Makeup Brush Guide: A Primer + My Favorites

In the spirit of embracing makeup lovers of all levels of expertise, here are some of my favorite brushes at every price point. These are my most-used brushes, organized by category and price point, low to high. I also use all of these brushes regularly in my Get Ready With Me content on Instagram, so definitely check out my stories highlights so you can see the brushes in action.


If you’re not into individual brush reviews and just want some brand recommendations, I love: Real Techniques, EcoTools, Esum Cosmetics, Rephr, Sonia G., Hakuhodo, and pretty much any Japanese fude brush.


My Preferences + Purchasing Tips


When I first got into makeup many years ago, I pretty much only purchased lower end products and was very happy with how they worked. As my familiarity with makeup grew, so did my affinity and appreciation for quality brushes. If you’re a makeup beginner, I would actually advise against purchasing lots of high-end brushes. Just pick a few basics and build from there.

Now, I use a mix of low-end, mid range, and luxury brushes. I do believe that the tools make a huge difference in the way makeup looks. A high-quality brush will give you ease of application and an elegant finish. If you’re a painter, or any sort of visual artist, you’ll understand how quality tools make a huge difference both in the creative process and in the finished work.

I will admit: I have a weakness for luxury craftsmanship. I generally prefer natural-bristle, Japanese Kumanofude (commonly referred to as fude) brushes, which are handmade by artisans in Kumano, Japan. It is a craft that is centuries old. The fibers of each fude brush is wrapped by hand. Fude brushes utilize natural bristles, which are animal fibers. These fibers are never cut at the end, which lends them their super soft quality. If you have sensitive skin that is irritated by synthetic brushes, natural-bristle brushes may be your answer. No animals are killed in the production of fude brushes, which are made in small batches and locally sourced. Many fude brush brands thus classify themselves as cruelty-free. I share this info with you so you can make your own informed purchasing decisions.


Lately, I am investing more in quality fude brushes—researching each brush, deeply considering my purchases rather than running through lots of cheap but mediocre brushes. Of course, I don’t think every single person needs an entire fude collection. Some brushes make a bigger impact than others and are worth the investment. And for other steps in my makeup application, my drugstore brushes get the job done really well.

Anatomy of a Brush


Source: surrencysstudios.com


Bristle Types:

Natural - animal fiber

Synthetic - manmade fiber


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Brushes for...


Foundation

Concealer

Setting Powder & Finishing Powder

Powder Cheek Products

Cream Cheek Products

Eyeshadow

Eyeliner

Lips


Each category is organized from low to high price point. I've also categorized brushes by the purposes for which I use them.

* indicates products received as PR samples from the brand.

Foundation


Because all of my favorite foundations are fluid formulas (Dior Backstage in 2WO and Pat McGrath in LM 10 [winter] or LM14 [summer]. I enjoy using dense foundation brushes. While I love the finish of a beauty sponge, a sponge typically absorbs these formulas right up. So, I like to apply a light, thin layer of those formulas with a brush. If I’m feeling extra, I’ll lightly tap over with a slightly damp sponge to even out the application.


Top: Rephr 17, Bottom: Hakuhodo G5552


Sephora #56 ($30, synthetic) — The Sephora Collection Pro brushes are excellent synthetic brushes. They’re very well-made, and their quality and durability are reflected in the price point. A lot of pro make-up artists use this line. The Pro 56 brush is a rather small foundation brush with a small pinched ferrule and rounded top. I love this for working foundation onto small sections of the face, and also for cream blush, which I’ll describe later in this post. While many people enjoy large foundation brushes for quick application, I actually prefer a small brush so I can work product into my skin section by section.


Rephr 17 ($47, natural bristle)— Rephr is a relatively new brand that sources fude natural bristle brushes from Japan. They offer frequent sales and bundles that make their brushes affordable relative to the rest of the fude market. The 17 brush is their foundation brush. I love how dense yet soft this brush is. It gives you a bit of flexibility against the skin, but it keeps its shape. Because it is so dense and the hairs are so soft, this brush rarely leaves me with streak marks. I love the small ferrule of this brush, which means I can work on small sections of the face.


Hakuhodo Duo-Fiber G5552 - 4mm ($47, natural/synthetic blend) — This is a round, angled brush that is a mix of goat hair and synthetic fibers. It’s also a small ferrule, though slightly larger than the Rephr 17. This had a bit of a learning curve for me because duo-fiber brushes require a slightly lighter touchl. That said, they are excellent for the application of foundation and other cream and liquid products. I find that small stippling motions work best with this brushes, or very light strokes. When applied properly, it gives me a really lovely finish.

