Grab a snack, ladies and gents, and get ready to learn allllll about makeup tools in this ultimate makeup brush guide!
Is it just me or is there like 150,000,000 different makeup brush options these days?? Almost every brand, both affordable and high-end, offers a line of brushes. It can be overwhelming, to say the least.
Most brushes come with a description to at least tell you what the brush is intended for, but will it help you achieve the look you want?
And so many brushes look similar – they seem to be just a hair different (pun intended). How can you know which nearly-identical brush will give you your desired look?
Plus, the market has so many sponges now too! Are all sponges created equal?
Does it matter what types of bristles brushes are made of?
And what about those makeup brushes that look like tooth brushes?
Learn all of this + more in this all-inclusive makeup brush guide!
In fact, this makeup brush guide is so thorough that I’ve provided you with a table of contents so you can easily click right on through to the parts you’re most intrigued to learn about.
The Makeup Brush Guide You’ve Always Wanted
The goal of this makeup brush guide is for you to be able to walk into any store and pick out a brush to achieve the exact look you like and desire. Because yes, there are 150,000,000 brushes and they don’t all perform the same or give you the same look.
Other posts that also focus on empowering you through makeup education:
- How to curate your eyeshadow collection
- Finding your perfect foundation is about more than the perfect color match
I’m not here to sell you brushes (although you will find links to some of my most-loved ones). I’m here to teach you about makeup brushes so you can confidently take that knowledge with you into the makeup aisles.
The anatomy of a makeup brush
Before we start talking about specific types of brushes, it’s important that you learn about the anatomy of makeup brushes.
Because what they’re made of, how the bristles are packed, and the shape of the bristles are all determining factors in if a brush is going to help you achieve your desired look.
You don’t need to know about every single makeup brush ever made – you just need to know about a few key factors.You don't need to know about every single makeup brush ever made – you just need to learn about a few key factors. Learn about them here! #makeupbrushes #makeup #makeupbrushguide Click To Tweet
Synthetic vs. real hair
When it comes to bristles, there are two types: synthetic and real hair. Each have their place.
Synthetics are super soft and ideal for creams and powders. You’ll notice that synthetic bristles age well too, keeping their shape and softness over the years. If keeping your collection cruelty free is important to you, be sure to get synthetic brushes.
Real hair bristles are excellent for powders and cannot be used with creams. You’ll notice that real hair brushes will respond like real hair as they age – they’ll get misshapen or sort of frayed, maybe a little scratchy.
These brushes were purchased at the same time. The left one is natural and the right one is synthetic. You can tell that the one on the left just simply hasn’t aged as well.
To know if a brush is synthetic or real, simply check the packaging or the product description if you’re online.
Bristle density and length
These properties play a huge role in achieving your desired look. How many bristles there are in a brush and their length changes the opacity of the product you’re applying.
Lots of short bristles = more opacity. Because longer bristles will have more movement to them, they will pick up less product from the pan and diffuse the color more effortlessly.
So if you prefer a more diffused application when it comes to bronzer and blush, you want to go for a brush with longer bristles that will have more movement.
If you want to use eyeshadow as eyeliner across your lash line, you want to select a brush with short, densely-packed bristles.
If you want to achieve the fullest coverage your foundation has to offer, use a foundation brush with very short bristles.
*Future Kalyn with a note here: while doing research for this post I came across these “custom complexion” brushes from Real Techniques that perfectly illustrate this very concept. Here’s a video!
Flat-top vs. round-top
The shape of the brush can dictate your application technique.
Flat-top brushes are generally used in a stippling motion and, therefore, provide greater coverage/opacity. They still blend beautifully – you’re just also going to get more color payoff.
Round-top brushes, in general, are for blending in circular or sweeping motions and will give you a more diffused and subtle look. This is why we rarely see flat-top brushes as eyeshadow brushes (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever used a flat-top brush for eyeshadow.)
A pinched ferrule
If you’re holding a makeup brush parallel with your body and look down at it, you’ll notice that the shape the bristles make can vary. Mostly it’s circular, but sometimes it can be an oval. Or even very close to just a line.
This is manipulated by pinching the ferrule (the metal part that binds the bristles to the handle). This simply dictates how the bristles are displayed from the ferrule.
Depending on what look you want to achieve or a specific area of your face or eye, you may want to hunt down a more circular, ovoid, or even linear brush.
And a brush with a pinched ferrule is what you would look for.
Other makeup application tools.
