Hi there brush lovers !!
Before you try to read this long post on brushes, please keep in mind that I am not a makeup artist, I am just passionate about beauty and makeup brushes. My little knowledge on makeup brushes comes from my own experience, from reading other blogs, from friends or also from information I receive from brush companies like Hakuhodo.
I am getting so many questions on brushes that I though I might write something that would look like an overview on the topic, I hope I am covering some of your questions here and that this is a bit helpful for you although it is far from covering all aspects and variables of makeup brushes !
Depending on where you live you may not be able to get deep information on this topic so like me you will need to rely on the internet to answer your questions, but there are so many different makeup brushes that we are easily overwhelmed by all the details. I have tried to summarize the most common specifications, I cannot cover everything mainly because I simply won’t have the knowledge but I will do my best, you are very welcome to leave any comments to share your own knowledge, your thoughts and own experience.
This is not a mystery for most of you but in case you did not know :
How to choose a makeup brush
Today I own so many beautiful brushes but to get here I spent a lot of money trying to find the right ones for me and it didn’t happen without many mistakes.
You don’t need thousands of them, “just” the right ones. It is not an easy process to find them and it will cost you time and money, I have so many of them because I am a brush fiend and if you are reasonable you shouldn’t be doing this at home.
A good brush will last you ages if you take care of it. It should have a solid handle and a ferrule that is firmly attached, it should not rattle or feel unbalanced, if you struggle holding it properly you will end by being upset and not using it, been there many times.
The head should have a shape that applies and blends makeup smoothly and evenly, it shouldn’t been scratchy or hurt your eyes or face in the process. The bristles should transfer makeup effectively and cause none or only very little fallout, sometimes fallout cannot be avoided but the head should give you enough control for a neat application.
Sometimes the crimps are badly done, they are discolored or somehow look rusted, avoid these brushes because it will only get worst. If the head sheds, it’s normal to a certain point, when a brush is assembled, it needs to be combed to remove the hair that did not attach, this process is more or less completed carefully depending on the company, but if after a few washes it carries on shedding, that’s not normal.
If there is a heavy smell in the bristles and you can still smell it after a few washes, that’s not normal either.
If you wash a brush, and then put it on a white towel to dry, the hair should not loose color (dye).
Be careful when choosing your brushes, if you are sensitive to dye or to natural hair, check with the company directly, some counters are not even aware of the whole manufacturing process or material and you should do some work to get that information if it’s relevant for you.
Your choice must be based on the :
- material : see below for more details on some materials you can find.
- size : size does matter, it’s important how it fits the face or eye area of the face in which you are using it.
- quality : a well-balanced and well-finished brush will be more pleasant to use.
- shape : square, angled, tapered, dome, blunt, point, slant, round, flat, etc…
- hair length and density : this is important depending on the result you want to achieve.
- functionality : powder or cream, sheer, medium or heavy coverage, etc…
- and also your skin : some brushes are more adapted for dry and others for oily skin, but you should always use brushes that don’t irritate your skin.
Your brushes don’t need to be expensive, there are many brands that make fantastic brushes for a very fair price. Today the best value for money I found are the white goat brushes from the Hakuhodo J Series, they deliver the best results and the quality is excellent.
First of all you have to choose between natural or synthetic brushes, many people don’t want to use natural (animal) hair, it’s a personal choice. I always try to get information on how the brushes are made and how the hair is collected.
A natural brush will last you much longer than a synthetic one, they will get better and better the more you use them, where synthetic brushes are less durable and tend to get stiffer with use.
Since synthetic brushes don’t have a cuticle, they can’t trap makeup like natural ones do, this makes synthetic bristles great with liquid or cream products but less efficient when you want to layer powder products.
If you prefer to stick to synthetic materials, there are many brands that make fantastic synthetic brushes, Real Techniques, Illamasqua, OCC, Hourglass, Sigma, etc.. just to mention a few.
Often synthetic fibers are blended with natural hair brushes to help maintain the brush shape or to serve a special purpose like for example some mixed goat-synthetic foundation brushes that will deliver a more airbrushed application.
Synthetic brushes are usually made of nylon (PBT) or taklon (PET) and are less absorbent than natural hair fibers, which is great with cream and liquid but not fantastic with powder. They are less prone to be damaged from solvents and easier to keep clean since the bristles don’t trap or absorb pigment.
Taklon is usually softer than nylon.
Illamasqua are really soft brushes, hypoallergenic, I use this big brush mostly in summer or for an evening event to apply bronzer or highlight powder on my shoulders or legs, you can use all the Illamasqua brushes with cream or powder products.
