The key differences between bronzer and contour, according to a makeup artist
Plus, how to choose the right products for your face.
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
On the surface, distinguishing bronzer from contour may sound like a case of jam versus jelly—they're both products that are deliberately darker than your skin tone to provide shading and depth to your complexion. But in actuality, they serve separate purposes in a makeup routine. To learn what purpose each serves and how you can find the right product for you, we consulted Tonya Mann, a makeup artist and holistic health and beauty coach. Get ready—you'll be a pro at applying these complexion products in no time.
What is the purpose of bronzer?
Arguably the more popular between the two makeup items, bronzer is supposed to introduce “dimension and warm up the skin by creating a sun-kissed glow without actually having to spend time in the sun,” Mann says.
Even though bronzer’s primary purpose is to add depth to one’s complexion, she finds it to be “one of the most versatile beauty products,” and can also serve as both an eyeshadow and blush, depending on the tone. “The tone must be correct, or it’s going to be really noticeable and could go wrong quickly,” Mann explains. “The wrong tone is what creates that dreaded ‘orange’ look on the skin, especially if you have a cool skin tone and are trying to use a warm bronzer. For warm skin tones, going with something too cool can make skin look ‘muddy.’”
How do you apply bronzer?
The matter of where bronzer should go lies in “where the sun would naturally hit your face,” Mann says. Therefore, she recommends leaning on a trick she learned from makeup artist Bobbi Brown: Apply your bronzer in the shape of a three. Using a makeup brush with “a large brush head with dense bristles that are either rounded, domed, or straight across, gently sweep the bronzer from the center of the forehead along the hairline, down across the temple, and along the cheekbone to create the top of the three,” Mann instructs. “For the bottom, you could go back across the cheek and then finish down along the jawline,” and then “repeat on the other side.”
As for where most of the bronzer should be, concentrate “on the cheeks, because that’s where the sun naturally hits,” Mann explains. “Blending that down just a bit helps create a diffused flush and gives a really natural, sun-kissed finish.” Because the neck and chest don’t get as much sun exposure as the face, she also suggests dusting the neck and chest with bronzer to even out your skin tone.
Once you’ve brushed the bronzer on your face, neck, and chest, look to see if these areas are all the same color—you don’t want your neck or chest to be paler than your face. In areas that look paler, “use a bit of the left-over bronzer on your brush to add warmth to those areas, evening out your skin tone and creating a seamless finish,” Mann says. “I recommend starting with what’s left-over on your brush first because it’s usually easier for you to add color than to try and blend it away if you’ve started with too much.”
What should you look for in a bronzer?
There are two things to think about while looking for your ideal bronzer: shade and undertone. “First, unless you have mad blending skills or a really workable formula, you’ll want to stick with something that’s only one to two shades darker than your skin tone,” Mann explains. “That’ll give you the added dimension while still looking natural.”
Furthermore, Mann advises reflecting on how your skin looks post-sun exposure. “Whatever your skin looks when it’s tanned is showing you your natural undertones,” she says. “So, if you get pink in the sun, you want a bronzer with pinky tones; golden, look for golden tones; caramel, caramel tones, and so on.” Ultimately, “the goal is to mimic what your skin would naturally look like after a day spent poolside.”
It may take some trial and error to find a bronzer you love, as determining your undertones takes guesswork. But the shade descriptions on the bronzers coupled with Mann’s advice about using your tanned skin as a test to find your undertones can help you find a suitable option.
Luckily, there’s no shortage when it comes to having your pick at a bronzer:
For a shimmery balm: Tower 28 Bronzino Illuminating Cream Bronzer
One bestselling option is the Bronzino Illuminating Cream Bronzer from Tower 28. This shimmering, balm-based formula claims to create “effortless summer glow-from-within.” It comes in five shades, ranging from “Sun Coast" (light bronze) to “Pacific Coast” (deep bronze).
An elated Sephora customer loves this bronzer’s shimmering finish: “Pretty! Stays on awhile and gives you a nice sun kissed glow. Great if you need a touch of sparkle.”
For a matte powder: Charlotte Tilbury Airbrush Matte Bronzer
Consider trying the Charlotte Tilbury Airbrush Matte Bronzer if you're a fan of powder complexion products over creams. It purports to produce “a skin-perfecting bronzed filter for the face and body.” The formula is available in four color iterations, with “Fair” (a lighter, cool brown) as the lightest and “Deep" (a deeper warm brown) as the darkest.
One Sephora reviewer remains impressed by its radiant, yet natural, color payoff: “Ordered it knowing how pale I am and still got worried it would be too light. It's actually perfect and makes me look like I have a nice glowy tan... it's really natural.”
