Makeup 101: “What Do I Need All Of These Brushes For?”

I’m a longtime makeup fiend, but up until last year I had yet to be schooled in the magic of makeup brushes. Sure, I used the small, tapered type to flick on my gel eyeliner, and a couple of shoddy shadow brushes I had accumulated from long-forgotten palettes, but the numerous varieties and purposes were lost on me. I patted on powder with the stupid sponge it came with and wondered why my face looked so cakey; I applied blush with my fingertips and became frustrated when I could never blend the color properly. On a whim I purchased a $12 set of EcoTools brushes from CVS: it was rudimentary, but it was a start.

As soon as I acquainted myself with the specific tools — a fluffy powder brush, three separate shadow brushes for different uses (who knew?), and a slanted liner brush — and the various ways to use them, I noticed immediately how much better they were at applying makeup than my grimy hands. Where my powder had once highlighted my pores, it now airbrushed them into submission; where my eyeshadow would go patchy and stick to my fingers more than my lids, it now went on smooth and solid. And these were cheap drugstore brushes! (For the record, if you’re not looking to drop big cash on luxury brushes, or you want to try a budget version before you invest, I do highly recommend the EcoTools brand.)

I’m hardly a brush expert — because, let’s face it, I’m way too disorganized and ADHD to use all the right tools for all the right things — but Jane Iredale National Educator Elias Elgueta totally is. (A bit of backstory, if you’re unfamiliar with the name: Jane Iredale, named for the brand’s founder, creates natural mineral makeup with skincare benefits, so much so that the brand is recommended by plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and skin care professionals who are well-acquainted with the issues that many ingredients in makeup can cause. Jane’s makeup and brushes are all certified cruelty-free.)

We got to chat with Elias and ask him a few questions. Here’s what he had to say:

“There are many different brushes out there. They vary in length, density and hair type.

Generally, a synthetic brush is the way to go when working with cream, or liquid products (wet). We now even have the choice of synthetic/natural hair hybrids. This combination has been proven to be very versatile as you can use them to apply powders, creams, liquids, blush, bronzers and finishing powders. A prime example of this is jane iredale’s Blending Brush.

When it comes to natural hair brushes, the choices are quite wide. The brush performance will be based upon the hair used (as some animals will have much coarser hair), the shape and the density of the bristles.

As a general rule, coarser hair will pick up more product than that of an animal with finer hair. How densely the brush is packed also matters – the more hair, the more color payoff. When the bristles are longer and less packed they pick up less product, therefore, applying less of it. These scenarios are equally important. For instance you want your foundation brush to pick up more product, so you would select a more densely packed brush. For blending a product like eyeshadow or working in the crease of the lid, a less densely packed brush is more ideal.”

  • What do you consider the must-have brushes for the average makeup wearer?

“A must-have brush is one that you will need to use everyday to complete your makeup application. In my experience, that would be a foundation brush to help achieve a natural-looking, flawless complexion. If you are using a liquid or cream foundation, choose a brush that is made of synthetic fibers, like nylon. That will allow for the product to be more evenly and easily distributed. A natural hair brush will be the best tool when using a powder (dry) foundation.”

  • What makes a high-end brush superior to the average brush you can find at a drugstore?

“Although it is not about the cost of a brush, acquiring a good quality makeup brush is certainly an investment that should be made. No matter where you decide to buy your brush, the type, quality of hair, shape of the brush, and how the hair is attached to the handle by the ferule (usually a metal band that connects the bristles to the handle) are the things that matter most.”

  • What qualities or components should you look for when buying a brush?

“Some qualities that I look for in a brush are:

Bristles on the brush have been hand-tied rather than cut-to-shape. Just like human hair, an animal’s hair will naturally taper at the ends because of the loss of keratin layers. Tapering off to a fine point makes the brush feel soft and soothing to the skin – not to mention that it will be able to pick up just the right amount of product, blending it like a dream! Cut-to-shape brushes feel rough and prickly to the touch – which is not the most fun or luxurious experience.

The hair has been collected from animals in a respectful, cruelty-free way. Look for symbols of approval from animal-friendly organizations. When it doubt, ask. It matters.

Lastly, I buy brushes from companies that sell their own brush shampoo/conditioner. That tells me they stand behind their product, that they care and that they want your investment to last you for many, many years to come.”

So there you have it! If you’re looking to invest in your own quality brushes, we recommend (of course) Jane Iredale, as well as Sephora’s SEPHORA COLLECTION Pro brushes for their mid-range affordability and awesomely self-explanatory names helpfully etched on the handle. You’ll never have to wonder what one is for ever again.

If you have additional questions, or there’s something about brushes that’s just got you stumped, feel free to email me at [email protected].