Brushes make a huge difference with makeup application, especially with foundation. Some good brushes at a low price point are:
- Real Techniques
- Sonia Kashuk (the brushes with black handles)
- ELF Studio
See the end of this post for specific brush recommendations.
I would recommend only getting brushes as you need them, or as you add new things to your routine. If you spend a bunch of money on a big set to start with, it’s very likely that you’ll wind up using only a few brushes from it. (In addition, the quality of the pieces in sets tends to be lower than it is for individual brushes.) So first assess what makeup you use, or want to use, on a regular basis, and then buy brushes based on that.
- If you use powder or cream/gel to fill in your eyebrows…
…you’ll need an angled brush. Optionally, a spoolie can help to blend the product in with your brow hair.
- If you use gel eyeliner…
…you’ll need either an angled brush or a fine-tip liner brush. I actually really like the brush that comes with the Maybelline gel liner.
- If you use eyeshadow……
- a basic “lay-down” eyeshadow brush to apply shadow all over your lid. A lay-down brush is flat, rounded, and dense so it can pick up and apply a lot of pigment.
- a crease brush to put shadow into the crease of your eyelid. A crease brush has a pointed or rounded tip so it can fit into your crease.
- a blending brush to blend out the edges of your eyeshadow and to blend between different colors. This brush is larger than a crease brush, fluffy, and rounded.
Or you can just get a crease brush and use it both for your crease and for blending – though it’s best to use a clean brush for blending.
Other optional eyeshadow brushes include:
- a smudge brush to apply shadow on your lower lashline and to smudge out eyeliner. These brushes are small, short, and dense, with a rounded shape.
- a detail brush/pencil brush for precise work like defining the “outer v” of your eye or smudging/blending out eyeshadow in small areas like the lashline. These brushes are small, soft, and dense, with a pointed or domed shape.
If you’re a beginner, don’t worry about these yet – the first three eyeshadow brushes I listed are enough to start out with.
- If you use liquid foundation…
…you can use your fingers to apply it, but a brush or sponge can help blend your foundation.
- A flat/paddle brush will apply a pretty heavy layer of foundation. These brushes are not so good for blending; they can leave a streaky finish.
- A stippling brush can produce an “airbrushed” finish, but can be more time-consuming to use.
- A buffing brush is good at blending foundation (“buffing” is moving your brush in circular motions to blend), and so are kabuki brushes.
- A sponge will create a very natural finish and will also sheer out your foundation for lighter coverage (this can be good for thicker, full-coverage foundations).
For more about foundation brushes, see my introduction to foundation.
- If you use powder foundation…
…you’ll need a dense brush to apply it with. Kabuki brushes are good for powder foundation.
- If you use concealer…
…you can apply it with your fingers, so a brush is optional. Personally, I prefer using a flat concealer brush for under-eye concealer and a fine-point brush for spot concealing, since brushes are more precise than my fingers and make it easier to apply a thin layer only where I need it. A small, dense buffing brush can also help blend concealer in.
- If you use blush…
…you’ll need a blush brush. Blush brushes may be rounded, tapered, or angled. Rounded brushes are good for applying blush all over the apples of the cheek; tapered brushes are good for more precise placement or for small cheeks. Angled brushes can help you essentially contour with your blush (place it in the hollows of your cheeks). Blush brushes may be dense (in which case they will produce a heavier application) or fluffier (in which case the application will be lighter).
If you use cream blush or want to be able to lightly apply very pigmented blushes, you can opt for a stippling brush, which may also be used to apply foundation. A sponge can also be used to blend out cream blush.
- If you use powder…
….you’ll need a powder puff or a powder brush. A powder puff is good for really pressing the powder into your skin, and will produce a heavier application than a powder brush (so it’s good for really oily skin). You may also want a setting brush that’s small enough to easily apply setting powder to your under-eye area.
- If you use bronzer…
…you can use any fluffy, medium-sized brush – there are plenty of blush and powder brushes that work for bronzer.
