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Are the best makeup brushes and tools the most expensive? (Spoiler: nope!) The ones with natural vs. synthetic hair? The ones you can only get at department stores or online?
Which makeup brushes do you really need, which ones are just nice-to-haves, and which beauty tools will truly make your makeup application easier and more flawless? What doesn’t really live up to the hype?
We’ll be going through the possible makeup brushes and other tools you may be tempted or encouraged to buy to see what you need to have in your collection, what you may not want, and what to keep in mind when you shop so you’ll know exactly what to add to your beauty wish list.
A Brief Overview of Makeup Brushes and Tools
Think of makeup brushes and tools as building blocks to an amazing makeup kit. You can start off with just a few brushes and create flattering makeup looks without spending a lot of money (though there are certainly some luxurious brushes out there if you do feel like investing in a beautiful, functional set).
From there, you can add a brush or two at a time, a tool here and there, that allows you to practice new skills and techniques you’ve learned.
Don’t feel like you need to buy everything at once. Just focus on the best makeup brushes and tools that you truly need right now that fit within your budget. If you do see a nice set at a discount (around the holidays, you’ll probably see a lot of these), it may be worth picking it up and growing into it as you enhance your makeup application skills.
What to Consider When You’re Shopping
Before we dive into the essential brushes, questions you may have about makeup brush and tool selection, differences between tools, etc., let’s pause a minute and do a quick run-through of some questions you should answer for yourself before you embark on your search for the perfect makeup application tools.
- What types of products will you use? Powder, liquid, cream?
- Will you maintain your brushes (washing, drying, shaping, and storing them) to ensure that they’re kept clean and last as long as possible? How will that process fit in with your normal routine?
- How much time do you expect to get out of your makeup brushes?
- How much can you—or do you want to—spend on makeup brushes and tools?
The Absolutely Essential, Best Makeup Brushes and Tools You Need
What makeup brushes and tools does a beginner need? Just a few things will get you started. Focus on the brushes that can do more than one thing. You can always branch out and explore on your own as you get more comfortable.
A Multitasking Eyeshadow Brush with a Rounded Tip
A soft, oval-shaped, densely bristled synthetic brush (like the MAC 217) can take you a long way with your eyeshadow application. If you only get one shadow brush, let it be one like this.
The shape lends itself to inner corner application (using the tip of the brush), crease work (windshield wiper motion, blending up and away from the crease), outer V application (tip of the brush again), and even across the lid or brow bone area (use the belly of the brush, holding it almost parallel to your lid).
You could even use this to apply concealer.
Flat Eyeshadow Brush
If you can buy two brushes, a medium-sized flat brush with synthetic bristles (like the MAC 239) should be your next pick. This one can really pack on color and you can even use it to line your lower lash line (it’s not ideal, but it will work when you’re just starting out).
A Dome-Shaped Blush Brush
Unless you’re content applying cream or liquid blush with your fingertips, you’ll need a fluffy brush to put a little color on your cheeks. Synthetic bristles will provide the most versatility and work with cream or powder blushes.
If you’re new to makeup, you may not be into the cheek contouring and highlighting yet, but let’s touch on that for a second anyway, since you may become interested in the product and effect before you’re ready to invest in another brush.
Though an angled shape is better for applying a contour shade, you can squeeze the bristles together on your blush brush and dip into your contour shade to sculpt your cheekbones. A fan brush may be better for a highlight shade on the tops of your cheekbones, but again, a blush brush will work here, too. Just be sure to use a light hand and add your highlight shade gradually.
A Foundation Brush (Maybe)
If you wear a powder foundation, you will need a brush. If you wear a liquid or cream, you’ll have options. If your foundation is especially lightweight, you may find that a brush does a better job of applying the foundation to your skin than a sponge. Thicker foundations may be streaky with a brush and apply better with a Beautyblender® or similar product.
