and get a radiant, straight-from-the-beach glow. The silky powders are lightweight and blend nicely, and each of the three available colorways is versatile enough to flatter every complexion.
Urban Decay Naked Flushed, $32; at Urban Decay
Sure, there are five different color combos in the range to choose from, but at $4.50 a pop, it seems only fair to start a collection. Each duo is perfectly coordinated, so you get a bronzer and a blush that work just as well together as they do on their own.
NYX Bronzer & Blusher Combo, $4.50; at NYX