I guess I am a bit of a Neanderthal when it comes to applying makeup. In general, I apply concealer and eye shadow with my fingers. I own exactly one makeup brush – it has a long handle and a big, fluffy mound of bristles. I only use it to apply bronzer, which I wear maybe once or twice a week. Only after researching for this article did I realize that my tool had an official name: a powder brush. That sounded simple enough. But little did I know that there are dozens of different makeup brushes available to the beauty conscious consumer, and that these brushes can be made of synthetic materials or natural animal hair.

Julie Kay gave the TIA community some insight into the importance of having the right tools in order to truly achieve a truly quality look from your (hopefully) quality makeup. She uses both synthetic and animal makeup brushes, which is definitely the way to go; both types serve different purposes.

As a general rule, synthetic brushes are made from nylon or taklon. Both man made materials have regular, smooth surfaces. This makes them easy to clean and a good choice for those concerned with hygiene. Also, because of their smooth surface, synthetic brushes do not absorb and trap makeup, which makes them ideal for liquid or creamy makeup (including foundations and concealers). One of the most appealing things about synthetic brushes is that they are almost universally less expensive than natural ones. However, synthetic brushes need to be replaced much more frequently than high quality natural brushes since they tend to stiffen over time, and their bristles may fan out.

Natural makeup brushes have hair derived from badgers, squirrels, horses and ponies, goats, sables, weasels, kolinskies and other creatures. The reason that natural makeup brushes are more expensive than synthetics is because they cost more to make and because professional makeup artists tend to favor them for their softness and because they are excellent at creating a natural look (as opposed to synthetic brushes that are harder and tend to create more defined lines). Natural animal hair (just like human hair) has an irregular surface, which trap powders and other cosmetics very well; when you press the brush to your face, the makeup is delivered to the skin more effectively than it is with a synthetic brush. However, along with trapping makeup, natural makeup brushes trap bacteria, dead skin cells and chemicals. In addition, natural brushes may pose as an allergy risk for some people. Finally, some consumers might have an issue with the animal cruelty issues that surround the production of natural makeup brushes.

Once you have decided on synthetic brushes or natural brushes or both, you need to evaluate your makeup routine. If you never wear lipstick and don’t even own the cosmetic, then you won’t need to invest in a lip brush. If your entire look revolves around your eye shadow, then you’ll probably want to invest in a flat tapered brush and a small dome brush. From what I gather, powder brushes and blush brushes are interchangeable, though you may want to use a large dome brush or a kabuki brush for powder, and a denser brush for blush, as the latter will deliver a more prominent, intense color to your cheeks. And the best brush for eyeliner is either an angled or a point brush; the former will give you a nice smoky eye if you so choose, and the latter will give you a cleaner line.

While I am all for frugality, I have found that my old, generic powder brush is not quite up to my standards. I don’t want to walk around with synthetic hairs that have shed from my brush on my cheeks, and that’s exactly what has been happening. Wallet-friendly options that are well reviewed include Sonia Kashuk’s makeup brushes, which are sold exclusively at Target, and EcoTools brushes, which are cruelty-free and earth-friendly. The more high-end option that seems to be a favorite of makeup artists is MAC.