Finding a good foundation brush should be so simple, right? But if you’ve ever had difficulty finding a foundation brush that works great for you, take comfort: you’re in good company, and there’s a legitimate, logical explanation for all the frustrating trial and error.
First of all, there are tons of different types of foundation brushes on the market, in terms of toe shapes, fibers, and quality. Then, there’s a mind-numbing number of foundations. Aside from liquids, minerals, clays and creams, there’s different formulations for skin types and finishes. What’s more, all foundations dry off at different speeds, which can also make a big difference in application. (Don’t you hate it when a product starts setting before you’ve finished blending it?!) And there’s different techniques for applying foundation, from stippling and buffing to swiping and patting.
So, bottom line, finding a brush that works well with your foundation and skin type can, in all seriousness, be a challenge. Which is why a number of cosmetics companies now try to pair their foundations with brushes meant to work with them, such as BareMinerals recent brush and foundation pairing in its new BareSkin serum foundation.
It may be tempting to be skeptical of these pairings — after all, they are trying to sell you another thing — but it can, honestly, make a difference.
So, how on earth to find the right brush for you? Well, you’ve come to the right place! This blog post has top recommendations in particular areas, as well as some all-around All Stars below.
Now, I’ve previously addressed the specific issue of mineral foundation brushes in a previous article, if you’re looking strictly for a brush to use with mineral makeup, but below I have some multitasking brushes that do mineral makeup and more.
As you read on, you’ll notice that the majority of these brushes are synthetic, which are simply more hygienic to use with foundation. Synthetics are also easier to clean because the microscopic surface structure of animal hair absorbs more product than a synthetic brush does, so there’s less wasted product to remove.
The first thing to consider in a foundation brush is toe shape.
The Classic Paddle
The classic foundation brush is a paddle style, and it has never totally gone out of style.
You can use this brush for liquid, cream, powder and mineral foundations, but caution: it will give especially high coverage with powder and mineral products so it takes a bit more skill to avoid looking like a clown.
After applying liquid foundation to this style of brush, usually using the back of the hand as a palette, one literally paints the face in broad strokes, eventually blending them together. With a paddle, it’s important to use a downward stroke to finish the look, a technique which helps look more flawless, because of the way it lays down facial hair and causes light to reflect off the face. One can largely control the degree of coverage with this brush and a liquid foundation, which is why many makeup artists still prefer them.
There are lots of solid paddle foundation brushes on the market, but our top pick is the Dior Fluid Foundation Brush ($45). It’s an exceptional brush, with amazingly soft synthetic fibers that are layered and tapered. The substantial toe of this paddle brush is simply not as flat as the others. It’s tapered from every angle which gives it some more useful dimensions.
This brush is also beautiful and artfully handcrafted by Raphaël, the French brush maker, whom we’ve written about before. Dior recommends its Diorskin Nude foundation with this brush, but this brush will perform admirably with most foundations because of the soft diffused taper of the toe.
While I am recommending this brush, I do so with an asterisk: If you buy this brush, make sure you buy it at the counter, so you can inspect the quality of the fit and finish. I have written about manufacturing variations with this brush, but I still believe this is the top paddle toe brush on the market.
Now, knowing that not everyone can afford, or would even want, to pay $40+ for a foundation brush, here are some other good paddle brushes: the Smashbox Foundation Brush #13 ($29) or the Real Techniques Essential Foundation Brush, which you can get for $12.59 in the Real Techniques Travel Essentials Set in a set that also includes several other useful brushes. Makeup By Joyce, who does a reliable comparison of some other paddle brushes, also said she prefers the Sonia Kashuk Synthetic Foundation Brush ($14.29).
This style of brush has grown incredibly popular in the past decade or so, and I previously covered the history of kabuki brushes and why they’re so hot here.