I am also loving all the brushes from Real Techniques, I find that the feeling they have on my skin is quite similar to natural brushes, what I mean is that I don’t have that “plastic” feeling when I apply makeup with them.
I will mainly use synthetic brushes with liquid and cream products, concealer, liner and foundation.
I will not cover all the materials available in the market but remember that natural brushes are not only intended for makeup, but also for writing, painting, restoring art, etc.
The quality of a natural makeup brush depends on a lot of variables, on the material but also on the cut, the cut refers to how the hair is harvested. If the material comes from first-cut (virgin) hair it will be cruelty-free since it’s sheared from the tips of the fur and will be soft and pointed. If the hair comes from blunt-cut (or lower-cut) hair, the point will be flatter and the hair will be much coarser and prickly on the skin and of course, not as pleasant to use. Lower-cut hair are usually for machine-made brushes.
You will find many different type of squirrel hair, blue, grey, canadian, kazakhstan, brown (kazan), tree, pine, wood and you will also see squirrel blends with goat, pony, synthetic, etc. The blends with other materials are made for many reasons, it could be for maintaining the brush shape, stabilizing quality, allow more resilience, or simply to offer a more affordable option.
They are not supposed to be used with liquid/cream products since they absorb a lot of product and are delicate, a frequent cleaning process may be too aggressive and damage the hair.
Squirrel hair brushes provide a natural and sheer finishing, unlike goat brushes which usually pack more product and give a more polished finishing.
The hair are thin with a pointed tip and a more or less uniform body. Little or no spring (spring is the ability of the hair to return quickly to its original shape).
Squirrel hair brushes are good for dry skin or sensitive skin, they deliver soft coverage with natural result.
The hairs are blue-black with a grey root, very soft, thin at the tip, little spring.
They give a natural and sheer finishing.
Used for any type of brush, finishing, powder, blush, highlighter and eyeshadow (specially blending and crease brushes).
Grey squirrel is also very soft. Expensive but less expensive than blue squirrel.
I read that grey squirrel had low tolerance for static electricity and ultraviolet rays. If static electricity develops near the brush head it may temporarily alter the brush shape but I really don’t think this can happen easily, it did happen to me but this is because I was taking pictures on a special support that had static electricity and you could see the hair being drawn towards the support …. from time to time I also use conditioner which helps anyway so I don’t worry about that.
And about the ultraviolet rays, well, I don’t think you are storing your brushes from direct sunlight, if you do, just don’t !
In this picture you can see the Hakuhodo K002 and the Chikuhodo Z-9. Hakuhodo works more with blue squirrel material and Chikuhodo with grey squirrel, to me they are both equally soft. It looks like the grey squirrel hair has even less spring than the blue one but honestly there isn’t much difference between the two. The color is slightly different but I am not even sure I could tell the difference if you show me two brushes that I have never seen before.
Some examples of squirrel mixed with other materials :
When I was at the RMK counter, they told me the RMK brush pictured here was goat in the outside, squirrel in the inside. This way it could pack on color, add durability to the head, blend evenly and still feel incredibly soft on the skin.
If a brush is only made of horse hair it will feel a bit too coarse against my sensitive skin, if it’s mixed with blue squirrel, although it will be slightly less soft than a 100% squirrel, it will be soft enough for me and it will pack on and blend the powder really well.
The Hakuhodo B501 that contains goat and blue squirrel feels way softer than a 100% goat, a mix here does really make a difference.
Whenever I can, I will prefer to use a full squirrel brush. I will only choose a mixed brush when a 100% squirrel cannot do the job, when I know that the product I will be using is not very pigmented or the powder is hard to pick with a softer brush or when I want a slightly heavier application. If I really want a glossy finish or a more blended application I will directly jump to a goat brush.
I really could not tell the difference between these two brushes, the softness seems very similar to me, just the density makes a difference in the application :
Softer than the blue squirrel. Rare and expensive.
Highlight and eyeshadow brushes only due to its price.
Similar to weasel. Rather rough and elastic.
The hair has elasticity and work well with powder and liquid-based products.
Mainly used for eyeshadow brushes.
The hair is soft and thin at the hair tip but has a less uniform body and is difficult to bundle. Suitable for shorter brushes. Good for eyeshadow and smudging and excellent for eyeshadow gradation.