A Thin, Stiff, Angled Brush
Whether you want to line your lashes with a gel eyeliner or a deep shade of eyeshadow, a thin, stiff, synthetic angled brush will do the trick. It can also work to fill in your brows. The IT Brushes for ULTA Airbrush Angled Liner Brush #122 is a good choice.
This, along with some mascara and a pearlescent neutral-toned eyeshadow, may be all you need to fake the wide-awake look even when you didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have naturally curled lashes, you can skip this one. The Shiseido Eyelash Curler has been a top seller for years.
There are a few brushes that it’s nice to have once you’ve covered the bases of your makeup toolkit and are ready to add a few more:
- A longer, thinner, tapered shadow brush similar to the dome-shaped one used in the crease. This will give you the option for more precise application to the crease and outer corner.
- A pencil brush, which will allow you to more easily smudge color along the lash line for a smoky effect. You can also use this one for more detailed work in the crease.
- A lip brush, which is firm, tapered, and allows you to have more control when applying your lipstick. This is especially beneficial if you love especially deep or bright colors because it can be tricky to apply those straight from the tube.
- A flat, thin, paddle-shaped, stiff (but not scratchy) concealer brush. This will get into those hard-to-reach corners around the eyes that need to be brightened up with concealer.
- A larger version of the flat eyeshadow brush listed above will allow you to sweep a base color across the lids, from lash line to brow, more quickly. If you’re only planning to sweep a single color across your lids and blend it out for a simple daytime look, this brush could speed up the process.
The Major Differences Between Natural and Synthetic Bristles in Makeup Brushes
Synthetic brushes are a wise and popular choice for several reasons, but let’s look at the reasons (and learn when natural hair brushes may be the best choice).
- Synthetic bristle makeup brushes are fairly affordable, whereas natural bristles tend to cost more.
- Synthetic bristles don’t soak up and hold onto a lot of product, whereas the more porous natural bristles can.
- Synthetic bristles can be used with cream, liquid, or powder products, whereas natural bristles are best with powder products.
- Synthetic bristles are easy to clean, whereas natural bristles can be more challenging to keep clean because they absorb products so easily.
- Synthetic bristle makeup brushes are ideal for cream and liquid products, whereas natural bristles are best for powders (but you can still use synthetic brushes in powders).
The Major Differences Between Sponge, Brush, and Fingertip Application of Face Products
Obviously, you won’t want to do your makeup every day using only your fingers, but in some cases, using your fingertips will be better than a makeup brush or tool. How do you know what to use?
- A sponge or brush is more likely to give you even coverage and an airbrushed finish with your foundation, whereas fingertips could result in a streaky application.
- A sponge or brush won’t warm cream or liquid product—like concealer–up (and make it easier to spread), whereas the heat from your fingertips will.
- A sponge or brush will require several hours of drying time once cleaned (which can be a major inconvenience), whereas your fingertips will not.
- A sponge or brush will (in most cases) provide more precise, detailed application in corners and across the contours of the eyelid or face, whereas fingertips may be too large for some application (detailed eye looks, for example) or just not the right shape to distribute product evenly.
- A sponge or brush may not give you all of the control you want, whereas your fingertips will allow you to control pressure, “roll” the product on with a rocking motion, and get immediate feedback on how the product is adhering to the skin.
- A sponge or brush won’t tug on your skin and can provide featherlight pressure while still applying the product, whereas fingertips may tug more than you’d prefer in some areas (eyelids, for example).
Advantages of Makeup Brushes and Tools
You could do a whole face of makeup with just your fingertips, but where’s the fun in that? Here are some of the advantages to owning and using makeup brushes and tools:
- Makeup brushes allow you to get even more artistic with your application.
- You get more control over where you apply the product.
- Nothing blends powders quite like makeup brushes.
- A foundation brush can offer an airbrushed effect it would be difficult to get from applying face products with your fingers.
- Having a variety of makeup brushes on hand allows you to play with different textures of makeup, from powders to liquids.
