MAKEUP BRUSHES and BRISTLES – Finally Explained

Written by by Amanda Azar

Just as muralists wouldn’t use spotter brushes to create new works of art, skilled makeup artists know which brushes to use for specific parts of the face. But, is that all that matters? Hardly. The choice to use synthetic versus natural fibers could be just as important as using the right type of brushes.

Could you imagine a surgeon using a dull scalpel or a chef using cheap knives? Tools are essential to getting the job done right! Although it is a cliché, it rings true: use the right tools for the job. The same can be said about makeup brushes and having the appropriate tools as a makeup artist.   Most artists would argue that quality makeup brushes are just as important as the makeup. Using the right brush will help artists more efficiently apply and blend cosmetics with additional control, increase the longevity of makeup, and improve the finished look. Finding the right tools to use can be a daunting task, but there are fundamental differences between makeup brushes on the market and why the prices and shapes drastically vary.

Purchasing quality makeup brushes can be an expensive process, so it is crucial to know what to look for and, more importantly, how to take care of the brushes to help them last as long as possible. Professionals who are not able to buy all of the essential brushes at once should pick and choose individual brushes for the collection, gradually building it.

One simple way to identify a durable brush is to rub it against the skin. If it feels nice and it fits the budget, buy it! Ideally, the bristles should feel soft and should not shed numerous fibers in the process. It is normal for brushes to shed a few bristles the first couple times they are used since manufacturers overpack the brush for shipping purposes.

Unfortunately, the cost of a brush does not necessarily reflect its quality level or value. Another important factor that impacts the price of brushes is the material of the bristles. With that said, always remind consumers that caveat emptor is Latin for “buyer beware.” Price and perceived value of cosmetic brushes are heavily influenced by brand marketing, aesthetic packaging, and notable ambassadors that provide endorsements.

BRUSH DESIGN

Makeup brushes are comprised of three parts: handle, ferrule, and bristles. The handle and ferrule provide support to the design of the brush, while the hairs are used for the makeup application. Brush handles are available in a large range of materials, shapes, and colors. Less expensive brushes use plastic and acrylic, whereas others are produced using metals and wood for durability. The ferrule is the middle portion of the brush that is made of metal and holds the bristles in place with adhesive. Typically, cosmetic brushes have brass, copper, and aluminum ferrules, with brass being the strongest of the three materials. Some manufacturers nickel-plate the ferrule for corrosion resistance. This portion of the brush is usually double crimped to ensure that the handle and bristles stay locked in place. Bristles are made of synthetic fibers, natural animal hair, or a blend of the two.

BRISTLE OPTIONS

Synthetic-fiber brushes are usually less expensive and machine-made, while natural hair brushes are predominantly handmade and, as a result, pricier. Synthetic, man-made fibers commonly used for makeup brushes include taklon and nylon reflected by a yellow-gold or pure white color. Synthetic fibers are designed with a sleek finish, making them ideal for cream products. Since the product slicks off the brush, it is intensified when applied to the skin, making this brush ideal for foundation, concealer, cream blush, gel eyeliner, eyebrow pomade, and lipstick. Synthetic fibers tend to become more stiff and rigid with repeated use and can withstand more aggressive cleansing methods.

Natural fibers are either categorized as natural hair (soft fibers) or natural bristle (coarse fibers). The quality of the natural hair is driven by several factors: the type of animal, how it is harvested, type of cut, age and cycle of the hair growth, animal habitat climate, and overall availability of the species. Harvesting methods include virgin hair, which have never been cut before and are the softest fibers; first-cut, which is top-grade, cruelty-free, and trimmed from the tips of the fur; second-cut; and blunt-cut, which is the lower cut of the fur and coarse.

Natural hairs have a porous texture and soften with each use. The hairs have a center structure, the medulla, and are covered by a protective cuticle, the cortex, which is responsible for capturing the cosmetics on the fibers. As a result, they are ideal for all powder products. They can be used with creams and liquids, but the fibers will naturally absorb some of the product, depositing less coverage on the skin and providing a natural, sheer finish.