Get the Charlotte Tilbury Airbrush Matte Bronzer at Sephora for $56
For a velvety cream: Saie Sun Melt Natural Cream Bronzer
A third option you may want to take a chance on is the Sun Melt Natural Cream Bronzer from Saie. This cream-based formula maintains that it has “a natural velvet finish that melts into skin for an easy, sun-kissed glow.” The lightest of four shades, “Light Bronze,” fares best with those who have “fair to light skin with cool or neutral undertones,” while “Dark Bronze,” the darkest shade, works best with those who have “dark skin tones with cooler undertones.”
A Sephora customer who granted this bronzer five stars gushed over how effortlessly it melts into the skin: “It blends so beautifully. There are no harsh lines and it’s a great color for fair skin. No orange! I also got the brush which—in my opinion— is great, too!”
What is the purpose of contour?
While bronzer brings definition to your face by warming it up in the spots the sun would hit, contour adds dimension by giving the appearance of shadows on the face without adding warmth. That said, it aims to “hollow out your cheekbones, slim the appearance of your face or features, create the look of a chiseled jaw bone, and even change your entire appearance,” Mann says. “It can really be used anywhere on the face you want to look smaller.”
How do you apply contour?
Contour can be applied anywhere you wish. “That all depends on the look or effect you’re trying to create,” Mann says, adding that contour is primarily placed along the sides of the nose, jawline, and cheeks. When sculpting the nose, etch lines on either side of the bridge, she says. “The closer those lines, the skinnier the [bridge of the] nose will appear.” She adds that you can make the nose appear shorter by outlining the bottom of the tip with your contour product as well.
For the jaw, draw a line “on or slightly under the jawline,” per Mann’s advice. But she says to make sure “to blend the color down, creating a shadow underneath that will give you a perfectly chiseled-looking profile.”
When defining the cheekbones, there aren’t any hard-set guidelines, so Mann says you’ll be on your way to getting expertly sculpted cheeks by either applying contour on or “slightly under the cheekbone.” However, the key to attaining sky-high cheekbones is by always “shading [the contour] back closer to the ear. If you carry the shadow too far forward, it will look unnatural, because the cheekbones don’t stick out far enough to create a deep shadow under the apples of the cheeks.”
What should you look for in a contour?
When it comes to finding a contour color, look for a deeper hue with a matte finish. The product you choose should also “fall on the cooler side and can even have a bit of a grayish tone,” says Mann.
The selections for contour may not be as extensive as its bronzer counterpart, but there are a few highly rated options that stand out from the rest:
For a matte cream: Makeup By Mario SoftSculpt Stick
For a contour you can swipe right onto the skin, try Makeup By Mario SoftSculpt Stick, which promises to create “true-to-skin definition that dries down to a natural matte finish.” Each stick is also paired with a “removable angled buffing brush” to aid in the blending process. The formula comes in six colors: “Light” is the lightest hue and is designed for those with “fair to light skin tones.” Meanwhile, “Dark Deep” stands as the darkest shade and fares best with “dark to dark-deep skin tones.”
A Sephora reviewer raved about its seamless application process: “I love it. It blends really well! I love that it comes with a dedicated brush. Great product.”
For a lightweight liquid: Charlotte Tilbury Hollywood Contour Wand
If you can get your hands on the über-popular Hollywood Contour Wand from Charlotte Tilbury, then by all means, go for it. The lightweight, liquid-based formula claims to “create shadows and define features for a natural finish.” It’s also equipped with a sponge applicator that “evenly dispenses product onto the cheek hollows, nose, temples, and jawline.” This wand comes in two colors: “Fair/Medium,” a light beige, and “Medium/Dark,” a dark brown.
One Sephora customer fell head over heels for its easy-to-blend formula: “I can see why everyone has been raving about this product and am glad I picked this up when I found it in stock at my Sephora. It blends out so seamlessly, and I truly love the built in applicator.”
Get the Charlotte Tilbury Hollywood Contour Wand at Sephora for $40
For contour and bronzer: Patrick Ta Major Sculpt Creme Contour and Powder Bronzer Duo
The Patrick Ta Major Sculpt Creme Contour and Powder Bronzer Duo is a compact that comes with a cream-based contour shade to sculpt and a powder-based bronzer hue to add warmth. It’s available in three shades: “She’s Statuesque” (light medium), “She’s Sculpted” (medium dark), and “She’s Chiseled” (deep dark).
One Sephora customer says this sculpting duo has a beautiful finish: “This is such a beautiful contour and bronzer duo! It looks amazing on the skin! I struggle to find the perfect contour/bronzer shades, but the shade ‘She's Sculpted’ is perfect! Looking forward to using this over the summer!”
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.