The Ultimate Guide to Makeup Brushes

This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click them and make a purchase, I can earn a small commission. This post is not sponsored, however some of the products mentioned were sent to me for free in exchange for my honest review.

If you’re ready to learn more than you ever thought you needed to know about makeup brushes, you’ve come to the right place. Seriously, though, I’m pretty passionate about my brush collection and the power of having right tools on hand. Makeup should be fun, or, at the very least, not a daily struggle. And if you don’t own a decent set of brushes, a struggle it could be. 

Now, decent doesn’t have to mean expensive, nor does it need to be overly complicated. And that’s where this guide comes in. I’ve compiled a ton of helpful information so that you can (hopefully) avoid wasting your money on brushes you’re never going to use. From my thoughts on tons of popular brands, to a little lesson on makeup brush anatomy, to a list of 10 essential brushes you may want in your collection, my goal is to have you leave this post feeling like a total #brushboss (is that a thing? I’m making it a thing.)

The Ultimate Guide to Makeup Brushes

The Anatomy of Makeup Brush

Before we dive into brush styles, let’s first start with a basic lesson in brush anatomy. A makeup brush (or really any brush for that matter) has three parts: the handle, the bristles, and the ferrule. The handle and the bristles are pretty self-explanatory, and the ferrule is the middle bit that connects them. On the bristle end, the ferrule can be either round, or pinched. A pinched ferrule will give a brush a flat appearance, where a round one will (you guessed it) give your brush a more rounded shape. 

The shape of the ferrule, along with the density, length, and cut of the bristles are what give each brush its unique properties. Understanding each of these elements and how they effect application can help you decide whether or not a particular brush is worth investing in. For example, let’s say you’re looking for something to apply foundation. If a brush is too flimsy, or has bristles that are too long, odds are it’ll leave your liquid or cream foundation looking like a streaky mess. A dense brush with shorter bristles will spread the product evenly on your skin. On the flip side, if you’re looking for a blush brush, something densely packed is infinitely more likely to make you look like a clown as the bristles will pick up way too much product. Long story short, no one brush shape is inherently good or bad, its just good or bad at doing different things.

As a general rule of thumb, dense brushes are great for buffing, spreading and smudging. Fluffy brushes are better for blending, diffusing, and dusting. Longer bristles tend to have wider reach and be more flexible and shorter bristles tend to be more precise and stiff. With these types of things in mind, it’s much easier to anticipate whether a brush is going to work the way you need it to. The other big consideration is what the bristles are made out of.

The Ultimate Guide to Makeup Brushes

Synthetic vs. Natural Bristles

Makeup brushes can also roughly be separated into two categories: those with synthetic bristles, and those with natural bristles (although some have a blend of the two). Synthetic bristles are typically made from nylon or some other synthetic fiber, while natural bristles are comprised of type of animal hair.

Since synthetic bristles cannot absorb makeup in the same way natural bristles can, they are superior for applying cream and liquid products (although they apply powders beautifully too). Natural bristles are often touted as being ideal for applying powder products, however, they also raise certain ethical concerns about how the hair is obtained (especially from non-domesticated animals). Natural haired bristles are obviously not vegan, however they CAN be considered cruelty-free, as the term cruelty-free applies only to whether or not a product is TESTED on animals (not made from them).

Ultimately we each have to make our own decision about the brands we want to support. Many manufacturers of natural bristled brushes claim to source their furs in a way that does not cause harm to the animals they came from, however, it’s up to you to research and trust as you will. Just rest assured that if you want to go 100% vegan with your brushes, there are more high quality synthetic brushes on the market now than ever before.

What Brushes Are Good For Beginners?

After much consideration and about two decades worth of trial and error, I’ve decided that you can create just about any classic makeup look with the ten brushes I’m about to list. Of course there are seemingly countless shapes and styles out there that can be helpful for executing special techniques. But if you want to strip things down to the essentials, these are the brushes I’d recommend acquiring first. 

10 Essential Makeup Brushes You Need In Your Collection

10 Essentials Brushes for Any Makeup Kit

  1. Flat buffing brush for applying foundation (Sigma F80 Flat Kabuki)
  2. Small, dense, round brush for blending concealer (E.L.F. Flawless Concealer Brush)
  3. Large fluffy powder brush for all over setting (MODA Powder Brush)
  4. Angled powder brush for applying blush and bronzer (Sigma F40 Large Angled Contour)
  5. Small tapered brush for applying highlighter or powder to the under eye area (Luxie Tapered Highlighter Brush)
  6. Fluffy crease blending brush for the eyes (Karity E31)
  7. Flat shader brush for the eyes (MODA Metallics Small Eye Shader)
  8. Small pencil brush (Morphe E36)
  9. Angled eyeliner brush (Sigma E65 Small Angle)
  10. Brow brush with spoolie (NYX Pro Dual Brow Brush)

Of course, the one last thing I think would complete your arsenal isn’t actually a brush at all (hence it not making the list). Every makeup collection could also probably benefit from a good beauty sponge. Yes, the BeautyBlender is great, but if you don’t feel like shelling out $19 for one, there are tons of excellent affordable alternatives. A couple that I’ve enjoyed are the Real Techniques Miracle Complexion Sponge and the NYX Flawless Finish sponge.