There are also hybrid, or dual-fiber, brushes on the market, which are easily identifiable by the black and white color of the bristles. These brushes are a mixture of both synthetic and natural hair fibers and have very unique characteristics. Dual-fiber brushes offer the best of both worlds and a medium coverage application with most products.

On a global scale, manufacturers do not have any laws or guidelines to follow when creating brushes. Any brand can market a brush as having a specific type of hair fiber when, in fact, it could be a blend of several types. Camel hair is a term used in cosmetic production that refers to a brush comprised of a mixture of squirrel, goat, and/or pony hair; it does not have a single strand of actual camel hair. This concept is abundantly clear when feeling two brushes side-by-side that claim to have the same hair strain, yet feel completely different. At this point, the cut and shape of the bristles come into play. Whether it is square cut, chisel cut, or round cut, the tips of brushes will have a different touch and feel to them. Handmade brushes created by skilled craftsmen do not sacrifice the first-cut fiber tips and are usually the most expensive brushes on the market. The best brushes are usually made from squirrel, badger, mink, kolinsky sable, or weasel hairs; lesser-grade fibers include goat- and pony-bristle blends.

Types of Animal Hair

Squirrel – Squirrels provide the softest hair fibers of all available varieties. It is a naturally fine fiber with minimal elasticity, but still has a conical shape due to the thick belly of the fiber. Only squirrels with cosmetic-grade, long hair are suitable for makeup brushes. Canadian squirrels usually have shorter, thicker, and less-resilient hair, which is indicated by a striped look incorporated with variegated yellow and black fibers. Therefore, the fibers are sourced from other parts of the world and not from squirrels running around in a neighborhood park. Quality squirrel hair can be used for any type of brush, but is commonly used for powder and blush brushes.

Badger – Badger hair is a very common fiber used in various makeup brushes; it is primarily sourced from China. Quality badger hair, which is also called badger tapers, has a conical shape and is elastic by nature. These fibers are usually identified by the light-dark-light color gradient and have a very soft feel. These fibers are typically densely packed into ferrules and provide a velvety bounce on the skin, making them more expensive. Lesser-expensive badger fibers are less tapered, less elastic, not as soft, and nearly all gray in color. These fibers are often bleached to appear light beige in color and used to make buffer brushes combined with goat hair. Large powder brushes, fan brushes, bronzer brushes, and Kabuki brushes are frequently made from badger hair.

Kolinsky – Sourced from the cold regions of both Russia and China, kolinsky hair makes some of the most expensive brushes on the market. As a mink species, the fibers have a pointed tip and thick belly and can be harvested with hairs as long as 2.25 inches. Due to the resilience of these fibers, kolinsky is categorized as a sable hair and snaps back into its original shape, if bent. The color is usually golden brown and the brush feels incredibly soft, making it a suitable choice for many types of brushes.

Weasel – Although weasels are native to several regions in Europe and North America, the only suitable tail hair for makeup brushes is found in Asia. The weasels found there have tail hair that is longer and finer in comparison to the other strains. These hairs reflect a reddish hue and are not as long as kolinsky hair, making it a more affordable alternative to kolinsky fibers. Many large powder face brushes and eyeshadow brushes are made using Asian weasel tail hair.

Sable – Known as the largest category of makeup brush fibers, sable is available in a broad variety from weasel-like animals. The hair is stiff, generally shorter than other weasel hair, and can be dyed to mimic the look of other fibers. Brushes with sable fibers are primarily used for lip and eye shadow application, but sometimes include fillers such as ox hair or pahmi hair. Manufacturers often place ‘sizing’ on sable fibers to protect them during shipment. Sizing is a wax-like substance that makes the brush feel very stiff, but can be removed with water or by rubbing the fibers with the fingers.

