Your Ultimate Makeup Brush Guide: The Ones You Need and How to Use Them

makeup brush dripping with liquid foundation

David Crockett / Getty Images

In the beauty universe, you know you've reached peak adulthood once you've amassed a full collection of makeup brushes (and know how to use each one correctly). But not all of us have a personal makeup brush guide to whip out every time we get ready, so if you're still applying powder eye shadow with your fingers, we get it. Between the slew of foundation brush options to the different bristle type available, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to narrowing down your list of essential makeup brushes.

That said, as with anything art-related, having a good set of tools in your arsenal is a must, and according to New York-based makeup artist Kristine Cruz, using the wrong brush can completely throw off your whole look. "Makeup brushes are specifically made to target certain areas of the face," she says. So if you choose one that's too big or the wrong shape, it won't place the product where you want it or apply it in a natural way." We tapped Cruz as well as another pro to learn all about the different types of makeup brushes as well as which ones deserve a spot in our collections.

Meet the Expert

  • Helen Phillips is Sephora Collection's national artist and is based in Los Angeles.
  • Kristine Cruz is a hair and makeup artist located in New York, NY.

Ahead, check out our complete guide to the most popular types of makeup brushes.

5 Makeup Brushes Everyone Needs in Their Arsenal

Jiaqi Zhou / Byrdie 

Powder Brush

Mac Synthetic Large Powder Brush
Mac Synthetic Large Powder Brush $42.00

The powder brush you choose will depend on what type of powder you're actually using (setting powder versus a powder foundation), and within that, the type of formula (translucent versus pressed). "If using a setting powder where you're not looking to gain coverage, I’d go for a soft, fluffy brush," says Phillips. "This will prevent you from applying too much powder, which can sometimes cause a gray or white cast and appear too matte." Depending on the size, you could also get away with applying blush or bronzer with this type of brush.

If you're looking for fuller coverage, Phillips says to look for brushes with dense bristles. For lighter coverage, use a fluffier brush.

Blush Brush

Sephora Collection Pro Powder Brush #50
Sephora Collection Pro Powder Brush #50 $34.00

A blush brush is smaller than a powder brush and features a dome shape with long, super-soft bristles. The specific blush brush you choose, however, depends on how you apply your blush (on the apples versus along the cheekbones) along with your desired effect (a light wash of color versus high-coverage). "If you want a wash of color, go for a bigger brush than you’d typically reach for—I love this one from Sephora Collection because you can use use it to create light sweeping motions from the apple of your cheek back towards your ear for the perfect flush," explains Phillips.

Contour Brush

It Cosmetics Heavenly Luxe You Sculpted! Contour & Highlight Brush #18
It Cosmetics Heavenly Luxe You Sculpted! Contour & Highlight Brush #18 $35.00 $26.00

Contouring brushes can feel intimidating (as can contouring itself), but having the right one will make all the difference in your blending. Phillips recommends using one that's smaller than a face brush but bigger than an eye brush, and playing around with the ends of the bristles to see what you're comfortable with. For more concentrated applications, opt for an angled contour brush that has soft, dense bristles, as this will allow you to add product with minimal fallout. FYI: The brush should fit nicely under your cheekbone, almost doing the contour work for you.

For the perfect contour, Phillips recommends starting at the tragus of your ear and lightly sweeping down toward the edge of your lip (this is where your line should be). Then, push into your cheek to find the most hollow point (this is where it should appear the deepest in tone) and blend, blend, blend!

Bronzer Brush

Morphe M527
Morphe M527 $18.00

Unlike contour brushes, bronzer brushes are meant to be used on the areas you want to add an all-over dimension to (aka the sides of the forehead, on the cheekbones, and along the jawline). This one from Morphe is a winner—the base is pinched on both sides and the bristles are ultra-feathery, making sculpting out your face a breeze.

Kabuki Brush

E.l.f. Kabuki Face Brush
E.l.f. Cosmetics Face Kabuki Brush $6.00

Of all the brush trends that have come and gone, Kabuki brushes are one that have remained a constant due to their versatility. You'll recognize a Kabuki brush by its flat top and ultra-soft, densely-packed bristles, which work well for applying powder, bronzer as well as plain ol' blending. Phillips touts Kabuki brushes for their buffing abilities—this technique can give you natural-looking, air-brushed coverage.

Foundation Brush

Bobbi Brown Foundation Brush
Bobbi Brown Foundation Brush $49.00

Between angled, flat, and stippling brushes, you have options when it comes to the tool you use to apply your foundation. A flat foundation brush like this one from Bobbi Brown is classic for applying liquid or cream formulas, but if you're looking for something that'll give you more coverage, go for a a dense brush that has synthetic bristles.

Stippling Brush

Smashbox Stippling Foundation Brush
Smashbox Stippling Foundation Brush $38.00

A stippling brush is a dream for those who are breakout-prone—while the soft texture won't irritate the skin, it's able to gently work the foundation over any texture to get maximum coverage quickly.