If you’ve been in a makeup aisle recently, then you’ve probably noticed that there’s lots of other application tools these days. It ain’t just brushes anymore.
This is another tool that all brands seem to have. Again, they’re not all created equally either.
Most sponges are intended for foundation and concealer application. You run the sponge under water until it’s fully saturated, squeeze out the excess water, and then use it to stipple your foundation into your skin. You can apply foundation with a dry sponge, but I personally don’t like to. My foundation/concealer don’t look nearly as good with a dry sponge.
Lots of other sponges have entered the market now, too. Small sponges specifically for under eye concealer, sponges made of silicone, sponges made of two different materials. These are all fairly gimmicky to me and I don’t like them.
What sponge you end up getting is going to be about trial and error.
- Do you like the density of this sponge?
- Does the shape work for you?
- Considering how often you use it, did it last well?
The great thing about sponges is that there are affordable options that perform amazingly well. There is no reason to spend $20 on a Beauty Blender sponge!
Universally, people tend to love Real Techniques and EcoTools. I also personally like sponges from Sonia Kashuk and Juno & Co.
You may have noticed some really funky looking makeup brushes that resemble tooth brushes within the last several years… These are called oval makeup brushes.
A couple years ago, a brand, Artis, released these brushes and they were a bit of a trend for awhile. Super expensive, but all the beauty gurus seemed to love them. These brushes claim to do it all: foundation, concealer, cream products, face powders, eyeshadow, and even eye liner. The whole kit and caboodle from Artis rings in at $228.
Now lots of other brands have affordable oval brushes.
But in my opinion I never understood the hype around them.
I have the cult-classic Artis oval #7 for foundation and just never like the finished result very much. The amount of blending I have to do for my foundation to not look streaky took away a lot of coverage.
And the learning curve to use oval brushes for eyeliner and eyeshadow is just unnecessary.
Makeup brushes I love.
Again, this isn’t about selling you makeup brushes, but I do wanna share a couple makeup brush brands that have faithfully served me through out the years.
Before you do any online shopping, don’t forget to activate your cash back from Rakuten/Ebates! If you don’t already have an account with them, you can sign up through my referral link.
I’m gonna be completely honest with you – Sonia Kashuk brushes from Target are where it’s at.
I rarely see people using these brushes or talking about them, both professionals and everyday women, but they’re absolutely phenomenal!
They feature stunning designs and are very affordable! Plus, at least in my local Targets, they have brush testers on display so you can feel how absolutely plush and soft these brushes are.
As far as I know, Sonia Kashuk is only sold at Target.
Real Techniques is another highly regarded brush brand loved by so many!
They have brushes for just about anything you could need, travel brush sets, carrying cases, etc.
And you can find tons of helpful tutorials on their YouTube channel as well.
ELF Cosmetics is the OG makeup brush brand for a lot of women my age. They’re insanely affordable, so it’s the brushes a lot of us started out with.
Just make sure you don’t get any brushes with white handles. They’re usually the cheapest brushes ELF has to offer, and I just don’t find them worth it. Yeah, they’re only $2 or so, but they don’t perform well and the bristles are super scratchy, even when they’re brand new.
But the brushes with the black handles and the acrylic handles are absolutely incredible! Lots of variety and very durable.
What about Morphe brushes?
Here’s the deal with Morphe brushes… at least in my opinion.
I don’t think their brushes are anything ground breaking. And I think they’re also kind of expensive for what they are, especially any of their brush collaborations.
BUT Morphe does have an incredible variety. That’s where they shine.
Morphe carries just about any brush you can think of.
In fact, two of my favorite brushes are from Morphe (this one and this one) because they’re unique and specific to needs that I personally have for achieving my desired looks. Seriously, I wish I had two more of each of these brushes.
But that’s it.
The key to finding your perfect makeup brushes.
Firstly, it’s imperative that you keep your desired look in mind while shopping for makeup brushes.
As you stroll the aisles (or scroll on Amazon or Ulta), keep in mind what you just learned from this post + the fact that you like a diffused application of highlight. That will help you weed out densely-packed brushes.
Secondly, while the brush descriptions can be a helpful starting point, the point is for you to find a brush to suit your desired look. So if a brush covers all of your points for a blush brush but technically wasn’t intended for blush, throw caution to the wind and use it for blush anyways.
There are no rules in makeup! The makeup brush police will not hunt you down.
With all of the knowledge you have gained from this makeup brush guide, you can now feel very confident when shopping for makeup brushes!
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