The hair is shorter and thicker than the other Soviet varieties, the belly of the hair resembles sable hair in appearance and in handling. The tip of the hair is soft, delicate, easy to shape and has little spring. The hair a variegated gold and black toned. Expensive but popular since it has an excellent control and the brushes are easy to handle. It’s a reasonable alternative to sable.
Great for eyeshadow and highlight brushes.
Named after its origins in the Soviet Union. The hair is highly prized for the great tip elasticity and it’s considered to be the best of the squirrel hairs. Similar to blue squirrel but even softer and more expensive.
Offers easy control, delivers a natural and sheer finish.
Mainly for eyeshadow and highlighting brushes.
Here are some kazan, canadian, pine and a few blends :
I was never drawn towards pine squirrel hair, it looks a bit weird. I though I would order some Chikuhodo because I trust their quality and if I had to try pine squirrel, it had to be Chikuhodo’s.
Can I use Chikuhodo’s pine brushes ? Yes I can. Although it feels a bit weird. It’s difficult to explain but it has some kind of “grip” on the skin, maybe that’s why it is known to be so good for gradation and that would explain. They are just not the most beautiful brushes to look at and I prefer grey or blue squirrel brushes but they are more expensive.
The Canadian squirrel brushes are fantastic, the control you have with the S122 is amazing, try to go back to any other similar shaped brush afterwards and you will see what I mean.
The Kazan brush is incredibly soft and also incredibly expensive, if this brush shape existed in.. let’s say… white goat J Series I would love it even more. Please Hakuhodo…
The G5524 is pointy but big, you may have control, but more or less precision depending on where you’ll use it. The application will be quite sheer and soft.
The pine and sable mix feels slightly softer and a bit firmer than both the pine and north american or the pine and canadian mix.
The pine and north american blends really well but even though it doesn’t hurt at all, I very much prefer a blue or grey squirrel brush.
Similar to weasel, a bit coarser but has resilience.
Meant for eyeshadow brushes. Suitable for liquid-based products.
Goat is the most common type of fiber used in makeup brushes. Not as soft as some other types but extremely good at packing and applying powder makeup.
Meant to be good for more oily skin, but I have very dry skin and I have no problems using goat brushes if they are of very good quality.
The result with goat brushes can be more even and flawless and you may conceal pores more efficiently or deliver a more radiant and glowy finish.
There are several types of goat hair (different goats and different regions on the goat itself) but there are also several types of cut, and depending on where the hair comes from – neck, shoulder, tail, etc – the difference in quality and finish can really be striking. It will be difficult to get any precise information when you are buying your brushes, just try to ask at the counters, unless you are in a very specialized shop, you won’t be able to get an answer.
Sometimes goat is simply called “capra”. I have been told that Capra defines the softest goat hair, the first-cut with the tips still intact. This hair quality is also sometimes called “Squirrel substitute”. In the Inglot brush catalog, you can read “Squirrel substitute” on some brush descriptions, I remember asking at the shop but I had no explanation at that time, reading brush articles for this post is how I came across the actual meaning of squirrel substitute.
The lower-cut (or blunt-cut) is the lower quality hair, intended for machine-made brushes.
From left to right, the brushes are categorized from the softest to the less soft. Unfortunately I was not able to know all the specifications of the hair of these brushes but clearly the baby goat chest hair wins !
My friend Carol who is also a brush lover, contacted Hakuhodo about the different goat hair of the J Series. Hakuhodo said that some of their J Series are made with highest quality hair, like the J110, J4003, J5543, J116, J532 and J122 for example. They are indeed incredibly soft !
Today I cannot use my Mac brushes anymore (the black goat ones), my skin has become very sensitive and they feel too scratchy, I just can’t stand them anymore, that’s why one day, a looong time ago, I had to start looking for softer brushes.
Goat is often mixed with synthetic. Sometimes the synthetic fibers extend slightly further than the goat hair in order to deliver a more flawless finish or to pick less amount of product and don’t overcharge the brush.
I had the Mac 187 and the Hakuhodo G544 but I didn’t use them, when I got the new J4001 and it’s little sister J4002 and the cousin J544, I fell in love with “stippling” again !! Sometimes it’s the same material, but not the same quality and that makes a huge difference !
The J501 and J220G are also mixes goat-synthetic and they are insanely soft ! You can’t feel synthetic fibers in them, to me they feel like very soft goat brushes.
Other types of goat hair
Softer and more delicate hair than that of Sokoho. It is hard to find and quite rare and expensive.
Long, thin, and soft. It is ideal for various brushes such as a powder brush, a finishing brush, a blush brush, a highlight brush, and an eye shadow brush.
