Hot take: You don’t actually need a thousand makeup brushes or makeup blending sponges (great news for those of you who have already broken your New Year’s resolution to start cleaning your makeup brushes more often). Seriously, some of the most best makeup artists just use the warmth of their clean hands and fingers to blend and melt makeup into the skin. But if you are not a famous makeup artist and need all the extra help and tools you can get, makeup brushes can be your very, very best friends—albeit kinda tricky to decode.
First, makeup applicators not only come in a wide range of sizes, but also different materials, bristle shapes, lengths, and density. And second, just to make the whole thing more confusing, brands rarely name their brushes by WTF you’re supposed to do with them and instead rely on random numbers that eventually rub off anyway.
Because I, too, have occasionally spent more time Googling my tools than using them, I researched all the best makeup brushes to create the below handy guide. Follow along so you’re never left wondering the difference between stippling and shading again.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Kabuki Brush
Its name might not ring a bell, but if you’ve ever played around with makeup, this classic makeup brush definitely will. Made famous by Kabuki Japanese drama theater, this style of brush is most commonly recognized by it’s short, chubby handle and very dense, firm, flat or dome-shaped bristles.
A synthetic kabuki brush can be used to apply liquid foundation or body makeup for a medium-to-full coverage, but the density of the brush makes it perfect for packing on superfine powders or mineral foundation for a fuller-coverage finish.
How to use a kabuki brush:
Because these bristles are so dense and firm, you’ll probs find that a slight pressure is necessary for working the product into the skin. Use the tips of the bristles to pick up the product, then swirl and buff to diffuse it across your face.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Stippling Brush
In a lot of ways, the stippling brush is the opposite of the kabuki brush. This type of makeup brush is known for its duo fibers, which means the brush is packed with two different kinds and lengths of bristles to make the brush more compact at the base and finer toward the top.
When you want a softer foundation application or a more airbrushed effect, stick with the stipple (which, fun fact, quite literally means many small specks). Because of the lighter coverage it provides, these brushes are also ideal for applying tinted moisturizer or sheering out cream blushes and liquid highlighters without messing up the product underneath (you ever blended those on with your fingers, only to be left with patchiness? Exactly).
How to use a stippling brush:
Dip the bristles into the liquid makeup, or swipe the bristles into a cream stick or powder, then lightly swirl the bristles into your skin. Remember: Just the tips. If you have a heavy hand or the tendency to jab your brushes into your skin (why do we do this?!), hold the brush by the very end, giving you virtually no control over the brush. Then think gently blending the makeup, not bending the bristles.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Foundation Brush
While using a foundation brush for your liquid makeup is optional (you can opt for a sponge or your clean fingers instead), you absolutely do need to use some sort of application brush for your mineral or powder foundation. Enter: the foundation brush.
These kinds of brushes are typically dense and can be pinched flat (like a paintbrush) or full, rounded, and dome-shaped. While some people prefer synthetic bristles (which are easier to clean) for their liquid formulas and natural bristles (which are more porous) for their powders, I’m all about synthetic—the quality has improved vastly over the years and can easily be used for both.
How to use a foundation brush:
For a perfectly smooth foundation application, start in the middle of your face (cheeks and T-zone) and blend your foundation outward in smooth, even strokes to prevent harsh makeup lines around the edges of your jawline and hairline.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Blending Sponge
Remember how I said a brush for liquid foundation is optional? That’s because many makeup artists and YouTubers opt for sponges to get an airbrushed, streak-free finish. Thanks to their rounded, smooth shape, sponges won’t leave behind any weird lines or stray bristles, and their damp surfaces help sheer out your foundation, concealer, or cream blush for a natural finish.
How to use a blending sponge:
The trick to using a sponge most effectively is to saturate it with running water, squeeze out the excess, then squeeze it a few more times in a clean towel or paper towel. This wetting process will not only prevent your sponge from soaking up all of your foundation (because it’s already damp with water) but will also help blend your makeup as smoothly as possible. Use the sponge’s broad sides to stamp and stipple your cream formulas across your face and the sponge’s tip to reach crevices around your nose and eyes.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Concealer Brush
Think of concealer brushes as small-scale foundation brushes. Whether you’re looking to pack on the product under your eyes or cover up a bright-red zit, these synthetic brushes are ideal for targeting small, specific areas that you want concealed. Sure, you can use the spongey, doe-foot applicator straight from the concealer tube, but a brush like this one is not only more hygienic but also offers a more realistic, even finish.
How to use a concealer brush:
Dab the tip of the brush into a tiny amount of concealer, then gently tap or pat the brush on your zits, your under eyes, whatever. After the area has been covered, blend out the edges while being careful not to wipe away the rest of the concealer. Other great uses: sharpening and cleaning up messy eye makeup or feathered lipstick edges.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Powder Brush
If shiny T-zones or under-eye creases are your main annoyance, allow me to introduce you to your new best friend: setting powder…and, along for the ride, powder brushes. Depending on the area you’re looking to cover, the size of this brush varies from small to large and typically has long, dense, fluffy bristles. It’s meant to ever-so-lightly “set” your liquid/cream foundations or buff and blend out powder foundations, depending on your needs.
