Having sensitive skin means taking nothing for granted. Stocking up on laundry detergent? Make sure to avoid potentially irritating ingredients. Looking for a serum? Remember to do a patch test and slowly ease it into your routine. Basically, anything that touches your skin becomes subject to scrutiny. Something you may not have thought of, however, is finding suitable makeup brushes for sensitive skin.
There are two basic types of makeup brushes, according to Jenny Patinkin, makeup artist and founder of her eponymous beauty brand. There are natural animal hair brushes, and brushes that are synthetic (also known as vegan). Within these two categories, however, there is also lots of variation. Animal hair brushes are typically made from horse, goat, or squirrel hair. “Most professional makeup artists will say that blue squirrel hair brushes from Japan are the best,” says Patinkin. But with all of the innovation in the beauty industry, there are plenty of vegan options to pick from. “There are a lot that have an identical feel [to natural brushes] without the need to harm any animals,” she tells Bustle. These are mainly made from materials like nylon and polyester.
Both kinds of makeup brushes have their unique perks, but using the “wrong” one when you have sensitive skin can lead to a few issues. The bristles can be scratchy or put too much pressure on your face and cause irritation for one, says Patinkin. An unsuitable makeup brush can also stretch or pull your complexion, which affects the skin barrier, says Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. The third issue? Brushes can collect bacteria and fungus over time, says Nazarian. While that’s unfavorable for everyone, sensitive skin types are more susceptible to breakouts from this buildup.
Here, experts explain everything you need to know about finding the right makeup brush for sensitive skin.
We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
1. Stick To Synthetic Brushes
According to both pros, synthetic brushes are the way to go if your skin’s on the sensitive side – for reasons other than avoiding animal byproducts.
First of all, you can find synthetic brushes that are also hypoallergenic, meaning they’re unlikely to cause any sort of allergic reaction. These are also less likely to collect the types of germs that cause breakouts, says Nazarian.
Natural brushes, on the other hand, are more likely to become dried out, brittle, and scratchy over time, according to Patinkin. Just think of the way your hair can feel like straw when it’s dry or over-processed — the last thing you want is to be brushing something that rough all over your sensitive skin.
When it comes to sponges (like a Beautyblender), it’s a mixed bag. “Many sponges cause friction and pull against the skin during makeup application,” says Nazarian, who prefers brushes. Patinkin, however, says that some sponges can blow up to a damp and soft texture which can be soothing and suitable for sensitive skin types. If you’re going this route, make sure your sponge is cushiony and not abrasive on your face.
2. Look For Soft, Loosely Packed Bristles
An important albeit obvious requirement is that the bristles be extremely soft. “There should be no sense of irritation or itching when coming into contact with the brush,” Nazarian says.
To ensure it’s soft enough, Nazarian tells Bustle the bristles should bend easily: When you run your fingers over it, a soft brush will have bristles that fold immediately with the pressure.
Aside from being soft, brushes should have a tapered end and not be densely packed, says Patinkin. “A blunt machine-cut tip on a makeup brush will feel scratchy,” she explains, which can cause irritation. These also tend to exert too much pressure on the face when you’re applying makeup. Ultimately, when you use a brush, it should feel like “it’s lightly floating the product on,” she says.
3. Use A Light Hand
Once you’ve found your ideal brush(es), you can still cause irritation by misusing them, Nazarian and Patinkin both say. “Pressure is a trigger for many people with sensitive skin,” says Nazarian, which is why she suggests using a light hand — otherwise, you can wind up with inflammation and potential breakouts. “Be gentle and apply as little pressure as needed to transfer makeup or product,” she advises.
4. Wash Brushes Frequently
If you don’t wash your brushes, you will render your whole effort of finding the right product moot. “Some vegan brushes can accumulate pigments and oils on the surface,” says Patinkin. When your brush isn’t cleaned, that buildup is then spread all over your face and can lead to acne.
In your search for a brush cleanser, search for something specific to the product category. Nazarian says this is important for ensuring the formula is equipped to remove the oil, dirt, and waterproof ingredients frequently found in cosmetics. The less ingredients in these products, the better, adds Patinkin. You want to avoid a formula packed with heavy oils as it will weigh down or leave a coating on your brushes. She also advises skipping anything with fragrance, since this is a culprit for irritation on sensitive skin types.
Lastly, brushes should be washed more frequently than you’d (probably) like. Patinkin says this should be once a week for someone wearing makeup regularly. Keep scrolling to shop sensitive skin-friendly makeup brushes and brush cleansers for your beauty cabinet.
A Daily Brush Cleanser
Keeping your brushes clean is essential to keep breakouts at bay — especially when your skin’s sensitive. And even if your skin isn’t in that category, it’s a good hygienic practice that’ll keep your makeup application more seamless and pigmented. This spray from Anisa is the dry-shampoo of brush cleansers — it’ll keep your brushes in near-pristine shape in between actual washes. Spritz it on your brushes after every use and dash out excess liquid as the formula quickly air dries.
A Gentle Brush Soap
Your makeup brush cleanser should not only rid your brushes of any pigment, product, or bacteria that are gathered, but it should also keep your products soft. This soap is fragrance-free, anti-bacterial, and anti-microbial to ensure you can use your tools without the stress of residual detergents creating irritation on your skin.
A Soft-As-Clouds All-Over Brush
Personally, this is the brush that I thought of after reading through the experts’ specifications: It’s incredibly soft, and I use it for any powder makeup application as well as all over my body for purely ASMR purposes.
Derm-Approved Eyeshadow Brushes
Dome Beauty makes brushes that are soft, gentle, and hypoallergenic, which is why Nazarian recommendss them as ideal for sensitive skin types. These three eye makeup brushes are all you need in your arsenal to achieve any and every look.
A Full Set Of Face Brushes
These brushes were created with almost architectural precision. They’re weighted at the bristles for a more precise and impactful application, the handles are long for steady use, and the space between the bristles and the handles are spaced out so that the washing process doesn’t leave behind any residue.
An Easy Eye Makeup Brush
If you are a one and done type of makeup person, consider this Fenty brush, which is essentially a desert island tool. The wide shape and fanned out bristles make this ideal for quickly and easily spreading pigment across your lid.
A Travel-Sized Cult-Favorite Brush
Too Faced’s Mr. Right brush collection is an under-the-radar cult favorite. For years it has come up by friends and beauty industry insiders alike whenever I ask for brush recommendations. Nazarian also recommends it for its plush and soft bristles. This specific brush within the line is perfect for traveling or as a daily companion to keep in your purse.
Bashir, A. (2019). Microbiological study of used cosmetic products: highlighting possible impact on consumer health. Journal of Applied Microbiology. https://doi.org/10.1111/jam.14479
Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City