Suffice it to say that many women have discovered they enjoy using a kabuki brush to buff in liquid, cream or powder foundation, which gives a nice, diffused airbrush effect. Although this can be difficult style for people with dry, sensitive or acne-challenged skin, since it can aggravate things.
Some kabuki-style brushes are more densely packed, and really meant more for liquid foundations. Others that are more loosely packed are more designed for applying powders. Using a kabuki that is too densely packed with a mineral or powder foundation will, for most people, deposit too much foundation, creating an undesirable mask-like effect. Using one that is too loosely packed with fluid will just create a streaky mess. That said, it depends on the look you are chasing.
A brush with medium fiber density — that is not too densely packed and not too loose — like the popular Sigma F80 Flat Kabuki ($24) — can be deftly used with a variety of foundation products.
Aside from the Sigma F80, the Sonia Kashuk Flat Top Multipurpose Brush No. 4 is in our Hall of Fame for all-time awesome brushes. It is also in the medium-pack range, which means it’s good for most everything. It’s price is now $15.79 at Target.com, where you can get this brush. (Don’t even bother trying to find it the store, unless you are already there for something else, as it’s almost never in stock.)
Now, we’re going to mention a few super densely packed kabuki brushes that are best used with liquid foundations. The biggest challenge with this style of brush is that they are extremely difficult to clean, whereas the more loosely packed kabukis mentioned above are far easier to clean, given that you can access the quick of the brush a bit better.
The Shiseido Perfect Foundation Brush ($30) is a popular brush in this category, but it is notorious for being difficult to clean and for having a teensey-weensy toe, which means it takes longer to apply and blend product. The other most awesome brush in this tightly packed category is the Dior Fluid Foundation Brush ($45; synthetic). The head of this brush is a bit more substantial and a tad more angled at the top. Also, the handle is longer, which is notable because the Shiseido handle is tiny. Both of these brushes are essentially like drawing a line of foundation on your face with a sharpie, so very high-coverage and very dense, perfect application.
But as we’ve already stated: very difficult to clean. One Nordstrom reviewer writes about the Dior brush: “I LOVED it for about 2 weeks. After 2 weeks of use (in-between washes) I found that the brush would absorb my foundation and to this day, no matter how many washes, soaks, or different make up brush cleansing tonics, will not release the trapped makeup! This brush is a bacteria infestation! It has caused a breakout galore on my face. I’ve finally given up. I’ve decided to order a bigger brush …”
You will find a series of similar reviews about the Shiseido Perfect Foundation Brush, too.
If you’re looking for a loosely packed kabuki brush for foundation, like the A-line Heavenly Face Brush ($30; goat hair) below here from bareMinerals, you should really only be using powder or mineral makeup with it, and I refer you to our post on the best mineral brushes here.
Another popular, versatile style of foundation brush is the domed brush, and they are usually good for all manner of foundations. The durable dome shape is especially well suited to thicker, highly pigmented formulations that can benefit from extra diffusion and blending. That’s because a dome won’t flatten out too much when buffing on the face, even with a fair amount of pressure. When used with lighter foundations, this style of brush can also help achieve a very natural finish.
Domed brushes, with their tapered brush lengths, are skillful at diffusing product across the face, rather than depositing heavy like a kabuki. They are best used in quick circular motions after patting or stippling some product onto the face.
The two top picks here are, first, the Urban Decay Good Karma Optical Blurring Brush ($25) and, second, the larger Tarte Airbrush Finish Bamboo Foundation Brush ($32). Both have a cult following, with nearly 5-star reviews by hundreds of users, and for good reason.
The Urban Decay brush (left) has a unique metal body style that feels weighty in the hand and is not matched anywhere, with a substantial synthetic toe and just-right density. It’s user friendly and it cleans up easily.