Highlighting and contouring brushes:
- If you use highlighter…
…you can use any small, pointed brush of medium density. Brushes like that can also be used for contouring, under-eye setting powder, and even for blush (if you have small facial features). You can also use a small angled brush. A fan brush, which allows a very light application, is good for highlighter, and can also be used to brush excess powder or eyeshadow fallout (bits of eyeshadow that fall onto your cheeks) off your face.
- If you use contour products…
…you can, again, use a small pointed brush or an angled brush. A flat (itabake) brush makes contouring very easy.
As mentioned above, there are plenty of types of brushes that are multi-purpose; a small, pointed brush like this could be used for highlighter, blush, contouring, and under-eye setting powder, for example. A medium-sized brush that isn’t too dense, like this, could be used for bronzer, powder, and blush.
To check for quality, consider the following (credit goes to A Different Face for this list):
- Hair – If it’s natural hair, is it laser-cut, or are the natural hair tips intact? Natural hair gets finer at the end of the hair, so if the natural hair tips are intact, the brush will feel softer on your skin than if the hair is laser-cut. Mass-produced brushes are generally laser-cut, while handmade brushes (such as Hakuhodo and other Japanese brushes) are not.
- The brush head – Are the hairs bundled evenly, with uniform density throughout? Is the brush head shaped well and evenly, or are there stray hairs splayed out or sticking out past the others? Does the brush shed during use/washing? If the brush sheds just a few hairs when you first begin using it, that’s normal, but continual shedding indicates poor quality.
- The ferrule (the part attaching the bristles to the handle) – Does it have a seam? Seamless ferrules are more durable. Does the ferrule feel solid or flimsy? Is the ferrule joined tightly to the handle, or does it wobble if you tug at it?
- The handle – Is it smooth, with no unevenness or rough spots? Is any lettering or engraving uniform?
Make sure to wash your brushes regularly – once a week if you wear makeup daily (and at least twice a week for brushes used for cream/liquid products such as concealer/foundation). You can squirt some baby shampoo into your palm, swish your brushes around in it and lather them up, then rinse. Try not to get any water in the ferrule – that will make the brush fall apart eventually. Then make sure to either dry your brushes flat, or roll up a towel and use that to keep the brush handle up and the bristles down (if you dry your brushes bristles-up, water will go down into the ferrule).
A sponge can be washed with bar soap like Dr. Bronner’s; you’d rub the damp sponge on the soap bar, then put it under running water and squeeze out the foundation/soap. Make sure to dry sponges in open air, not in a makeup bag; I prop mine across the top of a small glass.
And here are some specific low-to-mid-end recommendations. (For recommendations of higher-quality brushes, see my guide to Hakuhodo brushes.) All brushes listed are synthetic unless stated otherwise.
- Real Techniques Miracle Complexion Sponge ($6) – review – very comparable to the $20 Beauty Blender
- Real Techniques Expert Face Brush ($9) – review – a dense brush with a domed head
- Sigma F80 ($24) – review – a dense flat-top kabuki brush
- Urban Decay Good Karma optical blurring brush ($25) – review – a dense brush with a domed head
- Sephora Pro Flawless Airbrush #56 ($32) – a dense, somewhat small brush with a domed head
- ELF Studio powder brush ($3)
- Ecotools retractable kabuki ($8)
- Ecotools domed bronzer brush ($10)
- Real Techniques buffing brush ($18 for core collection)
- Sephora Classic Multitasker Brush #45 ($24)
- Tarte airbuki bamboo powder foundation brush ($26)
- ELF Studio flawless concealer brush ($3) – review – a domed brush good for buffing out concealer
- Ecotools airbrush concealer brush ($4) – review – a tapered brush good for buffing out concealer, including under the eyes
- Zoeva concealer buffer 142 ($8.50 plus $18 shipping if you’re in the US) – review – a domed brush good for blending concealer
- Real Techniques deluxe crease brush ($18 for starter eye set) – review – a dense domed brush good for blending concealer, especially under the eyes
- Sigma P80 ($21) – review – a flat-top brush good for blending out concealer. Because it’s flat, it’s better for blemishes than the under-eye area.