Rather rough and elastic, suitable for firm brushing.
Nice texture, elasticity and coloration and is short and thin. Particularly good for a blush brush.
Similar to Sokoho but slightly rougher. Easy to form a full shape and excels at coloration.
Water-resistant and suitable for liquid-based products.
Region or type of hair
It’s very unlikely that you will be able to get this information when buying your brushes, but if you come across the description it might give you a hint on the quality and finishing you will be getting. The softest goat hair I have encountered is baby chest goat hair. Usually, they are categorized as follows :
- Neck : Long, soft and thin. Powder and blush brushes.
- Backbone region : slightly coarser and denser. Powder brushes.
- Shoulder : Short and thin, firmer, good for color and highlighting. Blush and highlighting brushes.
- Thigh : Coarser but has resilience. Blush brushes.
- Chin and jaw : Long with no resilience.
- Abdominal : shorter hair.
- Lower back : long and coarse.
- Tail : long with resilience.
Sable is the name trappers use when they refer to martens, but sable hair comes basically from the same animal family which is weasel (Mustelidae). Sable actually has to be seen like an investment since it will last you a lifetime if you take proper care of it, but there are several types of sable brushes, in the same weasel family you will find plain sable, red sable and kolinsky. I will try to keep the description simple because it can get reeeally complex and confusing.
The best sable hair is the Kolinsky, it comes from the western part of Russia, it’s very rare and very expensive, the finest comes from the male winter coat of the kolinsky. Today “kolinsky” denotes hair either from the Asian minks of Siberia, Northern China or Korea.
The color of Siberian kolinsky hair is brown with a distinctive yellowish-red tint, the Chinese is slightly darker with less red.
The tips are thinner and longer and the brushes have the best porosity for the application of the most intense color, the best layering of color and also for creation of gradations thanks to its strength and ability to retain its shape.
Like kolinsky, weasel hair comes from the Mustela family, the hair is similar to Kolinsky but slightly of inferior quality, shorter and with less thickness.
The hair is usually more reddish compared to the golden brown color of kolinsky sable, not as long as kolinsky, it’s soft, elastic, resilient and durable.
Great for producing great coloring and can be used not only with powder but also with liquid or cream makeup.
Multipurpose : lip, eyeliner, concealer, eyeshadow brushes…
Plain or brown sable
Usually obtained from varieties of the marten, or also left overs from other sable brushes. The quality varies greatly and depending on the quality, it might be equivalent to go for a synthetic sable brush.
White or Gold sable
These are synthetic filaments developed and manufactured in Japan. Created By the Simmons Brush Company.
The synthetic hair are not very absorbent so it makes the control more difficult. The main advantage is the price and also that a good synthetic filament can be better than a bad red sable.
The brushes are made from a weasel-like animal but smaller and thinner. The hair is a little tougher and shorter than that of the weasel. It is usually used together with weasel and horse hair.
Pahmi hair is relatively inexpensive and when dyed can resemble sable or red sable.
I am adding a little drawing to have a quick idea of how they are related together :
I only started using sable and kolinsky brushes recently so I don’t have much experience with them.
When I saw the price of the Shu Uemura 12, I just couldn’t get it. But one day, I found one at half-price and I went for it. I don’t regret it at all, it’s sooo good. The Chikuhodo 12-3 is also a nice brush but not the same shape and perfection as the Shu, but of course also not the same price tag.
I thought I would reach more for the two Addiction brushes but not really, with the recent J Series invasion it’s hard to share the love…
But since the Addiction P is weasel, I do use it with soft cream shadows or concealer, I can’t use it with paintpots for example since it’s too soft and flexible.
I use the weasel brushes, like the Kokutan WS for paintpots since it’s more firm it’s a fantastic brush to apply it close to the lash line and blend towards the crease.
The hair has a cylindrical shape, equal thickness from root to tip, the tips are not as pointy as squirrel hair, it’s durable and strong.
Usually less expensive than squirrel but more expensive than goat.
They are often used blended with squirrel or goat.
Blush, powder, eyeshadow, excellent for contouring due to the strong snap. Can be used damp to deliver a more opaque coverage.
They are not of bad quality but my eyes are extremely sensitive and I can’t use these brushes on a regular basis. Same for the blush brush, they are not soft enough for me but they do blend well.
The most common used in the production of makeup brushes, but like goat hair can vary in quality.
Harsh texture and difficult to bundle. Inexpensive. Often used blended with other natural hairs to deliver more elasticity and enduring, it has the ability to adapt to your skin the more you use it.
