The Real Differences Between Brow Pencils, Powders, and Gels

woman with windy hair in face

Vradiy Art / Stocksy

Brows are a big deal to me. A makeup artist will tell you they frame your face, but liken my eyebrows to an extra special accessory. In the same way a ring adds a fancy something to your manicure or a great shoe complements your outfit, brows give your visage a little extra oomph. You can go bold with dark shades and pristine lines or keep it natural with soft with hairlike strokes and muted tones. As I experiment with brow products, I've tried to lock down the real differences between each one—and the results they yield. The best way to do so? Photographs.

Our editorial director, Faith, and I decided to try each offering for the camera to showcase the results on two different brow situations. I have a bushy, often unruly set, and Faith has a bit less growth. Before we got started, we turned to celebrity makeup artists for their best advice as well. Keep reading for the results.

Our bare brows

Paley Fairman

Who: Hallie Gould, editorial director

Brow concerns: I know that I have fairly full brows—so, I'm not complaining. But, I do have a few sparse areas around the arch and by the feathery sprigs at the top. I like to fill my brows in so they're dark and bold but still natural-looking enough that I come off effortless. Who knows if that's actually the case. I use a pen with a beveled edge (it's shaped like a brow brush) and lightly draw in lines. It's nice because it has the precision and control of a pen but the formula looks like powder. Then, I keep it all together with a clear brow gel.

Favorite brow product: Charlotte Tilbury Brow Lift in Cara D ($30)

Paley Fairman

Who: Faith Xue, former editorial director

Brow concerns: As you can see from the very exposing photo above, I am greatly lacking in the brow department. In fact, the fact I'm even allowing such a photo of myself to surface on the internet is somewhat shocking, and clear evidence of how much I care about you, curious reader. Hallie was very kind to describe my brows as needing a little more growth, but the truth is, I need a brow product (usually a pencil) that basically allows me to completely draw in my brows. None of that tinted "your brows but better" stuff. Also: no Sharpie brows.

Favorite brow product: The Brow Gal Skinny Eyebrow Pencil ($23)


Paley Fairman

The product: Anastasia Beverly Hills Perfect Brow Pencil ($23)

First things first, this is what L’Oréal Paris celebrity makeup artist (and Queen Bey's go-to) Sir John has to say: “[A pencil] is actually my favorite application. Brow pencils nowadays are the wind-up, automatic types. They are great for applying fine, hair-like strokes and look very realistic. The only downside is the pencil formula can appear a bit waxy.”

That waxy texture issue he mentioned is the reason I stopped using pencils a few years ago. I couldn't find the right texture for the look I was trying to achieve. That being said, I really liked the Anastasia Beverly Hills Perfect Brow Pencil ($23). My biggest concern when choosing a brow product is the shade that suits my complexion—I need an ashy gray color instead of beige or brown. This one came through in spades. I was most impressed with the amount of control I had and how easy it was to shape my brows. They came out natural-looking and soft instead of overly done or sharp-looking (my nightmare). 

Paley Fairman

This isn't my best work, but girl's gotta do her best in a time crunch. I have used Anastasia Beverly Hills Perfect Brow Pencil ($23) before and love how easy it is to fill in my brows with short, hair-like strokes. I love the shade Medium, which isn't too warm or ashy, but rather right in between. Given a little more time, I would have brushed out the strokes a little more so there wasn't such a harsh line in the inner corners of the brows. But overall, this pencil was waxy and easy to use, and a great alternative to my go-to pencil from The Brow Gal.


Paley Fairman

The product: Tarte's Amazonian Clay Volumizing Brow & Hair Powder ($25)

“Brow powders are nice if you don't like the waxy nature of a pencil,” Sir John recommends. “The brow powder will take that waxiness away. They are great for people who have sparse brows, as they're a helpful fill-in product. The only flaw is they don't anchor to the brow and face as long as the other formulas.”

I was surprisingly into the powder we used as well. Tarte Amazonian Clay Volumizing Brow & Hair Powder's ($25) ability to cling to each hair and fill in the sparse areas in my brows was truly unprecedented. It was a bit harder to apply as I had to use a brush and I don't fancy myself particularly dextrous—so it took longer to finish than the first product. Overall, though, I loved the final product. 

Paley Fairman

Powders don't do much on my thin, sparse brows. The formula usually slips right through my brows and never really builds to the consistency I like; I'm usually left with patchy areas. However, Tarte's version was a pleasant surprise. There were definitely still gaps along my brow line, but I was impressed with how much pigment actually stuck to my brows and the natural finish it gave. If I were more brow-endowed, I would probably be tempted to swap my pencil for this silky powder.

Tinted Gel

Paley Fairman

The product: Benefit's Gimme Brow Volumizing Fiber Gel ($24)

“Brow gels are great for keeping the brows in place,” Sir John explains. He adds, “They do, however, lack the definition and shaping qualities the other products have. I often recommend using a clear gel like L’Oréal's Brow Stylist Plumper ($5) combined with the other textures as a finishing step.”

I've tried a bunch of tinted gels and usually end up getting them all over my face. Once, my friend asked me if I had melted chocolate on my face. While that's not completely out of the question, I realized after a mirror-check that it was my brow gel. So, I didn't have high expectations when I brushed on Benefit's Gimme Brow Volumizing Fiber Gel ($24). After combing out my brows, I was shocked. I really liked the way it looked. It added a nice sheen to the hairs, like a pretty highlight. The sparse areas weren't as filled in as I would have liked, but the product stayed put and kept my brows looking properly groomed.

Paley Fairman

I always slightly scoff at tinted gels because their entire pretense is built around the fact that they accentuate the brows you already have by tinting the hairs. But what if you don't have any hairs to tint?! I scream internally, waving a mental fist at the marketing claim's false promises. Suffice to say, I was not expecting much from Benefit's version. But then, surprise of all surprises, it actually sort of worked. Because the brush is so tiny, you can actually wriggle it below your hairs so that it tints the skin underneath. Since my brows stop right past my pupils, this was incredibly helpful in creating the tail end of my (non-existent) brow. I was so pleasantly surprised that I immediately stowed away the one I used for this shoot and brought it home with me. I still prefer to use it to set my brows after I pencil them in, but it's nice to know that in a pinch, it'll work solo too. 


Paley Fairman

The product: MAC's Fluidline Brow Gel ($17)

“[Pomades] definitely last the longest and are the ‘tattoo’ product in the world of brows,” says Sir John. “You definitely need a great brush, and, while it is an easy formula to work with, sometimes you need a little bit of practice and expert technique to successfully apply it.”

I totally flubbed the application on this one, as Sir John predicted. Fortunately, you're looking at a profile picture of my face because the other side is a completely different shape. MAC's Fluidline Brow Gel ($17) formula was really slippery and thicker than I'm used to—a lot less friction than the other products. The color also threw me off, it looks brownish red against my skin rather than the cool tones I usually go for. I think it would be in best interest to practice my technique and only use a pomade when I'm looking for a really bold look.

Paley Fairman

Staring at MAC's pot of pomade immediately brought up visions of thick, filled-in Sharpie brows, aka my worst nightmare (other than no brows). Instead, I was blown away. The pomade applied smoothly and evenly, and somehow managed to disperse among my brow hairs for a soft, natural look that actually looked like real brows. Out of all of the products, this one was the one that surprised me the most. I actually liked this finish the best out of all the brow products I tried, but because of my lazy-girl tendencies (aka anything that requires a separate brush to apply is probably not happening), I knew it would be ambitious to assume I could adopt it as part of my everyday routine. I took the product home, however, and use it on nights out when I want to dress my brows up and take them out for a drink.

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