Concealer


Real Techniques Expert Concealer Brush ($6.99, synthetic) — I like this brush specifically for applying under-eye concealer or for my Becca Under Eye Color Corrector (I use medium/deep for the warm undertones). I like to apply both products onto the areas where needed, around the hollows of my eyes or on hyperpigmentation, then lightly tap to blend with fingers. Nothing beats the heat of a finger for blending in thicker cream formulas. I love the size of this brush for dipping into small cream pots.


Esum V09 Liner Diffuser Brush ($18, synthetic)* — A very small, scalloped brush. This is technically designed for eyeliner, inner corner highlighting, and other detail work, but I love this specifically for pinpoint concealing. I dip into my Nars Soft Matte Concealer (in Custard or Macadamia, depending on the season), and I lightly apply to hyperpigmentation spots only. It’s perfect for precision application. I then tap over it with my finger to melt the product into my skin. The surface area of this brush is so small that I’m able to cover up pigmentation spots and not add any additional product where it’s unnecessary.

Setting Powder & Finishing Powder


L-R: Hakuhodo J206, EcoTools Full Powder Brush, Wayne Goss Air Brush


EcoTools Full Powder Brush ($8.99, synthetic)* — This is a very full, large brush, the best large powder brush at this price point, in my opinion. It’s very soft and fluffy. This brush works well for powder, but I also love it for very diffused, sheer bronzer application. This is an excellent dupe for the popular It Cosmetics #8 Heavenly Luxe Wand Ball Powder Brush. I really enjoy that brush and find it to be slightly softer, but it’s a bit pricey for a synthetic brush. This EcoTools one is very similar.


Wayne Goss Air Brush ($35, natural) — I can’t be without this brush. I use it every time I do my makeup. Composed of blue squirrel bristles, it is probably the softest brush in my collection, which is why it’s perfect for applying setting powder around my sensitive eye area. It’s also the perfect size for under eye powder or precision setting. It picks up a light amount of product and never over-applies. I can always count on this to give a smoothing application. It’s also a delight for highlighter.


Hakuhodo J206 ($69, natural and synthetic) — What an absolute dream. I love this brush for applying a very sheer, light layer of setting powder over larger planes of the face. I know that I will never over-apply with this brush. I also love this for lightly fluffing finishing powder all over the face at the end of my makeup application to blend together bronzer, blush, and highlighter. Lastly, it’s fantastic if you want a very light touch of bronzer over large planes of the face. It just feels so nice on the face. Such a pleasure to use.


Sonia G. Smooth Buffer ($70, natural bristle) — This brush is designed specifically for buffing powders into the skin without disturbing your base makeup. Certain powder products work best when they are buffed into the skin, meaning blended in small circular motions repeatedly. This enhances a really skin-like finish. I love the size of this brush for buffing product in, especially finishing powder, like the Armani Neo-Nude Powder. It has a small ferrule, so it’s very versatile and works for detail work as well as larger surface areas of the face.

Powder Cheek Products


This is a category of makeup in which I see the most impact from natural bristle brushes. Japanese fude brushes truly shine when paired with powder cheek products, especially beautiful, finely milled, soft powders. If you want to invest in a nice brush, I’d start with some of these.


L-R: Sonia G. Smooth Buffer, Rephr 18, Rephr 05, Rephr 04, EcoTools Define, Hakuhodo B110, Esum V50


Real Techniques Setting Brush ($7.99, synthetic) — This is probably my favorite drugstore/affordable brush. I love it for highlighter, specifically. The small brush head and fluffy, long bristles make it perfect for picking up light amounts of product and buffing them into the skin. The more buffing, the shinier and smoother your highlighter looks. It’s also very effective for powder contour because of its small size and fluffy airiness. It’s also great for setting powder, but at this point in my collection it’s been relegated to highlighter for me.


EcoTools Define Brush (part of the Define and Highlight Duo Set, ($10.99, synthetic)* — This brush is part of a duo and it’s designed for contour specifically, but I actually love it for blush application. It’s a tapered rounded brush that is smaller than a traditional blush brush, but I find that the small shape gives me control over my blush application so I don’t apply too much at once.

Real Techniques Blush Brush ($9.99, synthetic) — This is a large, fluffy brush that is designed for blush. I actually prefer for bronzer application. It is very plush and has a lot of give, so it creates a very diffused, blended look. I’ve had mine for 7 or 8 years and it’s just as good as when I first purchased it. These brushes are very durable.


Rephr 18 ($35, natural bristle) — This is a smaller, tapered cheek brush that is excellent for contour and highlighter. The longer bristles have a medium density and give, which make it very easy to lay down color then blend out the edges of your contour and highlighter. Personally, I rarely wear powder highlighter and I find this applies highlighter pretty generously, so I use this mostly for contour.