- Using the brushes to apply your makeup can feel almost like a meditation each morning, something that’s more difficult to achieve when you limit yourself to applying makeup with fingertips or the sponge-tip applicators and scratchy brushes that come with some products.
- Using soft brushes that work well is an experience that could take makeup application from a chore to self-care!
- Beautiful brush handles on display can add an aesthetic touch to your counter or vanity.
- Applying makeup with brushes or other tools is less likely to disturb the layers than fingertips would, and in some cases, you can even blend out or cover mistakes when you use a large beauty sponge.
Disadvantages of Makeup Brushes and Tools
Makeup brushes and tools are fun to use and experiment with, but there are disadvantages to them. That can lead some people to choose products that can be applied with fingertips or disposable sponges. Not to dissuade you from purchasing makeup brushes or beauty tools, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
- You’ll have to take the time to clean them and let them air-dry, which requires some scheduling or the expense of a backup set (if you wear makeup every day).
- Some products, like some concealers, blend into the skin better with the heat from your fingertips, and brushes won’t provide that.
- Finding quality brushes that will last for a long time take research, and you may find that you prefer the ones with higher price tags.
- Shopping for the best brushes can feel overwhelming because there are so many options.
- You’ll need to store them somewhere, which will take up space on the counter or in a drawer (storage options could add another expense).
- It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you need a different brush for each thing instead of getting creative and letting a brush multi-task.
- They can be expensive in two ways: if you find yourself drawn to higher-end brands or feel that you want to have a large collection so you’ll always be able to apply your makeup just the way you want or so you can cycle between sets when one needs to be washed and dried (or to swap out between colors, depending on the types of products you use).
Caring for Your Makeup Brushes and Tools
Once you’ve found the best makeup brushes and tools, you’ll want to make sure they perform well, stay clean, and last as long as possible.
Needing to clean your brushes is a downside to using them (instead of just using your fingers). There are quick-clean options you can use between colors or when you’re in a rush, but they’ll also need to be deep-cleaned, shaped, and dried.
Some products on the market are designed to clean brushes quickly so you can move from one intense color to the next or just get a quick cleaning in right before you apply your makeup for the day. These are great when you forgot to clean your brushes and don’t have time to wash and dry them, but be sure not to just rely on these. Brushes will still need a more thorough cleaning about once per week.
There are products designed just for cleaning makeup brushes. In most cases, you can just use a mix of baby shampoo and water. Swirl the bristles in the mixture without letting the water go above the top of the ferrule (it’ll let water get under the metal and loosen the glue).
How to Dry Your Brushes
Lightly squeeze excess water out with a washcloth and then reshape the bristles so there aren’t any splayed out to the sides. Rest the brush handles on the counter or a table, parallel to the floor, but make sure the bristles are hanging over the edge so they can dry evenly. Never stand your brushes up to dry.
My Top Recommendations
Now that we’ve got the basics covered, on to the specific best makeup brushes and tools to use. Here are some of my recommendations:
Everyday Minerals Long Handled Kabuki Brush
The Everyday Minerals Long Handled Kabuki Brush is perfect for applying powder products to the face, from loose mineral foundations to blush.
- Soft enough to feel good on the skin, but firm enough to apply foundation flawlessly
- Only available online
The MAC 217 is a shadow brush that can do it all in a pinch. You could do a whole eyeshadow look with this brush. Apply liner and mascara and you’re set.
- The powerhouse that can do just about anything
- Works with cream or powder
e.l.f. Angled Eyeliner Brush
The e.l.f. Angled Eyeliner Brush is one of the more affordable brush lines out there, but they’re still high-quality. This particular brush will work well for applying gel liner to the lash line.
- Perfect shape and size for applying gel liner
- Not as versatile as other options
e.l.f. Small Angled Brush
The e.l.f. Small Angled Brush is one will also apply liner well. This shape is better suited to fill in your brows, too, than the Angled Liner Brush above. Sonia Kashuk makes a similar one that also works well, and though it costs more than the e.l.f. brushes, it’s still under $10.00.
