The Only Makeup Brushes You *Really* Need and Exactly How to Use Them


There are two types of people, IMO: Those who own approximately one billion makeup brushes, aaaand those who apply makeup with their fingers, and, like one brush that lowkey hasn’t been washed in…months. And while neither is wrong (except please clean your makeup brushes!), and you don’t actually need a thousand makeup brushes or blending sponges, I promise you that having a few quality brushes can actually be the key to a flawless makeup application. So which ones are, in fact, the game-changers? That’s where I come in.

Just for you, I put together this handy little guide of all of the ~main~ makeup brushes, what each one does, and why you may or may not need it. And to make it all even easier, I also included makeup tips for each of them too. Follow along so you’re never left wondering the difference between stippling and shading again.

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1. The kabuki brush

    BLK/OPL Kabuki Brush

    blackopalbeauty.com

    $10.00

    Its name might not ring a bell, but if you’ve ever played around with makeup, this classic makeup brush definitely will. Made famous by Kabuki Japanese drama theater, this style of brush is most commonly recognized by its short, chubby handle and very dense, firm, flat or dome-shaped bristles.

    A synthetic kabuki brush can be used to apply liquid foundation or body makeup for a medium-to-full coverage, but the density of the brush makes it perfect for packing on superfine powders or mineral foundation for a fuller-coverage finish.

    How to use a kabuki brush:

    Because these bristles are so dense and firm, you’ll probs find that a slight pressure is necessary for working the product into the skin. Use the tips of the bristles to pick up the product, then swirl and buff to diffuse it across your face.


    2. The stippling brush

    Sigma Beauty F50 Duo Fiber Makeup Brush

    In a lot of ways, the stippling brush is the opposite of the kabuki brush. This type of makeup brush is known for its duo fibers, which means the brush is packed with two different kinds and lengths of bristles to make the brush more compact at the base and finer toward the top.

    When you want a softer foundation application or a more airbrushed effect, stick with the stipple. Because of its lighter finish, these brushes are also ideal for applying tinted moisturizer or sheering out cream blushes and liquid highlighters without messing up the product underneath (you ever blended those on with your fingers, only to be left with patchiness? Exactly).

    How to use a stippling brush:

    Dip the bristles into the liquid makeup, or swipe the bristles into a cream stick or powder, then lightly swirl them into your skin. Remember: Just the tips. If you have a heavy hand or the tendency to jab your brushes into your skin (why do we do this?!), hold the brush by the very end, giving you virtually no control over the brush. Then think gently blending the makeup, not bending the bristles.


    3. The foundation brush

    Marc Jacobs Beauty The Seamless Liquid Foundation Brush No. 4

    While using a brush for your liquid makeup is optional (you can opt for a sponge or your clean fingers instead), you absolutely do need to use some sort of application brush for your mineral makeup or powder foundation. Enter: the foundation brush.

    These kinds of brushes are typically dense and can be pinched flat (like a paintbrush) or are full, rounded, and dome-shaped. While some people prefer synthetic bristles (which are easier to clean) for their liquid formulas, or even natural bristles—which are naturally more porous—for their powders, I’m all about synthetic bristles. Yes, really; the quality has improved vastly over the years and can easily be used for both.

    How to use a foundation brush:

    For a perfectly smooth foundation application, start in the middle of your face (cheeks and T-zone) and apply your foundation outward in smooth, even strokes to prevent harsh makeup lines around the edges of your jawline and hairline. If you’re using a mineral or powder foundation, swirl and buff the bristles to work the product into the skin.


    4. The blending sponge

    beautyblender Original

    amazon.com

    Remember how I said a brush for your liquid base makeup is optional? That’s because many makeup artists and YouTubers opt for sponges to get an airbrushed, streak-free finish. Thanks to their rounded, smooth shape, sponges won’t leave behind any weird lines or stray bristles, and their damp surfaces help sheer out your heavy full-coverage foundation, concealer, or cream blush for a natural finish.

    How to use a blending sponge:

    The trick to using a sponge most effectively is to saturate it with running water, squeeze out the excess, then squeeze it a few more times in a clean towel or paper towel. This wetting process will not only prevent your sponge from soaking up all of your foundation (because it’s already damp with water) but will also help blend your makeup as smoothly as possible. Use the sponge’s broad sides to stamp and stipple your cream formulas across your face and the sponge’s tip to reach crevices around your nose and eyes.


    5. The concealer brush

    Trish McEvoy Precision Concealer Brush #44

    Think of concealer brushes as small-scale foundation brushes. Whether you’re looking to pack on the product under your eyes or cover up a bright-red blemish, these synthetic brushes are ideal for targeting small, specific areas that you want concealed. Sure, you can use the spongey, doe-foot applicator straight from the concealer tube, but a brush like this one is not only more hygienic but also offers a more realistic, even finish.