Rephr 04 ($39, natural) — Rephr calls this the brush to have “if you could only have one cheek brush,” and I have to agree. It’s a super soft, lovely rounded brush with a pinched ferrule. I love this for bronzer and blush application. You could also use it for setting powder. Lately, I love it especially for bronzer. It has “bloomed,” as natural bristle brushes do, with time, which creates a very soft, diffused blend.

Rephr 05 ($39, natural) — This is a slightly denser angled brush. While it is still soft and fluffy enough to give a diffused blend, the angled edge of the brush hugs the cheekbone in a way helps you apply contour with ease. Because the head of the brush is relatively small, you can apply with precision without over-applying. I also like this for more precise bronzer application in the summer when I’m into heavier bronzer looks. You could also use this for concentrated blush application.

Esum G53 Medium Dome Blush Brush ($48, natural)* — This is the kind of brush I would have created for myself. It’s a small ferrule with very fluffy, lightly packed, longer bristles. The longer bristles give this lots of flexibility against the skin, making it deal for really fluffing on light washes of color on the cheeks, and buffing to diffuse color with ease. It’s perfect for very pigmented blushes for that reason. Because it’s a slightly smaller ferrule/head, you still have control over where you are placing the color; you won’t ever over-apply. The only thing that keeps this brush from being perfect is that it sheds. It’s not a huge deal to me, but it does make me wonder about the lifespan of this brush.


Hakuhodo B110 ($54, natural and synthetic) — This is a smaller version of the B206, the perfect size for blush and bronzer application. It buffs and blends powder cheek products so well. Even the most pigmented blushes are no match for this brush; it creates a perfect, soft flush every time. It’s slightly smaller than the Rephr 5, so lately I like the Rephr 5 for bronzer and the Hakuhodo B110 for blush.

Esum X57 Large Dome Diffuser Brush ($75, natural)* — This is a kabuki-style domed brush that I really enjoy for bronzer application if I want a broadly diffused bronzer look and I want to make quick work of it. I take a couple of light dips into the bronzer and buff in circular motions around the edges of my face. Due to the dense, large dome of the brush, it’s blended out in a matter of seconds. It is also designed for the application of loose mineral powders, so if you are a mineral foundation person, this is a beautiful option.

Cream Cheek Products


Sephora Collection Pro Foundation Brush #55 ($30, synthetic) — #55 is technically a foundation brush, but I’ve only ever used it for cream cheek products. It has a small, rounded dome of medium density. It has enough flexibility to blend out product, but also enough tension to blend out cream bronzer or blush. I use it with my Fenty cream bronzer all the time.


Sephora Collection Pro Foundation Brush #56 ($30, synthetic) — This is also called a foundation brush, and it works very well for that, but I also love it for cream cheek product application, blush especially. It’s densely packed with medium length, soft fibers. It has a dome shape and a small ferrule that makes it perfect for blending out all cream products. It has a more pinched ferrule than #55, and it’s slightly smaller, which is why I like it for more focused cream blush application.

Esum Cosmetics V50 Angle Blush Brush ($36, synthetic)* — The V-Series is Esum Cosmetics’ vegan line, meaning all synthetic. They are some of the softest synthetic brushes that I’ve tried. The V50 brush is an angled, scalloped-shaped brush that I actually love for applying cream bronzer and contour. It’s the perfect size to tuck under the cheekbone and around the forehead. Blending is quick work with this one. It creates a very diffused, seamless application.

Eyeshadow

L-R: Esum V34, Esum V33, Esum V27, Esum W23, Rephr 01, Sonia G. Jumbo Blender, Sonia G. Classic Crease, Sonia G. Mini Booster, Sonia G. Flat Definer, Real Techniques Essential Crease, Real Techniques Shading Brush


Real Techniques Essential Crease Brush (Part of the Everyday Eye Essentials Kit, $20, synthetic) — One of my all-time favorite eye brushes. To this day, I have not found a dupe for this brush; I’d love to find a natural bristle version. It’s a small, tapered crease brush, just slightly bigger than the Sonia G. Mini Booster but a little fluffier. Also great for small, hooded, or deep-set eyes. It’s good for blending in small areas of the eye as well as blending out any harsh edges. Works with both powder and cream eyeshadows.

Real Techniques Shading Brush (Part of the Everyday Eye Esssentials Kit, $20, synthetic) — A small, pinched shader brush with rounded edges that works for both cream and powder. I think this actually shines as a cream eyeshadow brush. It works well for laying down color but also for blending out and diffusing any harsh edges.