- Not as ideal for very thin lines as the small angled brush
Wet n Wild Brush Contour
The Wet n Wild Brush Contour is wonderful for applying contour products, and you can use it for blush or cheek highlighting products, as well. The Japonesque Kumadori Highlight & Contour Brush serves the same purpose, but with an oval shape that’s slightly more versatile when it comes to adding highlighting powder above the lip, along the bridge of the nose, and any other small area you’d like to add it to.
- Allows for precise placement of product without harsh lines
- Not especially versatile
Morphe M157 Oval Shadow Brush
The Morphe M167 Oval Shadow Brush will pack color onto the lids. You can also use it for highlighting the brow bone or trace the edge along your lower lash line to apply color there. The Hourglass All Over Shadow Brush does this well, too.
- Good for quick shadow application to the lids
- Only available at Ulta
Sonia Kashuk Essential Collection Complete Eye Makeup Brush Set
The Sonia Kashuk Essential Collection Complete Eye Makeup Brush Set has some of the best makeup brushes to start out with, and it’s perfect if you’re starting from scratch and want a brand new, matching set.
- Wonderful starter set
- Covers almost every eye makeup application need
- May be more than you need if you’ve already started a collection
Question: What is the best brand of makeup brushes?
Answer: No one brand will have the best of every brush, but you should be safe with MAC, Sonia Kashuk, Real Techniques (their Miracle Complexion Sponge is great, too!), or Sigma Beauty.
Question: What makeup brushes do professionals use?
Answer: You might be surprised that there’s no one or two brands makeup professionals swear by. Instead, they tend to pick and choose from across lines, as well. You may see Sigma, MAC, Surratt Beauty, and more.
Question: What are the most important makeup brushes to have?
Answer: For eyes, you’ll want a short, flat, paddle-shaped brush for the lid that you can also use on the brow bone or even run along the lower lash line in a pinch.
You’ll also want a small, dense, dome-shaped brush for blending shadow in the crease and outer corner of the lid. This one will also come in handy if you want to highlight the inner corner.
A dense, domed, fluffy blush brush is necessary and can be used to apply cheek highlight, bronzer, and contour shades, though it’d be ideal to have an angled cheek brush to use for those.
For foundation, it’ll depend on the makeup you choose as well as the coverage you want. The MAC 187 is a stippling brush that’s good for light coverage and an airbrushed finish. The Rare Beauty Liquid Touch Foundation Brush is a denser brush that will help provide medium or heavy coverage. Its shape allows it to follow the contours of the face for a flawless finish.
Though not always necessary, a concealer brush can be useful for applying product under the eyes and in the corners. The Rare Beauty Liquid Touch Concealer Brush is a smaller version of the foundation brush.
Question: What is the best foundation brush on the market?
Answer: That’ll depend on the foundation you’re using and the effect you’re going for. For example, a diffused look with liquid foundation is best achieved with a stippling brush, like the MAC 187.
Powder foundations do well with fluffy powder brushes or kabuki brushes, like the long-handled kabuki brush from Everyday Minerals.
Liquid foundations apply beautifully with soft, dense bristles cut at an angle to follow the contours of your face. The Beautyblender® works well with liquid foundations for a smooth, airbrushed finish, with light to medium coverage.
Question: How do I choose makeup brushes?
Answer: Look for brushes with soft bristles that don’t shed and generally retain their shape when lightly pressed against the skin. Synthetic bristles are the most versatile, so start with those (reserve natural bristles only for powders). Don’t let price be your guide. There are some amazing brushes on the market for under $10.00 that do the same job (of course, some cheap brushes perform poorly).
Question: What are the best makeup brushes for beginners?
If you’re starting from scratch with your makeup brush collection, you’ll want to hit that sweet spot of low investment and high enough quality to encourage you to keep learning. In this case, the best bet may be a makeup brush set—one big one that covers all the areas of the face, or one for eyes, one for face, and (optional) one for lips. Consider the Lavish Elegance 15-brush set from BH Cosmetics.