    How to use a concealer brush:

    Dab the tip of the brush into a tiny amount of concealer, then gently tap or pat the brush on your zits, your under eyes, whatever. After the area has been covered, blend out the edges while being careful not to wipe away the rest of the concealer. Other great uses: sharpening and cleaning up messy eye makeup or feathered lipstick edges.


    6. The powder brush

    Hourglass Veil Powder Brush

    If shiny T-zones or under-eye creases are your main annoyance, allow me to introduce you to your new best friend: setting powder. And, along for the ride, powder brushes. Depending on the area you’re looking to cover, the size of this brush varies from small to large and typically has long, dense, fluffy bristles. It’s meant to ever-so-lightly “set” your liquid/cream foundations or buff and blend out powder foundations, depending on your needs.

    How to use a powder brush:

    Use the fluffy bristles to pick up a fine layer of loose powder (tap—don’t blow—off the excess first) and dust it over your T-zone and under your eyes. Load up the product to “bake” your makeup or use a light dusting to quickly set your foundation or concealer.


    7. The bronzer/blush brush

    Bronzer, blush, and powder brushes are similar enough that one could do the job of many, yes, but who has the time to clean them between each step (and don’t you dare think about using just one brush and not cleaning it). Find a bronzer and/or blush brush with long, fluffy bristles and a dome shape to evenly diffuse your powder pigments. The fluffier it is, the less product it will pick up (which is ideal when you want just a wash of color).

    How to use a bronzer/blush brush:

    When it comes to bronzer and blush, the way you use the brush is almost more important than the brush itself. For bronzer, loosely sweep the brush in a “3” pattern, starting from your forehead, cutting across your cheekbones, then moving back out and down to your jawline. For blush, lightly swirl the product on the apples of your cheeks and blend it up into your cheekbones.


    8. The contour brush

    Morphe M405 Contour Brush

    The contour brush is a hard one to pick out of a crowd simply because it can appear so many different ways. The bristles on some are cut sharp and straight across, while others may take on more of an “S” shape to hug the shape of your cheekbones. The slanted contour brush is the most versatile and makes it easier to contour for your face shape by blending your contour powder cleanly and precisely beneath your cheekbones, jawline, and forehead. Use a brush with blunt bristles and a sharp edge for a sharper sculpt, or use one with a softer slanted shape for a subtle shade.

    How to use a contour brush:

    Swirl the brush into your contour powder, tap off the excess (important), then gently glide the brush back and forth below your cheekbones to emphasize your natural contours. For an even more chiseled look, reload the brush and swirl it under your jawline and along your hairline as well.


    9. The highlighter brush

    Wet n Wild Tapered Highlighting Brush

    The shape of your highlighter brush totally depends on the level of glow you want. Use a long, tapered brush or a fan brush (more on that later) with very long bristles for a more diffused effect, or grab a brush with short, dense bristles to make even a cheap highlighter look super-bright and opaque.

    How to use a highlighter brush:

    Swirl your brush over a powder face highlighter, tap off the excess, then lightly sweep and blend the brush over the tops of your cheekbones, brow bones, Cupid’s bow, and anywhere else the light naturally hits your face. Wanted an even brighter glow? Spritz your brush first with a setting spray to enhance the pigment payoff.


    10. The fan brush

    Sacha Cosmetics Fan Brush

    Finally! A brush with a name that actually makes sense with the shape! The bristles on this brush are fanned out and flat to give it a very distinct silhouette that’s much different from all the others. Imagine if you were to take a powder brush and pinch the bristles at the base to flatten them—that’s a fan brush. These can come in smaller sizes (like an inch across) with sparse bristles or they can expand up to a couple of inches at their widest point and be packed with dense brush hairs.

    How to use a fan brush:

    With a side-to-side motion (like a windshield wiper), use the bristles of a large or medium fan brush to sweep away fallout or excess setting powder under your eyes or apply highlighter along your cheekbones. And if you’re using a smaller brush, you can even use it to apply mascara for a clump-free finish. Rub the fan brush against the wand of your go-to mascara, then press the pigment against the roots to load up the base and run it through the length of your lashes.


    11. The eyeshadow shader brush

    Okay, despite the extra-sounding name, an eyeshadow shading brush is actually key for getting an opaque, even layer of color on your lids. These brushes are typically flat, rounded at the tip, and dense so they can pick up a bunch of powder or cream for a concentrated color payoff.

