Makeup Tools 101: A Beginner's Guide

Makeup brushes
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Girlfriend, I know your makeup bag is bursting with, well, makeup, but to get the most out of your cosmetics collection, you need the right tools for the job. Take your makeup application to the next level. Behold: Makeup Tools 101.

Remember using those tiny sponge applicators with play makeup when you were a kid? It's time to ditch those wee makeup brushes and wands that come packaged with compacts and eyeshadow palettes.

Sure, they'll work in a pinch, like when you're running late for work or need a quick pre-date touch-up, but to get the most out of your makeup collection, a girl really needs the right tools for the job.


To create a work of art, whether on canvas or your eye crease, artists will often reach for a brush.

Specialized makeup brushes exist to help us apply and blend colors to create different makeup looks. When it comes to makeup brushes, hoard them like pirate treasure! Buy as many different brushes as you can comfortably afford. You'll use your brushes every day, and you won't regret having a variety from which to choose.

Makeup brush design varies across brands and according to function. Brush heads may be made from natural fibers like a squirrel (yes, squirrel), goat, sable, or horse hair, while others are made from synthetic fibers. Don't be afraid to experiment with a variety of brushes made from different fibers.

There's no better way to find your ideal brush, but be aware that some people are allergic to certain animal hairs. Try to use just a single new brush or beauty product at a time, and limit its use initially. That way, if your skin does react, you'll know which product to blame.

Face Brushes

We use them to apply foundation, concealer, powders, and blush.

Use smaller brushes if you have a small face, larger sizes if you have a large face.

Here's a rundown:

  • Foundation Brush: Used to apply foundation to the face and typically made from synthetic fibers. Most foundation brushes have a small, rounded brush head shaped like a tiny spatula. Try EcoTools Foundation Brush
  • Concealer Brush: Concealer brushes look like mini foundation brushes. Being smaller than foundation brushes makes them better suited for covering blemishes or for applying liquid concealers in hard to reach places like the corners of the eyes. Try Sigma Concealer Brush or Bare Escentuals Maximum Coverage Concealer Brush
  • Powder Brush: With a large, fluffy brush heads and soft bristles, powder brushes are ideal for applying loose powder to the face. Kabuki brushes are popular for powders. Try e.l.f. Studio kabuki face brush
  • Blush Brush: They resemble smallish powder brushes with either a sloped or rounded tip. Great for applying blush or bronzer to cheeks. Try real Techniques Blush Brush
  • Buffing Brush: These are great for smoothing out your makeup for a flawless finish. Try Sigma Beauty Flat Kabuki.

Eye Brushes

There are lots of eye brushes to choose from, which is a blessing for brush hoarders like me (I own over 30, yikes) but a curse for makeup newbies.

Start your collection with the essentials.

  • Eyebrow Brush: Eyebrow brushes have firm, angled brush heads like the tip of a marker. Use them to apply powders, creams or waxes to brows. Try Duo Eyebrow Brush by Keshima
  • Eyeshadow Brush: Not as stiff as an eyebrow brush, eyeshadow brushes have square heads used to evenly apply both powder and cream shadows to eyelids. I reach for this brush so often that I might as well have it permanently attached to my hand! Expect to use these a lot. I like to buy various sizes. Some I use for the crease, others for my lid. Try Bobbi Brown's 7 Piece Set or the more affordable Lamora Eyebrush Set (it's basic). 
  • Blending Brush: Like the name implies, blending brushes are used to blend different colored products and to wipe out harsh lines. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Not as firm as eyeshadow brush heads, the heads of blending brushes are usually tapered. This will be your second staple brush (behind your eyeshadow brush). Try MAC Blending brush 217, it's the best. 
  • Crease Brush: Fluffy and soft, crease brush heads come in several different shapes, from thin and tapered to round and fluffy. The shape you choose will depend on personal preference than anything else. Look for a brush head that feels soft against your eyelid and fits into the hollow of your eye. Try Sigma Beauty Small Tapered Blending - E45

Ready to buy? Before you do, check out My List of the Top 14 Makeup Brushes.

Lip Brushes

At one time or another, most of us have applied lipstick straight from the tube. As much as I love my brushes, I have to confess: I do this all the time! Let's face it, applying lipstick straight from the tube is much easier than reaching for a lip brush, and sometimes you just don't have the time.

However, when you feel like rocking a deep, dark scarlet or a bright matte fuschia, a lip brush is the only way to go. It provides more control and precise lipstick application than a tube. Like concealer brushes, lip brushes have a firm, thin tip. For on-the-go lipstick application, look for a covered lip brush, which comes with a cover to protect the brush head while you're traveling. You won't believe how useful a lip brush is.

Choosing the Right Brush

Brushes range from budget-friendly (less than $10) to uber-expensive ($250, ouch!). Save for them and cough up the dough, girlfriend, because they'll get plenty of use. Buy the best brushes you can afford. MAC Cosmetics brushes have a good reputation, but shop around. Sonia Kashuk, sold at Target stores, is another good brush brand for the money.

How to Clean Your Brushes

Cleaning makeup brushes regularly extends their useful life. Some makeup lines sell liquid brush cleaning solutions, but baby shampoo and water also work well. Antibacterial wipes provide a quick way to clean brush heads in the car or wherever water would make a mess. After cleaning your brushes, reshape the brush heads with your fingers and line them up on the edge of a shelf or sink to dry.

Short- Versus Long-Handled Brushes?

Brush handles come in different lengths and weights, and which one you choose depends on your personal preference.

Small hands might prefer short brush handles. Some Kabuki brushes are stout and fit right in the palm of your hand. 

How to Store Your Brushes

For cheap, easy brush storage at home, stand them up in a glass (brush heads up). When you're on the road, use a brush roll, which is a folding bag with slots for each brush. It rolls up like a sleeping bag.

Other Accessories

Don’t let your makeup brushes get lonely! There are a few other tools you might consider adding to your makeup arsenal.

  • Eyelash Curlers: Handheld crimpers used to curl the upper eyelashes. How do you know a good eyelash curler from a bad one? Well, the best eyelash curlers won’t pinch as they curl your lashes. Beauty doesn’t have to hurt. Cosmetics company Shu Uemura makes what most consider the industry standard eyelash curler, but Shiseido’s curler gets an admirable mention. Both are top notch. Always curl your lashes when they’re dry and clean. Curling lashes with mascara on them may leave you with broken lashes!
  • Round and Wedge Sponges: Round and wedge sponges are handy for blending and smoothing out makeup lines on the face and around the eyes.
  • Q-tips: Useful little buggers. Use Q-tips to remove excess makeup around the eyes or lips or, in pinch, to apply eye shadow.
  • Fingers: Even with a huge collection of brushes, you’ll still sometimes use your fingers to apply makeup. They’re just that handy (excuse the pun). Fingers excel at applying products like cream blushes and stick foundations that soften when slightly warmed.
  • Brow Comb: Used to style eyebrows or to brush out excess eyebrow powder.

I hope you enjoyed this beginner’s look at makeup tools. Don’t be afraid, girl. The brush is your friend. Now, go forth and be beautiful.