I also want to put it out there that the specific brushes mentioned above are just examples that I personally enjoy. For any category I could probably list 5 alternatives from other brands that I also think are great. Depending on your own personal preferences and budget there may be a better option for your stash than the one I shared. 

What About Specialty Brushes?

Name any beauty trend, and I can probably find you a brush specifically designed for its execution. Want to contour your nose? There’s a brush for that. Create a cut crease? There’s a brush for that. Now, I’m not going to say that these types of specialty brushes are a gimmick or that they won’t help you elevate your makeup game. However, I will caution you to not get sucked into the hype, and to consider whether or not something you already have on hand could get the job done just as well. 

A lot of brushes are great at multi-tasking, and can be used in ways beyond what their name suggests. A fluffy angled eyeshadow brush may be perfect for that nose contour. A flat concealer brush works wonders for cutting out a crease or patting on pigments. If you want to get the most out of your brush collection, stop looking at labels, and start looking at shapes, cuts, and sizes. Buying brushes that can easily serve multiple functions will almost always be a better investment.

The Ultimate Guide to Makeup Brushes

Brands to Explore

As the beauty industry continues to boom, the number of brush brands, or makeup brands with brush offerings, has grown substantially. While I’ve still only tried a fraction of what is out there, I still have some recommendations to hopefully get you started. Here are a few of the brands I’m most familiar with, and some of my personal favorite brushes from each.

BH Cosmetics

As a newbie blogger, BH Brushes were among the very first I invested in. They’re extremely affordable, but also of decent quality. They’re especially well known for their brush sets, of which they have many enticing options to choose from. If you’d like to get a better feel for what they offer, you may want to check out my reviews of the Original Sculpt & Blend and Sculpt & Blend II Brush Sets. 

E.L.F.

When it comes to drugstore makeup and brushes, E.L.F. has made quite a name for themselves. Their black handled brushes (starting at $3 each) have been touted as some of the best affordable brushes you can get your hands on. Some of my personal favorites (aside from the Flawless Concealer mentioned earlier) are the Complexion Brush, Angled Blush Brush, and the Small Tapered Blending Brush

Juno & Co.

Juno & Co. is the trendy new kid on the block. As a company, Juno & Co strives to deliver prestige level quality for drugstore level prices by cutting out the middle man. I can’t say that their brushes are on the same level as those you might buy at Sephora, but they’re definitely not bad. You can read more of my detailed thoughts on their brushes in my comprehensive Juno & Co. brush review.

Karity

Like Juno & Co., Karity is another online makeup retailer that offers color cosmetics and brushes at a very reasonable price point. I’ve only had a chance to try their eye brushes so far, but I think I prefer them to the one’s I’ve tried from Juno & Co. At a distance they remind me a lot of my beloved Sigma brushes, but at a fraction of the cost. They’re incredibly soft, blend product well, and hold up to repeated washings. The one thing to note is that while Karity is a cruelty-free brand, not all of their brushes are vegan. Each brush page online denotes whether the bristles are made of natural or synthetic fibers. If you’re looking for a place to start, I say you can’t go wrong with their Eye Basics Brush Set ($11), which contains three of my favorite eye brushes from their lineup.

Luxie

If you’re willing to splurge a little more, Luxie makes some absolutely BEAUTIFUL brushes. Not only are they pink and pretty to look at, but they’re also super-duper soft, 100% vegan, and cruelty-free. Their standard rose gold brushes typically range from $12 to $22 a piece, but you can save some money by buying them in sets. I’ve honestly enjoyed almost every brush of theirs I’ve tried, but here are a few standouts.

The 522 Tapered Highlighter ($24) was one of the first Luxie brushes I ever owned and is still one of my favorites to this day. It blends out highlight beautifully, but could also be used for setting your under eyes or touching up targeted areas of your face. The 231 Small Tapered Blending Brush ($12) is a daily staple in my collection. It’s perfect for blending out shadow in the outer corner of your eyes. Or, if you’ve got small eyes, this would be THE PERFECT crease brush! If you’re someone that likes to foil their eyeshadows, I’d highly recommend the 239 Precision Shader Brush ($14). It’s fluffy enough to pick up product easily, but still flat enough to pack color on with ease – a definite game-changer!