Pony – Pony hair is coarse with a cylindrical shape; it is used in less-expensive brushes. It is more valuable than goat hair, but does not compare to the softness of squirrel hair. Pony hair has less pointy tips, but is often mixed with higher-quality fibers to bring down the manufacturing cost of producing many brushes. Because pony hair is readily available and relatively inexpensive, it can be used to make virtually all types of brushes. Although Japan and Europe harvest a decent amount of pony hair for makeup brushes, the main source is China.

Goat – Also known as capra, goat hair is the most affordable and most commonly used hair for brush making. Like anything else, there are several grades of goat hair that are readily available.   First-cut hairs, which are referred to as squirrel subs, still have their tips intact and are handmade into soft brushes. Blunt-cut hairs are used in mass production for lower-quality brushes of all shapes and sizes.

TYPES OF MAKEUP BRUSHES

Foundation – This brush is a classic makeup brush designed with tightly packed bristles in an oval shape and a pinched ferrule. There are several benefits to using a foundation brush versus the fingers to apply base: it is more hygienic, does not mix with the oils from the skin, uses less product, and provides a flawless finish with precise application. By dampening this brush, liquid and cream foundation can be applied much more evenly. To use the brush, pump or pour the foundation onto a palette or the back of the hand. Dip the brush into the product to coat both sides and distribute the makeup onto the face in multiple areas. Spread the product and blend it into the skin by using light strokes from the center of the face outward and then down the neck.

Concealer – This brush is a smaller version of the foundation brush with soft, firm bristles and a pointed tip. Typically used for under-eye color correction or highlight, these brushes can also be used to conceal acne, hyperpigmentation, and broken capillaries; clean up around the lip line; and carve out eyebrow shapes. For under-eye concealer and color correction, pat the product gently on the skin until the area is covered and blend out the edges with the fourth finger, if needed.

Duo-fiber Stipple – Made from a blend of both natural hair and synthetic fibers, stipple brushes are multi-purpose and can be used for any type of product. The larger versions for foundation should be used in a circular buffing motion or a bouncy stipple approach for more coverage. These brushes are ideal for layering foundation and other products, making the coverage buildable, without removing any of the makeup already applied.

Powder – Usually soft, full, and round, these brushes are ideal for all-over translucent or mineral foundation powder, along with bronzer. Powder brushes distribute sheer-to-medium coverage, depending on the density and length of the hairs. When applying foundation with these brushes, use circular motions to buff the product into the skin. Dip the brush into the product and tap off the excess before dusting it onto the face.

Blusher – With either a rounded or angled edge, these brushes can be used for applying blush, contour, or highlight products. By dipping the edge into the product, gently sweep the color on the face. Angled brushes are ideal for contour since they mimic the hollows in the cheek. These brushes usually have longer bristles and are soft to ensure a well-blended application without any harsh edges.

Fan – Fan brushes range in sizes that are suitable for everything from the eyes to the entire face. The baby-sized fan brushes are ideal for applying mascara, while the larger ones are used for other areas of the face. On social media, they are commonly used to apply shimmer highlight onto the cheekbones, bridge of the nose, and above the eyebrows. They can also be used to sweep excess powder from the face and apply a sheer layer of powder blush and bronzer or an overall light dusting of face powder.

Eye Shadow – These brushes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, allowing for different textures, blending techniques, and intensity of products. Blending brushes are fluffier and have longer hairs that create a sheer wash of color; they are ideal for all-over eyelid color into the crease.   Shorter fibers with beveled edges create a dense brush that creates a higher concentration of product on the skin. By wetting the brush, shimmer and glitter products are intensified to give off a metallic finish. Pencil brushes, which are a necessity for smoky eyes, are small, compact, and designed to smudge eyeliner, sweep eyeshadow along the lower eyelid, or apply in-depth color to the inner and outer corners of the upper eyelid.

