Makeup brush 101: How to pick the right ones for you

From foundation and concealer to bronzer and eyeshadow, we’ve got you covered

Beauty Crew Editor / May 25 2017

Makeup brushes. The beauty kit essentials every girl owns, and yet they still manage to confuse the sanity out of even the most beauty addicted of us. 

And it’s not hard to see why. There are so many makeup brush options for every category, so how do you know what to use to nail that flawless makeup finish? How do you pick your flat foundation brush from your buffing brush? What’s the secret tool for mastering that perfect smoky eye? Which brush will help you finally ace that contour

Well, stress no more – we’ve got you covered. 

Beauty Crew spoke to makeup brush whizz Zoe Boikou (yep, she of cult makeup brush brand ZOEVA), and with our powers combined we have come up with a handy little guide on how to pick the right makeup brush for the product you’re using and the finish you’re after. 

Consider the need for Instagram filters a thing of the past.

TOP TIP: If you’re applying liquid or cream formulations, look for makeup brushes with synthetic bristles, and if you’re using powders, opt for natural bristles.

If you want to apply foundation

A makeup brush may helpfully be called something like ‘foundation brush’, but the truth is, you can use a different kind of brush if the classic flat style doesn’t suit the finish you’re after. 

“It depends on the formula you’re using and the coverage you want. It’s not always about the shape [of the brush], it’s more about the density of the brush,” says Boikou. 

So if you’re looking for a lighter, more sheer finish, look for a brush that has looser bristles – you could even use a powder brush if you wanted. The Yves Saint Laurent Pinceau Polisher Brush, which is a stippling brush, can be used to gently buff liquid foundation in for a naturally sheer finish. 

If you want higher coverage that looks almost airbrushed, look for a densely packed brush, like Rae Morris Brush 23: Liquid Foundation that can help effortlessly build coverage while buffing your foundation in. 

But what about the classic flat foundation brush? Well, something like Artiste Foundation Brush can actually help you achieve both a sheer and high coverage finish depending on how you use it. Gently sweep liquid foundation for a sheer finish, or use the flat side to almost pat your base in. Finish with a light buffing motion with a stippling or loose powder brush to blend away any telltale brush strokes.

Yves Saint Laurent Pinceau Polisher Brush

Rae Morris Brush 23: Liquid Foundation

Artiste Foundation Brush

If you want to apply concealer

While most would use their ring finger to apply concealer under their eyes, some do prefer to use a makeup brush. So which one do you choose?

Well, because the area under and around your eyes is quite small, you’ll need a brush that follows suit. 

As concealers are typically liquid formulations, it’s best to use a makeup brush made from synthetic fibres with a medium level of density – you want substantial coverage, but you still want to be able to seamlessly blend in the formula. 

We like the Estée Lauder Concealer Brush for its small, tapered design and INIKA Vegan Concealer Brush for its slightly pointed tip that can help conceal with precision. Nude by Nature Concealer Brush is also a great option for both application and seamless blendability.

Estée Lauder Concealer Brush

INIKA Vegan Concealer Brush

Nude by Nature Concealer Brush

If you want to apply bronzer or blush

When it comes to a makeup brush that helps apply a soft wash of blush or bronzer (we’re not talking contouring…yet), you’ll want to look for a soft, loose makeup brush that can add a rosy or sun-kissed glow to your complexion gradually. 

For adding warmth and subtle definition from temple to nose and along your cheekbones, use an angled brush. 

“We have the ZOEVA 127 [Luxe Sheer Cheek] makeup brush, which is a popular blush brush that you can also use for your bronzer,” says Boikou. 

If you’re looking for more of a whole face application with your bronzer, Boikou recommends using a fluffier powder brush,. The loosely packed bristles of like Yves Saint Laurent Pinceau Poudre Brush can help give your complexion an all-over bronze that doesn’t look like you’ve gone overboard. 

To make more of an impact with your bronzer, pick something a little bit more tightly packed to deposit more colour. A classic kabuki brush, like the Hourglass Retractable Kabuki Travel Brush is perfect for this kind of result.

ZOEVA 127 Luxe Sheer Cheek

Yves Saint Laurent Pinceau Poudre Brush

Hourglass Retractable Kabuki Travel Brush

“In the end, you want your makeup to be flawless, and to achieve that in a quick time you need good brushes.”
Zoe Boikou

If you want to apply contour

While you can add a subtle contour to your face with bronzer, if you want to take your contouring skills to the next level, it’s important to know what kind of makeup brush to use. 

