There’s this funny thing that happens when you start a new habit or activity — you get a little ways into the activity and then all of a sudden you get the impression that you’re also supposed to go out and buy a ton of activity-related accessories and paraphernalia and doodads… at which point carrying on starts to seem frustrating and fussy, especially if you’re not really confident about how to use the doodads in question.
If you’re just starting to explore makeup, or deciding to be a little more adventurous or explore more products, one of these daunting doodad categories is brushes. So let’s get this one out of the way right now:
Q. Do I really need all those fancy brushes?
A. No. No, you do not.
If you’re just starting out with makeup, there are only three brushes I think you need to own:
1. Blush/powder brush
2. Concealer brush
3. Eyeshadow brush
If I could throw a fourth in there, I’d say a brow/lash brush, because I think brows should be groomed even if you’re not applying any product to them. But really, I’m good with the first three. Here’s why:
Any tinted moisturizer or cream, stick, or liquid foundation can be applied and blended with the fingers. (Could you use a brush, or a sponge? Sure. Is it absolutely necessary? Nope.) Same goes for cream blushes.
If you have a powder foundation or a powder blush, then you’ll need a brush. It is perfectly OK to use the same brush for these when you’re starting out. Powder mineral foundations work best with kabuki brushes, so if you plan to use a mineral foundation, get one of these; with a light touch you can use this for blush as well. If you’re not going to get a mineral foundation, a puffy powder brush is fine, and is easier to adapt to both foundation and blush. If you buy drugstore makeup (which I am not dissing, as there are many good brands), chances are that the brush that comes in the makeup compact is not worth the cost of the plastic used to make it. Unless you are Bobbi Brown, you cannot apply blush in a subtle and sophisticated manner with a two-inch brush with a head that would be better suited to applying war paint.
There are good concealers out there in all shapes and forms: liquids, powders, sticks, creams. While you will use your fingers a lot of the time to blend a liquid, stick, or cream concealer into your skin, a brush is really useful for precise placement. This is particularly true if you’re using concealer over blemishes or in the eye area, because often your fingers are too big and round to put the product where you want it and nowhere else. A concealer brush will have a flat head (not poofy like a powder brush) and the bristles will be trimmed into a round or elliptical shape. Think of the end of a popsicle stick; that’s the shape you want for an all-purpose concealer brush.
Those spongy applicators that come with eyeshadow palettes are the little evil cousins of the compact blush brushes. They are not doing you any favors. If you are only going to get one eyeshadow brush, I highly recommend a slanted crease eyeshadow brush, because it’s easier to make this brush also double as a lid or highlight shadow brush than it is to get one of those brushes to double as a crease eyeshadow brush.
Most people who are starting out with makeup routines will probably be using pressed eyeshadow rather than loose mineral eyeshadow (it’s just easier). If you do find yourself wanting to try a loose mineral eyeshadow, you are likely to find that a brush made for those products works a little better.
How to Use
A common misconception that people have about brushes (not unreasonably) is that they are meant to place product on top of the skin. For most cream and liquid products, and for some powders like eyeshadows and mineral makeup, they are instead meant to press or work the product into the skin. This will be true of liquid and cream concealers — except when you are trying to cover up a blemish, in which case you want to get the product on the skin with the minimum amount of poking around at it — and if you decide to try a brush or sponge for liquid or cream foundation it will be true of that as well. Try a stippling or dotting motion rather than a gliding motion to apply and blend these products. Mineral powders are best when pressed gently into the skin using a buffing motion.
Care and Feeding
OK, no feeding required. But brushes do have to be washed regularly. Once a week is great for starting out, but you can probably get away with 2-3 times a month. You can buy special brush cleaners, but you don’t need to; your facial cleanser will work just fine. I usually put a squirt of facial cleanser into a drinking glass, add about 3/4″ of warm water (not more!), swish it around, and throw in two or three drops of tea tree oil, which is a natural antibacterial agent and which helps dissolve gunk on the brushes. I put all the brushes in to soak for about 5 minutes; keeping the water level in the glass low helps minimize the amount of water that gets into the metal ferrule. Over time, too much water in the ferrule can dissolve the glue that holds the bristles in the brush, so you want to minimize this.
After the brushes have soaked for just a few minutes, swirl each around in your palm with a little bit of cleanser. Swish until no more color comes out. Rinse well, pat dry with a towel, and lay them down to dry with the brush head over the edge of the sink or counter. If possible, position them so that the brush head tilts down; again, this helps get water out of the ferrule. An easy way to do this is to put a piece of non-slip drawer liner over an empty three-ring binder and lay the brushes on the sloped surface with the brush heads hanging over the edge. Let them dry overnight.
There is no need to spend a ton of money on brushes, particularly when you’re starting out. I recommend the following:
Ecotools makes really excellent brushes for next-to-nothing. They’re available at many stores, including Target and ULTA, and on drugstore.com. They offer both individual brushes and inexpensive brush sets; selection will vary depending on where you’re shopping. A good starter package is the Ecotools 5-piece brush set (which is really four brushes plus the bag, but whatever): $10.99. This contains a fluffy brush that can be used for powder foundation or blush, a concealer brush, a mineral eyeshadow brush (which could also be used to apply regular eyeshadow), and a small kabuki brush. I’m not really wild about the small kabuki brush (it’s too loose), but all the other brushes are excellent. The powder brush and a “deluxe” version of the concealer brush (I’m not sure what the difference is except that the handle is longer) are also sold separately for $8.99 and $3.99 respectively.
For a better kabuki, try the Ecotools Retractable Kabuki ($8.99). Not only is it firmer to start out with, but if you want it to be a little firmer still, you can retract the brush a tiny bit back into the holder and it will compact the fibers a little bit more. Also, it’s travel-friendly.
On the slanted crease eyeshadow front, I use a Sephora Professionel brush that appears to no longer be available; this brush from Avon’s Mark line looks like a comparable product, and will only set you back $7.00. A lot of the crease brushes made today are smaller and thinner than I would recommend for a beginner; a brush that’s closer to 1/2″ than 1/4″ wide is easier to get started with.
Beyond the Basics
There are tons of other brushes available, and they’re each designed to do specific things. As you become more comfortable using these basics, you might want to try out some of these other brushes. I’d say the next set of brushes to explore would include the following: brow brush, eyeliner brush (or small tapered eyeshadow brush; either can be used for applying gel eyeliners), lip brush, contour blush brush, non-tapered eyeshadow brush for color application and blending.
Provenance: I do not own the Avon eyeshadow brush; all other brushes were purchased.