Angle/Flat Eyeliner – These brushes are extremely versatile and can be used for applying eyeliner, eyebrow pomade, powder, nose contour, concealing around the nasal labial fold of the lips, and many other uses. Dampen the brush and dip it into cake eyeliner or any eyeshadow to create eyeliner for a softer and more diffused look as opposed to liquid or gel eyeliner. Because the bristles are stiff and sometimes angled for additional control, making short strokes can emulate individual hairs in the eyebrow area to fill in sparse areas and create the perfect eyebrow.

Lip – These brushes are often made with synthetic fibers to withstand wax and other creamy ingredients in lipstick; lip brushes are essential for that perfect pout line. The fibers are deliberately short and firm to provide additional control of the product. These brushes are also great for applying shimmer eyeshadow on the inner half of the eyelid, eyebrow bone, and Cupid’s bow.

CLEANING AND MAINTENANCE

Treat makeup brushes as a personal investment. With the proper care, quality brushes can last a lifetime. Dirty makeup brushes can cause breakouts and rashes and spread undesirable bacteria. With regular and daily use, personal makeup brushes should be cleaned weekly, if not more often. If sharing brushes or using them in a professional capacity, brushes should be cleaned and sanitized after each use.

Natural hair brushes require very careful cleaning to maintain the integrity of the bristles. The hair should be treated similar to the hair on someone’s head. They should be cleaned, conditioned, reshaped, and left to dry upside down or hanging off the edge of a counter. Brushes should never be dried standing up with the wet bristles on top. It causes water and any residual cleanser to break down the adhesive in the ferrule, resulting in a loose or wobbly handle and stray-hair fallout.

Mild shampoos and soaps can be used with a conditioning agent to create a cleansing solution. Dampen the brush with lukewarm water and swirl to lather in the cleanser without completely saturating the brush. Gently rub the brush on a towel to distribute the product and cleanse the bristles. Never soak or submerge your brushes in any liquid solution. Hold the brush under running lukewarm water until the water runs clear, press it firmly to release any excess water, and reshape the brush. Let the brush lie flat on a towel to dry overnight.

There are several instant brush cleaners that can be used for “on the fly” washing. These cleaners dry instantly and usually have additional chemicals that include disinfecting properties, but should not be used as a regular substitute for regular deep cleanings.

SELLING BRUSHES IN THE SPA

Makeup brushes are tools, not toys. The best way to persuade clients to purchase the correct brush is to educate them on how to use the brush, why it is special (types of hair, design, and density), and its versatility via a demonstration. Some consumers never purchase a specific type of brush because they are not sure how to use it and have not been informed of any benefits it could provide to their makeup application. It is easy for people to be intimidated by such an abundant array of options. Because most are visual learners, people want to see what the brushes can do. Show them pictures or offer to do a live demonstration of the different ways the brush can be used. Not everyone is a professional makeup artist, so artists need to emphasize education of tools of the trade.

Applying makeup is an art form. Cosmetic brushes provide endless opportunities to change the way makeup can be applied and alter the finished look. There are many alternatives to brushes, such as fingers, sponges, and cotton swabs, but nothing can replace the results of a top-quality makeup brush. Take your training wheels off and explore the unconventional uses of everyday makeup brushes.


Amanda Azar is a published makeup artist, medical aesthetician, and licensed body wrapper in South Florida. Founder and Executive Artist of Azar Beauty, Azar is also a makeup artistry instructor at Florida College of Natural Health and lead makeup artist at St. Andrews Country Club. Azar has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management from Florida Atlantic University, Fashion Makeup Artistry diploma from Cosmix School of Makeup Artistry, and dual licenses from a 1,200 hour Paramedical Aesthetician program at Southeastern College. She is a member of the National Association of Professional Businesswomen and National Aesthetic Spa Network, Look Good Feel Better®, and a RAW Artist showcase alumni.

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