In a nutshell, the denser the brush, the harsher the contour. So if you want to apply your contouring product for a soft finish, you can use the top of a soft angled powder brush like Marc Jacobs Beauty The Blush Angled Blush Brush, but if you’re looking to up the ante on your angles, try the ZOEVA 109 Luxe Face Paint Brush. According to Boikou, “It’s one of our best sellers when it comes to contouring.” 

It’s also a good idea to keep in mind that the more definition you want, the more definition you should look for in your makeup brush. The Nude by Nature Pointed Precision Brush combines density with definition, giving pro and novice contourers alike all the control they need to carve some fierce angles.

Marc Jacobs Beauty The Blush Angled Blush Brush

ZOEVA 109 Luxe Face Paint Brush

Nude by Nature Pointed Precision Brush

If you want to apply highlighter

While adding shadows and contour is all about dense makeup brushes, adding a natural highlight to the highpoints of your face is the complete opposite. 

Loosely packed powder brushes, especially with a dome shape like the ZOEVA 105 Luxe Highlight Brush, are great for highlighting. “You can pick up a small amount of product, and you can work with the tip. You don’t want to overdo with your highlight, because then you have to redo your makeup, so you can build up with the tip, and then you can smudge the edges,” says Boikou. 

Another good option for applying highlighter is using a fan brush, like Laura Mercier Fan Brush. According to Baikou, “They are popular for applying highlighter on the cheekbone and the nose, and it’s popular for strobing,” due to the shape and looseness of the bristles. 

For a highlight that’s a bit more intense, you can try a denser makeup brush. We like the Sigma F56 Accentuate Highlighter™ Brush for its unique curved shape that hugs the cheekbones as you apply your cream, liquid, or highlighting product.

ZOEVA 105 Luxe Highlight

Laura Mercier Fan Brush

Sigma F56 Accentuate Highlighter™ Brush

If you want to apply eyeshadow

When it comes to makeup brushes for eyeshadow, it’s important to know what you want to achieve. 

If you just want to apply a soft wash of colour across your lid, it’s a good idea to invest in a medium density eyeshadow brush. This makeup brush needs to be able to deposit enough pigment, but also be flexible enough to blend across your lid. We like Real Techniques Bold Metals 200 Oval Shadow Brush for this. 

When it comes to building depth, there are a few other makeup brushes to have in your kit. First, you’ll want an eyeshadow brush that’s a bit smaller and densely packed, like the 16 Brand Smudge Brush. This will help you deposit colour to your outer corner and along the lash line. Then, to add a darker colour along your crease, something like Marc Jacobs Eyeshadow Crease Brush is a must-have. “With a more pointed end, you can precisely place a colour in the socket to define,” says Boikou. 

And then of course, every eye kit needs a makeup brush that’ll blend all the colours together seamlessly. 

“If you want to have a very well-blended eye, you want to make sure you use a brush that is dense but also fluffy at the same time, so you can go in with circular motions and blend it fast and easily,” says Boikou. Lancôme Eye Blending Brush #17 will work a treat to seamlessly blend together your lid, crease, and outer corner shades for a sultry smoky effect.

Real Techniques Bold Metals 200 Oval Shadow Brush

16 Brand Smudge Brush

Lancôme Eye Blending Brush #17

The beauty (no pun intended) of makeup brushes is that you can use them for whatever you want, as long as you keep in mind the following: the denser the bristles of your makeup brush, the higher the coverage; the looser they are, the sheerer the finish. When it comes to bristle type, synthetic will give a better result for creams and liquids, and natural hairs work best with powder. And, of course, keep in mind the area you’re applying makeup to, and use a brush size that works best. For example, you wouldn’t use a small eyeshadow brush to apply your foundation, just like you wouldn’t use a kabuki brush to apply eyeshadow to your lash line. 

Once you’ve stocked up on your makeup brushes, make sure you take the time to read why it’s absolutely important to wash them regularly.

Main image photography by: Edward Urrutia

Carli was BEAUTYcrew’s Editor from launch in 2016 until May 2020. You can find her words right here on BEAUTYcrew, and previously on beautyheaven.