Makeup options are pretty much infinite. Just think about foundation for a moment: There are multiple types of shades, textures and consistencies to choose from, like liquid, powder, mineral powder or pressed, just to name a few. And this means that there are a variety of types of makeup to consider when investing in most products. Most. Makeup brushes are an entirely different story. In fact, there are are only two major types of makeup brushes out there: Those with synthetic bristles and those with natural ones.
For makeup artists and beauty junkies alike, there usually exists a preference. Whether you’re strictly a natural brush user or swear by synthetics, both have their pros and cons. (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, that's totally okay, too, because this is what I’m here for!) The fact of the matter is, choosing between synthetic and natural makeup brushes is more political and detailed than the average brush/makeup-consumer might think. While both are mass produced (and both are pretty popular), it’s important to know the difference since the subject ties back into social issues and the art of applying makeup itself.
In an effort to distinguish the difference between the two, below is a run down of both synthetic and natural brushes with some added wisdom from your favorite makeup artists and users.
Synthetic makeup brushes are, well, made of synthetic bristles — hand-crafted out of materials like polyester and nylon. Sometimes they are dyed to look like natural brushes — to a dark cream or brown color — but they can also look like white plastic. They aren’t quite as soft as natural brushes, but they’re much less expensive and come in many styles and brands. Plus, they’re also much easier to wash because the bristles aren’t coated with anything and don’t shed as much as natural ones.
As far as application goes, synthetic brushes tend to work best with liquid and cream products. Think concealers/foundation, lipsticks, or even cream blushes. If you’re a big fan of using a damp sponge to apply your base, switching to a synthetic brush might be smart because they don't absorb as much product and are super simple to blend with (so say goodbye to that foundation line you always get around your jaw).
This is also the case for any cream-based product used with a natural brush; natural brushes will absorb the cream and, in turn, stain and ruin the brush when synthetic brushes will get the job done — no muss, no fuss. Tom Pecheux told Into The Gloss backstage at a Derek Lam show that you must use synthetic brushes with cream-based products. He noted that synthetic bristles lie flat, where natural bristles may poof and become fluffy, only making it more difficult to apply those cream-based cosmetics.
Because synthetic makeup brushes are completely made of man-made materials, they’re almost always cruelty free and PETA approved. Synthetic brushes promise that, based on the sole materials used to make them, no animals were harmed in the process of their creation — something that is a little murkier when considering natural makeup brushes.
Brands like Real Techniques, Urban Decay, Too Faced, and EcoTools make exclusively synthetic brushes, and some even have cruelty-free, sustainable objectives. On the EcoTools website, they make it clear that their brushes “are beautiful and show respect for the earth.”
Natural brushes are typically made out of animal hair and fur, from animals like boars, squirels and goats. Often they are dark in color, but it really depends on the animal that the bristles are from. Natural brushes are blissfully soft, although they do have a tendency to shed. Unlike synthetic brushes, they are quite difficult to wash because they hold onto pigments so well, and are usually more expensive. Brushes with natural bristles do pose a threat to people with allergies because their bristles are made from animal furs and hairs, which can then cause allergies or bad reactions — in which case it’s probably best to switch to synthetics!
That being said, natural brushes are the best ones to work on with pigments. Michelle Phan explains it best on her blog:
“Brushes made with real, authentic hair, pick up pigment and distribute it in fewer motions than brushes made with synthetic hair. That’s because the hair follicle of an actual living thing has tiny little porous holes in it. So when you have a bunch of these hairs brought together and you try to pick up a powder or a substance, the tiny porous holes can actually hold onto and cling onto the pigment."
Phan also points out that using natural brushes can help with a MUA’s application because they allow for more control and precision when applying. She notes that this specific characteristic of natural brushes is the reason why so many natural brushes are still being used and why they're preferred in the beauty industry.
Natural brush brands include SHANY cosmetic brushes, ETA Ultra, and Sonia Kashuk (who actually has a synthetic brush line also). It's also worth keeping in mind that brush brands will usually specify what kind of material their bristles are made from, but once in a while, they don't!
When I last purchased a set of makeup brushes, it was a hasty buy for a desperately needed eyeliner brush. At that time and in that moment, I didn’t concern myself with natural bristles or synthetic bristles: I just need something to apply my eyeliner with that wasn’t my five-year-old crusty paint brush well beyond it’s time. At my time of need, any brush would have done the job. But knowing the difference between synthetic brushes and natural ones has given me a better understanding of not only how makeup can be applied, but also the materials with which to apply it.
So whether you’re an avid natural brush user, or have most often stuck to the synthetic brushes, it’s worth knowing what kind of tools you’re using. Especially if you’re in the market for a new set.
Hey, all the more excuse to spend some more time shopping, right?
Images: Getty; Giphy; Courtesy Brands