Sonia G. Flat Definer ($23, natural) — Part of the Sky Eye set, also sold separately. A smaller shader brush. The shape of these brushes is where Sonia G. really shines. Sonia works with fude brush artisans in Japan to design and distribute brushes. The flat definer works as a shader, a smudger, and a precision pencil all in one. It’s a small eye brush, so it’s excellent for detail work.


Rephr 01 ($24, natural) — This is my “if I could only have one” eyeshadow brush. I could do my whole eye look with this. It’s a pinched shader brush, so it’s flat on one side but the edges are fluffy enough to diffuse and blend color beautifully. It works well with both powder and cream eyeshadows.


Rephr 02 ($24, natural)— This is a small, very densely packed shader brush. It is pretty firm, so it works well for laying down color and building up layers of pigmentation. I also use this to apply inner corner highlighter to the eye because the firmness helps buff in metallic shades.


Rephr 14 ($24, natural) — This is a small crease brush with slightly longer bristles. It’s fantastic for small, hooded, or deep-set eyes. It’s very soft and fluffy so I especially love this for blending out and diffusing a light wash of eyeshadow under the eyes, where my skin is especially sensitive.


Sonia G. Mini Booster ($26, natural) — Part of the Sky Eye set, also sold separately. Fantastic for small, hooded, or deep-set eyes,. It has all the qualities of a high quality crease brush, but a smaller ferrule. It’s the mini version of the Sonia G. Blender Pro. It’s tightly bundled to allow for controlled blending in very small parts of the eye.


Esum V33 Medium Domed Eye Contour Brush ($32, synthetic)* — This is the slightly smaller version of the V34, a domed eye brush. It has a smaller ferrule and has slightly shorter bristles, but still relatively long enough to allow some give and flexibility while using the brush. I love this for building up depth in the outer corner of the eye. It’s also great for cream eyeshadow application.


Esum V34 Large Domed Eye Contour Brush ($34, synthetic)* — This is probably the softest synthetic eyeshadow blending brush I’ve ever used. This is the closest to a natural bristle brush I’ve ever seen among synthetics, in terms of softness and therefore blendability. This is a large domed eyeshadow blending brush, ideal for blending out the crease or transition area. Its large size makes quick work of blending. I also love the longer bristles on this; it allows some give and bend that makes blending a breeze. Because this is synthetic, it’s also appropriate for cream eyeshadows.


Esum W23 Medium Filbert Shader Brush ($36, natural)* — This brush gives impact. Probably the most effective shader brush I’ve ever used in terms of laying down dense pigment very quickly and effectively. I can do a faux cut-crease with this easily because of how richly and cleanly it lays down color. I’d love to get the smaller version of this brush too.

Esum W36 Small Round-Angle Eye Contour Brush ($32, natural)* — One of the most unique brushes in my collection, this is small, airy, fluffy blending brush with an angled tip. This is wonderful for deepening the outer corner with ease. With a little flick of the brush, you can apply a shadow and blend it out all in one motion. Because it’s so fluffy, it’s great for diffusing deep shadow colors evenly.


Sonia G. Classic Crease ($34, natural) — Part of the Sky Eye set, also sold separately. As classic as an eyeshadow brush gets, this is a medium eyeshadow blending brush with a rounded top. It works well for all-over application or for transitions and blending. It’s a very full brush but still has a bit of give and fluffiness, great for controlled blending.


Sonia B. Jumbo Blender ($38, natural) — Part of the Sky Eye set, also sold separately. This is a large, very soft blending brush that is great for even, diffused application of eyeshadow. It has an ever so slightly pinched ferrule and a slightly rounded top. A great “fixer” for if you’re ever struggling with harsh edges or oversaturated eyeshadow.


Eyeliner


Ecotools Angled Brush (part of the Eye Enhancing Duo Set, $6.99, synthetic)* — This is a firm angled brush that I use to create smoky eyeliner. I’m able to add shadow to the lash line, or slightly wing out at the outer corner for a little lift.


Real Techniques Fine Liner Brush (part of the Everyday Eye Essentials Kit, $19.99, synthetic) — This is a great liner brush for gel eyeliner. I don’t use gel liner often, but when I do this gives me a sharp, precise, clean line.

Lips

EcoTools Detail Concealer (part of the Detail Concealer Set, $5.99, synthetic)* — This is a small, flat brush with a rounded edge. It’s designed for concealer work, but the clean edges make this great for precision lip application.

Hakuhodo B516 ($32, synthetic) — This is also a small, flat brush with a rounded edge. It’s great for detail concealer work, but I especially love the shape of this for precision lip application. This gives me a lot of control, so I can achieve crisp lip lines and a defined cupid’s bow.


*indicates products received as PR samples from the brand.