Question: What are the best affordable makeup brushes?
Wet n Wild, e.l.f., Sonia Kashuk, and Everyday Minerals make some of the best, most affordable brushes.
If your budget’s minimal and you don’t mind if you’ll need to replace your brushes within a year or two, check out the art supply store’s paintbrush section for brushes that will get the job done for less money.
Question: How do I know if my makeup brushes are good quality?
Answer: If the bristles hold their shape and don’t shed, and they’re on your skin, they’re probably good quality.
Question: How many makeup brushes should you have?
Answer: As many as you want to enjoy the process of applying your makeup. That doesn’t sound like a very straightforward answer, but everyone’s preferences will be different.
If you like to keep it simple and pretty natural, you can probably get by with a flat shader brush, a domed blending brush, a blush brush, and a foundation brush. From there, add what you need to create the looks you enjoy wearing. This may include a contour brush, and/or an angled liner and/or brow brush.
Question: What is the best tool to apply liquid foundation? Should I use a sponge or brush for foundation?
Answer: A sponge, like the Beautyblender®, will give you a smooth finish without depositing too much product onto your skin. If you prefer to go with a brush, the IT Cosmetics for ULTA Airbrush Blurring Foundation Brush #101 will work with creams, powders, or liquids. Others to consider: Rare Beauty Liquid Touch Foundation Brush, MAC 187, or KVD Lock-It Edge Foundation Brush.
Question: What foundation brush is best for full coverage?
Answer: You’ll want something with soft, densely packed synthetic bristles that don’t have a lot of give (don’t splay out) when you press them against your skin. Flat or round/domed will work. With the flat, paddle-like brush, you’ll generally need to use up-to-down motions and liquid foundation. With the round/domed brushes, you’ll usually get the best results from a buffing motion and a powder foundation. Don’t be afraid to experiment, though.
Question: Does the quality of makeup brushes matter?
Answer: The quality does matter, but that doesn’t mean the most expensive brushes are the best. There are some inexpensive brushes on the market that perform well, feel soft (but not so soft they’re ineffective) on the skin, pack color on when needed, and blend colors like a dream. What you don’t want are bristles that jab at the skin, splay out on contact with the product or your face, or shed a lot.
Question: Do cheap makeup brushes work?
Answer: Cheaply made brushes with low-quality materials won’t work well, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good set of makeup brushes that apply and blend products just the way you need them to.
Question: Why are makeup brushes expensive?
Answer: Not all of them are expensive, and some inexpensive brushes are of surprisingly good quality. That said, prices can go up as the materials used in the brushes and the care in creating them
Question: Are MAC makeup brushes good?
Answer: Yes, MAC makeup brushes are excellent. They can last for years and perform well.
Question: What is a good makeup brush cleaner?
Answer: You can use baby shampoo and water, but the MAC Cosmetics brush cleanser is designed to clean brushes, condition the fibers, and extend the life of your makeup brushes. If you need something that will work in a hurry and let you immediately reuse your brushes, try the Make Up For Ever Instant Brush Cleanser.
Question: How often should you buy makeup brushes?
Answer: It depends on the starting quality of the brushes and how well they’re cared for. Makeup brushes can last years.
How to Find the Best Makeup Brushes and Tools for Your Needs
So how do you determine the best makeup brushes and tools for your specific needs? No matter what type of brush you’re looking for, get one with densely packed, soft bristles that won’t scratch your skin.
Regardless of your budget, you’ll be able to find well-made options for eyes, face, and lips. If you’re a beginner, it will probably be easiest to find a brand that sells sets and just start with those. As your skills expand, the kit will grow with you to a point.
From there, you’ll know more about your preferences as they relate to your makeup application style and facial features and slowly piece together your own collection. In general, flatter brushes (paddle-shaped) will pack color on but won’t blend well and fluffier ones will deposit color more gradually and blend one into another (or blend out the edges so there aren’t any harsh lines).