    How to use an eyeshadow shader brush:

    After rubbing the brush over the product, pat or press the eyeshadow onto your eyelids, gently swirling the brush around the edges to blend them out. You can also mist your brush with a setting spray first to deepen the opacity of a powder pigment or to better pick up glittery eyeshadow.


    12. The eyeshadow blending brush

    Make Up For Ever 242 Large Blender Brush

    Unlike a shader brush, which essentially packs on the pigments to get your lids a ton of color, an eyeshadow blending brush, well, blends out the powders for a really sheer, diffused finish—basically the smoke behind a smokey eye or the trick to a natural-looking shadow. These brushes are known for their tapered shape and soft, fluffy bristles to help you really blend, blend, and blend without scratching the hell out of your lids.

    How to use an eyeshadow blending brush:

    Swipe the fluffy bristles into the crease of your lids with a windshield-wiper motion to apply your eyeshadow for a diffused look, and swirl it around the edges of your eyes when transitioning between colors or blending multiple shades on top of one another.


    13. The pencil brush

    MAC 219S Synthetic Pencil Brush

    A pencil brush kind of does it all: smudges out your eyeliner, pushes eyeshadow straight into your lash line, helps you precisely blend beneath your lashes, etc. When the other brushes are too big or too fluffy, grab this stiff, dense, tapered brush—especially if you plan to do a smokey eye or any hazy, blended-out shadow.

    How to use a pencil brush:

    After you’ve applied your eyeliner, use the pointed tip of the brush to gently smudge it out. Or skip eyeliner and use the tip to smoke out your eyeshadow underneath your bottom lashes. You can also pinpoint smaller areas around the eye, such as the inner and outer corners, when applying intense pigment.


    14. The smudge brush

    Marc Jacobs Beauty The Smudge Brush Synthetic

    The short, super-dense, packed bristles make this brush ideal for packing on the pigment exactly where you want it, then smudging it out. Because the bristles are wider and flatter than the precision pencil brush, this smudging brush is better for using along the upper and lower lash lines.

    How to use a smudge brush:

    Dip the brush straight into the eyeshadow and run it along your lash line for a thick, smokey line, or use it to diffuse and set your eyeliner. Here’s what I mean: Apply your kohl or pencil liner, then use the brush to blend the edge of the eyeliner outward. Then, use the same brush to go back over the eyeliner with a similar eyeshadow shade. This will not only set the color underneath but also layer textures to create depth so your smokey eye doesn’t look one-dimensional.


    15. The eyeliner brush

    NARS #47 Angled Eyeliner Brush

    An eyeliner brush is another one of those tools that can look a million different ways, but no matter the shape of the handle or the bristles, it’s always going to be one of your smallest (if not your smallest) brushes. Some have tapered and pointed tips, some have flattened and straight or slanted bristles (like the one shown here), and on some eyeliner brushes, the stem is bent at a 45-degree angle to make it a little easier to get into tight spaces.

    How to use an eyeliner brush

    Whether you use gel eyeliner or prefer a more diffused outline with your powder eyeshadow, you’ll find an eyeliner brush v helpful for getting the product flush against your lashes. Dip the bristles into the product, then use it to apply your eyeliner like you would a regular pencil or liquid eyeliner.


    16. The eyebrow brush

    Anastasia Beverly Hills Brush 12 Dual-Ended Firm Angled Brush

    You’ve definitely seen—and probably even brushed—your brows with a spoolie or comb before, but a dual-ended eyebrow brush like this one also has flat, blunt, and angled bristles to help you draw individual brow hairs using brow gel or powder.

    How to use an eyebrow brush:

    Use the spoolie side first to shape your brows, then flip it over to the firm, slanted bristles on this small eyebrow brush to fill in sparse brows with eyebrow powder. If you’ve filled them in with too much product, you can also use the spoolie brush to comb through your brows afterward and remove some of the makeup to soften them. Alternate use: combing, taming, and de-clumping your lashes—just make sure the spoolie is clean first.


    17. The lip brush

    Easily confused for a concealer brush, the lip brush has the same flattened, curved shape but is usually smaller so that it can fit in the cupid’s bow and define the lips. Most of the time it also comes with a cap so that you can stick it in your handbag for touch-ups. You might think lip brushes are only for professional makeup artists, but if you line your lips, you’ll find a lip brush to be really helpful for diffusing harsh lines from your lip liner and blending it into your lipstick.

    How to use a lip brush:

    Trace your lips with lip liner, then run the bristles of the lip brush along the inside edge of the line to soften it. If you’re using your own products, you can swipe the brush right on the lipstick to pick up the product for a more precise application. And if you want to create your own custom lip shade, mix together multiple lip colors with your brush, then use it to apply the product.

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