- Sephora Pro Airbrush Concealer Brush #57 ($24) – review – a domed brush good for buffing concealer. Because it is somewhat large for a concealer brush, it’s best for larger areas such as under the eyes.
- Real Techniques fine liner brush ($6 alone, or $18 for starter eye set) – a pointed eyeliner brush good for spot concealing
- MAC 209 ($20) – a pointed eyeliner brush good for spot concealing
- ELF Studio blush brush ($3) – a small domed brush. On larger faces, it could be used for contouring, highlighting, or under-eye setting powder.
- ELF Studio complexion brush ($3) – a larger domed brush that can also be used for bronzer and powder
- Sonia Kashuk black handle blush brush (02) ($17, goat) – a domed brush
- NARS Yachiyo ($55, goat) – review – a tapered brush, good for light to medium blush application. The tapered shape means it can also be used for highlighting and contouring. May not be an ideal size for small faces.
- ELF studio powder brush ($3)
- Ecotools powder brush ($8)
- Real Techniques powder brush ($10)
- Sonia Kashuk black handle large powder brush (01) ($19, goat) – domed
- Sephora airbrush #55 ($34) – a fluffy, domed brush often used for foundation
- Real Techniques setting brush ($8) – review – This can also be used for under-eye setting powder (which is in fact its stated purpose).
- Zoeva luxe highlighter brush ($15 plus $18 shipping if you’re in the US, natural/synthetic)
- MAC 188 ($35, goat /synthetic) – review – a small duo-fiber brush
- Illamasqua highlighter brush ($37) – review
- Real Techniques contour brush ($18 for core collection) – review – a small domed brush
- Zoeva 109 face paint brush ($14 plus $18 shipping if you’re in the US, natural/synthetic) – review – a flat, square brush
- MAC 168 ($35) – a large angled brush; the 109 (also $35; review here) is a good alternative if you want something smaller.
- Sephora pro contour brush #74 ($30, goat) – review – comparable to the MAC 109, though it’s not as dense
- Sonia Kashuk bent eyeliner brush 107 ($6, sable/synthetic) – review
- MAC 210 ($20) – a fine-tip liner brush
- Laura Mercier flat eyeliner brush ($25) – a flat brush good for tightlining
Angled brush (can be used for eyebrows and/or eyeliner):
- ELF Studio small angled brush ($3) – review
- Anastasia brush #12 ($18) – a dual-ended brush with an angled brush on one end and a spoolie for blending on the other end. Good for Anastasia Dipbrow or other cream eyebrow products, especially since it’s synthetic.
- MAC 266 ($20) – good for eyebrows because of its stiffness; for eyeliner, the 208 is better because it’s smaller and more precise.
- ELF Studio eyeshadow C brush ($3) – very dense, so it picks up a good amount of color
- MAC 239 ($25, goat)
- Coastal Scents Classic Blender Crease ($2.50)
- Essence of Beauty Crease Brush Duo ($6) – good for small eyes
- Paula Dorf Perfect Sheer Crease ($30, goat) – review – good for blending
Other eyeshadow brushes:
- Sephora Pro cream shadow brush #28 ($20) – a dense synthetic brush good for cream eyeshadow
- A quick visual guide to makeup brushes
- Brush guide – includes images of different brushes, descriptions of what they do, and examples of each type from different brands, and an overview of hair types, brush care, and how to choose a brush
- An overview on makeup brushes – an in-depth post, with lots of detail on different hair types. The rest of the Sweet Makeup Temptations blog has a wealth of information on brushes, especially high-end ones.
- Beauty primer: brushes – an excellent overall guide to different hair types and brush shapes
- Hakuhodo buying guide – while this guide focuses on Hakuhodo brushes, it offers a lot of great guidance that can be used for buying any brushes
- Series of posts on eye brushes – see links to parts 2-5 at the bottom