How to use a powder brush:
Use the fluffy bristles to pick up a fine layer of loose powder (tap—don’t blow—off the excess first) and dust it over your T-zone and under your eyes. Load up the product to “bake” your makeup or use a light dusting to quickly set your foundation or concealer.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Bronzer/Blush Brush
Bronzer, blush, and powder brushes are similar enough that one could do the job of many, yes, but who has the time to clean them between each step (and don’t you dare think about using just one brush and not cleaning it). Find a bronzer and/or blush brush with long, fluffy bristles and a dome shape to evenly diffuse your powder pigments. The fluffier it is, the less product it will pick up (which is ideal when you want a wash of color).
How to use a bronzer/blush brush:
When it comes to bronzer and blush, the way you use the brush is almost more important than the brush itself. For bronzer, loosely sweep the brush in a “3” pattern, starting from your forehead, cutting across your cheekbones, then moving back out and down to your jawline. For blush, lightly swirl the product on the apples of your cheeks and blend it up into your cheekbones.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Contour Brush
The contour brush is a hard one to pick out of a crowd simply because it can appear so many different ways. The bristles on some are cut sharp and straight across, while others may take on more of an “S” shape to hug the shape of your cheekbones. The slanted contour brush is the most versatile and makes it easier to contour for your face shape by blending your contour powder cleanly and precisely beneath your cheekbones, jawline, and forehead. Use a brush with blunt bristles and a sharp edge for a sharper sculpt, or use one with a softer slanted shape for a subtle shade.
How to use a contour brush:
Swirl the brush into your contour powder, tap off the excess (important), then gently glide the brush back and forth below your cheekbones to emphasize your natural contours. For an even more chiseled look, reload the brush and swirl it under your jawline and along your hairline as well.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Highlighter Brush
The shape of your highlighting brush totally depends on the level of glow you want. Use a brush with very long bristles (like a fan brush or a long, tapered brush) for a more diffused effect, or grab a brush with short, dense bristles for a super-bright opaque highlight.
How to use a highlighter brush:
Swirl your brush over a powder face highlighter, tap off the excess, then lightly blend the brush over the tops of your cheekbones, brow bones, Cupid’s bow, and anywhere else the light naturally hits your face. Wanted an even brighter highlight? Spritz your brush first with a setting spray to enhance the pigment payoff.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Eyeshadow Shader Brush
Okay, despite the extra-sounding name, an eyeshadow shading brush is actually key for getting an opaque, even layer of color on your lids. These brushes are typically flat, rounded at the tip, and dense, so they can pick up a bunch of powder or cream for a concentrated color payoff.
How to use an eyeshadow shader brush:
After rubbing the brush over your eyeshadow, pat or press the product onto your eyelids, gently swirling the brush around the edges to blend them out. You can also mist your brush with a setting spray first to deepen the opacity of a powder eyeshadow or to better pick up glittery pigments.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Eyeshadow Blending Brush
Unlike a shader brush, which essentially packs on the pigments to get your lids a ton of color, an eyeshadow blending brush, well, blends out the powders for a really sheer, diffused finish—basically the smoke behind a smokey eye or the trick to a natural-looking shadow lewk. These brushes are known for their tapered shape and soft, fluffy bristles to help you really blend, blend, and blend without scratching the hell out of your lids.
How to use an eyeshadow blending brush:
Swipe the fluffy bristles into the crease of your lids with a windshield-wiper motion to diffuse your eyeshadow, and swirl it around the edges of your eyes when blending multiple shades on top of one another.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Pencil Brush
A pencil brush kind of does it all: smudges out your cream eyeliner, pushes eyeshadow straight into your lash line, helps you precisely blend beneath your lashes, etc. When the other brushes are too big or too fluffy, grab this stiff, dense, tapered brush—especially if you plan to do a smokey eye or any hazy, blended-out shadow.
How to use a pencil brush:
After you’ve applied your eyeliner, use the pointed tip of the brush to gently smudge it out. Or skip eyeliner and use the tip to smoke out your eyeshadow underneath your bottom lashes. You can also pinpoint smaller areas around the eye, such as the inner and outer corners, when applying intense pigment.
Makeup Brush Guide: The Eyebrow Brush
You’ve definitely seen—and probably even brushed—your brows with a spoolie or comb before, but a dual-ended eyebrow brush like this one also has flat, blunt, and angled bristles to help you draw individual brow hairs using brow cream, gel, or powder.
How to use an eyebrow brush:
Use the firm, slanted bristles on this small eyebrow brush to fill in sparse brows with eyebrow powder, then comb through your brows to soften them if you’ve filled them in with too much product. Alternate use: combing, taming, and de-clumping your lashes—just make sure the spoolie is clean first.