A Beginner's Guide to Shopping (& Using) Makeup Brushes

Makeup brushes are, in my opinion, the most boring yet essential part of any beauty routine. Brushes are the one beauty item I consistently forget to shop for, perhaps because what I love about makeup is playing with color and texture. But with brushes, I don’t get that instant gratification of swatching and applying them as soon as I get home from Ulta Beauty. 

The market is oversaturated with makeup brush options that all look the same, but are sold as unique and essential. Although often hard to shop for, having a thorough set of brushes will take your makeup skills to the next level. They allow you to maximize the efficacy of your complexion products and eye shadows, and give you the freedom and artistry to create the best looks possible. 

In my opinion, there is no perfect, universal list of brush recommendations that everyone can get the most utility out of. Your brush collection largely depends on your makeup collection, as different formulas and levels of coverage work best with different brushes. I personally like to save my money on brushes, and use more of my funds to build my makeup stash. Although by no means a list of the definitively best or most essential brushes, the following outlines my collection, which is small yet functional. 

Eyes

For the lid

To apply your lid and brow bone colors, use a flat shader brush. These can range in size and shape, from being fanned out and fluffy, to being smaller and more stiff. If you grab one on the slightly smaller side, you could also use it to apply your inner corner highlight or pack shadow on a more specific spot on your lid. I own the E.l.f Eyeshadow Brush ($1), which is a bit big, but still outperforms the price tag. The Morphe M167 Oval Shadow Brush ($6) is a very classic shader brush – I have not tried it, but reviewers love it. 

e.l.f Cosmetics, target.com, $1; shop now

For the crease

When applying your transition shade and mid-tone crease colors, as well as for blending out harsh edges, grab a fluffy crease brush. Look for one with a small base that fans out towards the top, because if the brush is too small, it won’t effectively diffuse the product, but if the ferrule is too wide, it will be too big to maneuver in the crease. I’m still on the hunt for the perfect crease brush – I currently use the Morphe M330 Blending Crease Brush ($7). The slight taper works for both precisely placing and blending darker colors as well as for diffusing lighter colors, so it’s a decent multitasker. The Morphe M441 Pro Firm Blending Fluff Brush ($7) looks like it’s a promising option as well, though I haven’t tried it. 

Morphe, morphe.com, $7; shop now​

For the details

You only really need one brush on hand for more precise eyeshadow application along the lower lash line and in the inner corner. I would grab either a pencil brush (like this $1 brush from e.l.f) or a smudge brush, depending on what you already own. If your crease brush is very fanned-out, a pencil brush will also help you place your deeper crease colors. If your shader brush is too large and fluffy, a smudge brush can pack color on more precise areas of the lid in a pinch. 

e.l.f. Cosmetics, target.com, $1; ​shop now

If you like to use eyeshadows or gels as liner on your upper lash line, this e.l.f Small Angled Brush ($3) has held up its narrow shape over time. I also like using it on the lower lash line and with my brow pomade.

Or grab a set...

If you’re looking for a brush set that covers most of what I just described, the EcoTools Enhancing Eye Set ($7) is a great condensed, yet comprehensive set of two double-ended brushes. Most of the brushes work multiple ways and are almost all you would need for a complete eye look, sans one, maybe two, brushes. 

EcoTools, ulta.com, $7; shop now

They’ve changed the shape of the brushes since I first bought it; namely, the “blend” brush used to be a tapered blending brush, and now looks like a fluffy crease brush. The “smudge” brush is great for highlighting the inner corner and brow bone, as well as precisely applying shadows to the center or inner corner of the lid. The angled “define brush” is great on the lower and upper lash lines. The “shade” brush is a bit more fanned out than a traditional shader brush, which doesn’t bother me because, one, I can supplement with the smudge brush, and two, it is fluffy enough to blend lighter crease colors.

Face

Foundation

To use a makeup brush or makeup sponge? That is the question. I see the value in owning both, because different foundation formulas work best with different application techniques. I like the Real Techniques Miracle Complexion Sponge ($6) because it is inexpensive and the flat edge is very user-friendly. For a foundation brush, I would recommend a dome-shaped brush rather than an angled or flat-top brush, so you can pounce or buff the brush into the skin without streaks. My Real Techniques 200 Expert Face Brush ($9) does the trick for a controlled, even blend; it’s a nice medium size and the bristles are soft. The ferrule is slightly pinched, so you can use both the top and the sides of the brush. It’s versatile and not too dense, so you could use this brush for blush or contour in a pinch. 

Real Techniques, ulta.com, $8; shop now

Concealer

There are a lot of flat concealer brushes on the market. I’ve found that, while these styles of brushes can place small amounts of concealer on targeted areas of the skin, they don’t work to blend the coverage or texture of the product into the skin. I much prefer the Morphe M173 Mini Buffer Brush ($6). This round, dome-shaped brush is the perfect medium size for concealing various areas of the face. I pounce it on blemishes, stipple it over redness, and it’s even soft enough that I can use it to blend out my under eye concealer, reaching the inner part of my under eye.

Morphe, morphe.com, $6; shop now

Powder

To lightly dust powder all over the face, I take it back to basics and use this e.l.f Cosmetics Powder Brush ($4). I like a flat-cut top with a large surface area to pick up and disperse the powder evenly. The bristles are flexible and not too dense, so I can apply multiple layers of powder without looking too cakey. I also love to use this brush without product to blend out any harsh blush or contour lines.

e.l.f Cosmetics, target.com, $4; shop now

Blush and Bronzer

I don’t use blush and bronzer enough to justify buying two separate brushes, so I like a blush brush that is smaller and has a bit of a taper. This type of shape, often marketed as a highlight brush, is extremely versatile because it can be used for blush, bronzer, and to set the under eye. I use the e.l.f Cosmetics Blush Brush ($3), which is super soft, and it’s ever-so-slightly pinched at the ferrule. 

e.l.f. Cosmetics, ulta.com, $3; shop now

Highlight

This Real Techniques 402 Setting Brush ($8) is a great size and shape for highlighting. It’s smaller than other brushes marketed for highlighting, but not too dense. It keeps the product concentrated right where I want it, and I can layer my highlight without my glow becoming too stark. I love it for powder highlights, but fingers are still my preferred method for cream highlight!

Real Techniques, ulta.com, $8; shop now

You don’t need to necessarily buy a different brush for every single step in your makeup routine. At the end of the day, technique is more important -- experimenting and practicing your makeup skills is a valuable way to see just how far even the most minimal set of brushes can take you. 

Follow Samantha on Instagram. If you have any crease brush recommendations, let’s chat in the DMs!

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