The synthetic Tarte brush (right) is much larger, so it covers more face quickly. It also has a bamboo handle that is very organic and earthy in the hand. It also cleans up easily, but Tarte warns not to get the bamboo handle wet, which is worth considering. When wood gets wet and dries, it expands and contracts, which could eventually loosen it from the ferrule. Although it’s an easy fix with some super glue …
People just adore both of these brushes, and you will not be unhappy with either one of them. A much more affordable domed brush is the perennial Real Techniques Expert Face Brush ($7-9), a Taklon synthetic brush. Most people feel the Tarte and Urban Decay brushes are a step up from the RT brush, but they are much more expensive, so one should expect that.
If you have any doubt about the power of a domed diffuser brush, just check out the transformation (scroll down) on Sheila over at Painted Ladies.
Skunky Stippling Brushes
So, it feels like stippling was a bit of a fad that has been displaced by buffing kabuki and dome brushes.
So, if you want to read about stippling foundation brushes, which are pretty much one-trick ponies, go here. Our top pick is the MAC Duo Fiber Face Brush #187 ($42), a blend of goat and synthetic fiber, or the Real Techniques Stippling Brush ($9.99), which is fully synthetic Taklon.
Moving on …
The beauty business never gives up in its quest to bring you a better brush. (That’s because the newer the brush style, the more they can charge you for it. Usually.)
The Estee Lauder Sculpting Foundation Brush ($45), for liquid foundation and a natural finish. This new sickle-style brush is a really awesome shape for swiping foundation on the face. The higher point reaches skillfully under the eyes and it also swipes across the forehead in a manner that is curved to miss eyebrows and widow peaks. You can also turn this toe vertically to draw a straight line.
The handle is also substantial, a nice length and a wider-diameter barrel that makes it easy to grip.
But the big thing here is the clever, clever toe shape.
The challenge with this brush: the hair. Marketing materials do *not* disclose what it is, but it looks like goat in person. Anyway, it’s going to be too stiff for some folks, probably so that it could maintain this unique shape. But it’s going to be way too scratchy for people with sensitive skin or acne or other issues.
Over at Sephora, folks are complaining that it “hurts my face,” while another reviewer writes that the brush “left streaks galore” and she had to use her optical blurring brush from Urban Decay “to finish the job.” At Nordstrom, the reviews are not so great either, with one headline declaring it “stiff and difficult.”
So, we would not recommend this brush for people with sensitive skin. But we do like the toe shape; the hair choice is just, well, disappointing. An advanced soft synthetic would have been so wonderful here …
But it’s still a great brush for those who do not have sensitive skin. I tried to soften mine by washing it and conditioning the hair with hair conditioner, which had okay results. I use this brush almost every day and find it requires a few downward strokes to finish the look.
A similar, but not identical, brush with soft synthetic brushes is the Sephora Pro Visionary Face Blender Brush ($32).
Real Techniques Triangle Foundation Brush ($24), for liquid and cream foundation, medium-to-high coverage. Beauty lovers are giving this funky-cool looking brush some high looks for its appearance, unique toe shape, which helps to get into angled crevices of the face. But overall, it’s getting mixed reviews, largely because folks just can’t reconcile the price on this RT brush.
“It’s too expensive for what it is,” one Ulta reviewer writes. Another reviewer adds: “I wanted to love it I REALLY DID! But I am so disappointed. I understand that these brushes are “better quality” but honestly the less expensive ones do a better job.”
If the price was more in line with RT’s normal $10 range, customers would probably be happier with it. But the point of new toe shapes is to charge you more, so … anyway ,,,
The Artis Oval 6 ($48) or Oval 8 ($62). This is the new iPhone of makeup brushes. Truly different, truly elegant, true performance. It leans toward a natural finish and this is a buff-in type of application.
Best All-Around Foundation Brush?
So, if you were stranded on a desert island with just one brush for all your foundation needs, which brush should you choose? Hmmm …. How on earth do you choose just one?
If you can only afford to just choose one, go with the Real Techniques Expert Face Brush! It’s a great, versatile starter brush for under $10. It cleans up easily, too.
Other Thoughts on Foundation Brushes