The Ultimate Guide to Makeup Brushes

MODA

MODA Brushes are the perfect marriage of quality and affordability. While they aren’t quite as inexpensive as a brand like E.L.F. they definitely deliver a step up in performance. These sturdy synthetic brushes don’t shed and hold up well to repeated washing. The original MODA collection is fun and colorful, but where they really shine is with their specialized collections. From metallic ombre, to handles shaped like unicorn horns, if whimsy is what you’re after I’d highly recommend checking them out. 

As far as my favorite MODA brushes go, I’ve got a few to mention.  If you’re a fan of the blinding highlight the Highlight & Glow Brush ($6.99) allows you to pack on the shine while still blending it seamlessly into your other makeup. The Contour Brush ($7.99) is a totally underrated brush in my humble opinion. This one can be used for everything from blending in contour, to buffing in concealer in the under eye area, to setting precise areas with powder. Finally, the Pro Pointed Blush ($8.99) has a unique tapered shape that makes it an excellent multi-tasker for different powder products. You can use it to apply blush, bronzer, or setting powder with a bit more precision.

If you’re interested in purchasing any brushes from MODA you can use code BLUSHINGBIRDIE to save 10% at checkout on their website.

Morphe

When one thinks of Influencer hyped brands, there’s probably no bigger culprit than Morphe. I can’t say that I’ve tried a tremendous number of their brushes, but I’ve used enough to garner an opinion. Ultimately I think Morphe brushes are fine, and there are a few I use on a regular basis (the E36 ($5) is definitely in my weekly rotation). However, I believe that their brush quality is not on par with Sigma (then again, neither is their price point), even though I feel like they’re often touted as competitors. Also to note, many of Morphe’s brushes are not vegan, so if that is of concern to you, you may want to try MODA or E.L.F. as an alternative.

Pérsona Cosmetics

At the present moment Pérsona only makes one brush, but it’s so good I thought it was worth mentioning. Their Multi-Use Makeup Brush ($9.99) has an extremely unique cut that allows it to easily blend eyeshadow in the crease, pack it on the lid, or even smudge out your lower lash line. Essentially, if 10 brushes is still too many for you, you can replace three of my recommended eye brushes with this one. You can purchase this brush solo from the Persona Cosmetics site, or you can find it in their Color Theory Kits.

Real Techniques

Real Techniques is a brand that makes me nostalgic for the early days of beauty blogging. Once upon a time they were the only affordable brand anyone seemed to talk about, making them especially coveted by beauty junkies everywhere. The Setting Brush ($8) and Expert Face Brush ($9) were two in particular that I cherished in my collection for years. At this point I think they’ve lost a little bit of their mojo, if only because there are so many competing brands also offering pro-quality brushes on a budget. Still, I do believe the quality of their brushes is great for the price, and that they’re a very friendly brand to beginners. 

Sigma

If you’re looking to invest in some pro-level brushes, Sigma is hands down my top recommendation. From the quality of their construction, to the range of different unique cuts and shapes, Sigma brushes are worth every penny of their (moderately) high price tag. They have a very professional look and feel, are SUPER soft, vegan, and also come with a two year warranty. Before you pull the trigger and place an order, keep an eye out for a sale. Sigma has them fairly frequently, so if you’re patient you can save yourself a few bucks!

As far as my recommendations go, I could (and probably should) write up an entire dedicated post detailing my thoughts. But for now I’ll say that (aside from the F80 mentioned earlier) my most used brushes are the E35 Tapered Blending Brush ($17) and the F40 Large Angled Contour Brush ($23). They’re such solid everyday staples you can use in any makeup look, and blend product so stinkin’ beautifully it’s hard to want to reach for anything else.

Wet N Wild

Wet N Wild is one of those brands that continually ups its game from year to year. While their original white and pink brushes are actually not half bad, their new Pro line is a total stunner. With sleek metallic handles and ombre bristles, at a glance you would probably assume they were from a prestige brand. That being said, not all of the styles perform at a prestige level. Check out my review of the 2017 Holiday Gift Set, which has many brushes similar to the pro line, for my more detailed thoughts. 

Shop Like a #BrushBoss

So go forth, my beauties, and shop like the bosses you are! If you’ve still got brush-related questions, post them in the comments down below and I’d be happy to try and help you out. If your questions are related to cleaning and storing your brushes, you may want to hang tight! An Ultimate Guide to Brush Care will be coming your way soon. And as always, if you’ve got a favorite brush to share or something I should add to my shopping list, post your recommendations down below!