Blush or eyeshadow brushes, produces great coloring.
I use the G5520 on a daily basis because I find the shape to be the perfect definer for my eyes , the others I don’t use them very often, but these are actually softer than the pony ones.
The term “camel” describes makeup brushes made with a mix of goat, squirrel, or pony hair.
The hairs have rough, thick and elastic roots white the tip is very thin. Ideal for eyebrow brushes
Ox has the springness similar to that of sable but does not have a fine tip. Still in use because sable are very expensive and synthetic fibers are not absorbant enough so customers may turn towards ox.
The hair has natural spring and is very pointed at the tip, highly prized as it’s strong enough to be used with sticky pigments.
This must be the biggest disappointment of 2011. I haven’t found a single way to use it… too much fallout, too firm, too thin.
Brush shapes and functionalities
Another subject of discussion, you may be overwhelmed by all the different shapes: square, angled, tapered, dome, blunt, point, slant, round, flat, etc…
Most of the time it’s common sense and it is easy to find out which brush is for what purpose, but sometimes it can get a bit more confusing, just a few examples :
- A flexible and soft brush will deliver a sheer finish and more diffused result.
- A coarser brush will deliver a heavier result.
- A denser brush will deliver a stronger coloring and more coverage.
- A round brush will create a softer and diffused result.
- A flatter brush will be more adapted to deliver a glossy finish.
- An angled brush will be good for creating a more defined blush or contour application.
- A pointier brush will allow more precision or gradation depending on the density.
And when you think you are done with the theory, here comes “technique“…
With the right technique you can go even further, I was often wondering why I couldn’t get the same result as somebody else while using the same products and the same brushes. There is a reason, the technique. I am not a makeup artist but thanks to some friends of mine who are, I got a few interesting tips that totally blew my mind. I can share a few of them that I am thinking of :
Take any flat (or round) synthetic foundation brush, damp it in warm water and remove the excess water, then apply your foundation, you will notice that the foundation is applied more evenly and the brush is not sucking so much product into the bristles.
When applying liquid or cream blushes after you applied the foundation, mix some product with a little foundation and blend together. The result is amazing and flawless. – thanks Dena for the tip 🙂 –
When applying your foundation with a round and flat synthetic or goat brush, instead of swirling, start applying it with a stippling motion, the product will have a more flawless finish and this technique will really help with the redness and the pores. Well, again, thanks Dena 😀
The finishing. There is nothing better than a good blending and finishing, it can also totally change the appearance of a blush or a powder, I mean, don’t burn your face with the buffing but just adapt the work with the sensibility of your skin and the products you are applying.
I could carry on for a while, but I just want you to understand here that depending on how you use your brushes and your products, you can slightly change, or sometimes totally change, your finished look.
Since I am getting older using the right technique can really make a difference, I don’t want to appear cakey or overly made up since it will age me dramatically. On the other hand, I still want to play with smokey eyes or brighter lipsticks and in order to be able to do that, I need flawless skin and a bit more coverage, this is why having the right brushes and the right technique can be so important.
First of all, as I said, the more you use your natural brushes, the better they get, so use them 🙂
The storage should be done in cups when you use your brushes in a regular basis, if you don’t, put them away from the dust and lay them flat inside their packaging.
If I store my powder brushes flat, the shape is altered until I wash them, then they will revert to their original shape, if I store them in cups and don’t use them in a regular basis, dust is accumulated in the hair and bacteria develops… this is why we shouldn’t have thousands of brushes but I just can’t help it 😛
The maintenance takes me a while but it’s a relaxing process so I don’t mind.
You can clean your delicate brushes gently with a tissue to remove the powder residue daily but once in a while they need to be washed. If they are very delicate (squirrel for example), I use mild shampoo and sometimes also conditioner. Absolutely no aggressive soaps. It’s better to prepare a little “bath” and only wash the head of the brush very gently (don’t let them soak with the ferrule inside), rinse them carefully, remove the excess water, shape them and lay them flat to dry, away from heat and away from direct sunlight.
For the slightly tougher brushes that can stand easier maintenance, like goat, sable, synthetic, I only use mild soap. I have just order the “Masters brush cleaner and preserver” based on some recommendations I received. After a few days I noticed that some white brushes were stained very lightly with some cream color residue on the bristles this is why I will be trying this soap… as soon as I receive it… it must be somewhere over the Atlantic right now.
Whenever you can, go try the brushes, choose quality over quantity and take good care of them because you will keep them for many years.
I hope this has brought some light to those who were a bit lost in this big brush world…