Duo-Fibre Brush

Il Makiage Duo-Fibre Multi-Tasking Brush
Il Makiage Duo-Fibre Multi-Tasking Brush #112 $47.00

Duo-fibre brushes are every multi-tasker's dream. They buff out foundation and give it an airbrushed finish, blend cream blushes and bronzers, and can even be used to softly diffuse a highlighting face powder all around the face. This one from Il Makiage features two strategically placed sets of bristles to create a blurring effect and buildable coverage.

Beauty Sponge

Beautyblender The Original
Beautyblender The Original $20.00

We know, we know. This isn't technically a brush, but we'd be doing you a disservice by not raving about the beauty benefits of a sponge. For one, it applies foundation like a dream, especially if your skin skews parched. "If you have a lot of texture due to dry skin, I recommend using a damp sponge in a pressing motion—it will press the foundation into the skin and not brush up any additional texture," says Phillips. (P.S.: Don't forget to give your sponges—along with the rest of your brushes—a good bath a few times a week to avoid having bacteria-related breakouts).

Fan Brush

Sigma Beauty F42 Strobing Fan Brush
Sigma Beauty F42 Strobing Fan Brush $18.00

Fan brushes aren't just fun to look at, they actually serve two main purposes in your makeup routine: applying a gorgeous highlight and cleaning up powder makeup mistakes. Fan brushes have ultra-light bristles, perfectly shaped to run a delicate application of powder highlighter down your cheekbone and on the tip of your nose. They can also be used to dust off excess powder fallout from your eye shadow.

Concealer Brush

Clove + Hallow Precision Buffer Brush
Clove + Hallow Precision Buffer Brush $22.00

These useful little brushes allow you to apply product with precision to the areas of your face that a bigger brush can't get to (think: underneath the eyes, on either side of the nose, or over a blemish). Because concealers generally come in cream or liquid form, Phillips says to go for a synthetic brush. That said, if you have a liquid concealer that just won’t set under your eyes try using a natural hair brush—it’ll soak up some of the extra moisture and give lighter coverage.

Flat Eye Shadow Brush

Urban Decay Iconic Eyeshadow Brush
Urban Decay Iconic Eyeshadow Brush $24.00

A flat shader brush is definitely one you want to have in your collection—synthetic bristles that mimic natural hair are the way to go for defined, even application on the lid. This type of brush is perfect for packing on your favorite shimmer shade or for creating a halo eye. We're big fans of this one from Urban Decay—its medium size fits all eye shapes and picks up the perfect amount of product for even application.

Eye Shadow Crease Brush

Patrick Ta Eye Shadow Brush
Patrick Ta Eye Shadow Brush $22.00

If you're wondering what it takes to get that Instagram-worthy blend to your eyeshadow, look to crease brushes. While the size can vary, they typically are shaped to fit the curve of the eye, and some are slightly pointed at the tip. The shape of your crease brush can also lend itself to certain styles, whether it be a cut crease or softer definition, says Phillips.

Eyeliner Brush

Tarte Etch & Sketch Double-Ended Bamboo Liner Brush
Tarte Etch & Sketch Double-Ended Bamboo Liner Brush $15.00 $10.00

There are quite a few types of eyeliner brushes (smudgers, flat brushes, angled brushes), but a slim, super-fine brush like this one is handy for creating thin, precise lines. The bent side of this dual-ended tool is ergonomically-designed and specifically intended for winged liner-challenged folks while the straight side is best for precision work and crisper lines.

Pencil Brush

Mac 219S Synthetic Pencil Brush
Mac 219S Synthetic Pencil Brush $27.00

Pencil brushes are like the forgotten child of makeup brushes—they're underrated but you can't help but love them. You can use them for popping on a highlighter on the inner corners of the eyes, smoking out your lower lash line with shadow, adding definition along the edges of the eyes, or buffing out pencil liner. Phillips says you can also use this tool to get a crazy good cut crease.

Brow Brush

Benefit Angled Eyebrow Brush & Spoolie
Benefit Angled Eyebrow Brush & Spoolie $20.00

An angled brow brush is ultra handy for applying all kinds of brow products, like pomades, powders, and waxes. The spoolie is essential for grooming your brows and ensuring a polished finish. As an added bonus, you can also use it to create a cut crease.

Mascara Wands

Yueton Pack of 100 Disposable Eyelash Brushes
Yueton Pack of 100 Disposable Eyelash Brushes $7.00

You may think you won't have a use for such a tool, but you'll wish you had one on hand the next time your mascara decides to clump on you. Not only do mascara wands help with separating and defining your lashes, you can also use them to scrape off any accidental mascara smudges you get while applying (after they've dried, of course).

Lip Brush

Estee Lauder Lip Brush
Estee Lauder Lip Brush $30.00

A thin lip brush is so very useful for applying lip color flawlessly, especially when it comes to dark shades where precision is required. By applying with a brush, instead of straight from the tube, you can be far more accurate with outlining and filling in your lips. Plus, you can also use a lip brush to build color, which is much harder to do when you apply a lipstick directly.

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