There’s technically no rule against using your fingers to do your makeup. And sure, you can totally still use those little triangular sponges you get at the drugstore, but if you want high-quality results, it’s time to invest in a great makeup brush set. In fact, the best makeup brushes aren’t always the most expensive, and you don’t need dozens of different types to get almost any look.
“The most important question to ask when looking for a brush is if it distributes product properly,” says Debie Kim, an NYC-based makeup artist. “As a pro, I also need something with a comfortable handle and hairs that won’t shed. More expensive definitely does not mean better quality!”
While there are hundreds of different makeup brush types on the market, Kim says that the only ones that are truly necessary are a foundation brush, a fluffy powder brush, a flat concealer brush and a small blending brush. “The possibilities are endless with those in your set,” she adds.
And while you can — and should — go the a la carte route for the most custom kit possible, sets are often a great way to try out a bunch of brushes at a better price. “A good makeup brush set should include brushes for the face, eyes and brows,” says Kristen Fortier, makeup artist and product innovation lead for Crunchi Cosmetics. “It will also offer versatility within the set so that each brush can be used for multiple makeup applications.”
We asked the experts for their favorite makeup brushes, sets and even sponges. Here are their favorites.
Best makeup brushes for beginners
If you’re not sure where to start, a makeup brush set is a great way to try out different types of brushes to decide what you need — all without spending a ton of money.
Kim recommends sets from ColourPop and Morphe, which make “amazing brushes at accessible price points.” This 12-piece set made in collaboration with celebrity makeup artist Ariel Tejada (AKA @makeupbyariel) will have your full face beat covered.
An editor and influencer favorite, this 11-piece set from makeup artist Katie Jane Hughes has every brush you’d ever need.
Run, don’t walk. This 14-piece vegan brush set is valued at almost $150, and it’s one of the cult-favorite brand’s bestsellers.
Underscored beauty editor Sophie Shaw loves Real Techniques’ affordable brushes. They’re super soft and fluffy, and make application a breeze. You can grab this multi-use brush set for less than $30.
With tons of 5-star reviews, this basic brush set from Sephora is a great value and covers all of your face and eye makeup needs.
Makeup brushes for foundation
Base makeup brushes are meant to blend foundation, concealer, blush and powder into a seamless finish — and the best ones do just that.
“The Chanel No. 100 is a luxurious foundation brush that applies liquid foundation like a dream,” says Kim.
Kristina Zias, model and host of the Confident Collective podcast, says this concealer brush is her absolute favorite. “I think it makes such a big difference under eyes and when hiding blemishes.”
“The high-quality soft, synthetic bristles are not as porous as animal hair and therefore absorb less product during application, reducing waste and resulting in longer lasting cosmetics,” says Fortier. “My must-have brush is the No. 1 Flat-Top Brush for an airbrushed foundation finish,” she says, with the brand’s No. 2 Powder Brush coming in at a close second.
Currently on sale at Amazon, the It Cosmetics double-ended brush is Kim’s pick for liquid or cream products because it’s “incredibly soft and helps achieve an airbrush finish.”
Makeup brushes for contour
Whether you prefer an intense contour or more of a diffused effect, the proper makeup brushes will help you achieve your desired look.
This Kevyn Aucoin brush is perfect for buffing in contour or bronzer and can even be used as a foundation brush in a pinch.
This top-rated angled-top brush is great for blending contour into the hollows of the face, as well as the jawline.
Beauty legend Pat McGrath’s makeup line has earned itself cult status, and the tools in her collection are frequently spotted backstage at New York Fashion Week and beyond. This highlighting brush is great for an even sweep.
Makeup brushes for bronzer and blending
Applying bronzer and blush is all about creating a seamless blend of color, so big, fluffy brushes work best.
“For powder blush, I love how the Anastasia Beverly Hills A23 Pro Brush gently sweeps on color and lets you gradually build intensity,” Kim says.
LA-based influencer Meeka Hossain loves Make Beauty’s Universal Powder brush, which is made from synthetic bristles and leaves a natural finish.
Another favorite of Hossain’s is Hourglass’s dual-sided Veil Brush, which is meant for both blush and finishing powder.
Makeup brushes for eyeshadow
Oftentimes, brushes for eyeshadow, brows and eyeliner are smaller and can sometimes be used interchangeably — but if you’re looking for a sharp cat eye or precise application, these are the ones experts love most.
“The Real Techniques 301 base shadow brush is one of my favorites for effortlessly applying and blending a sweep of color on the eye,” Kim shares. For less than $10, you get that brush, plus a crease brush and an angled brow brush in this convenient set.
“I know it’s not technically a [brow] brush, but I use the slanted side for all my shadow to eyeliner makeup,” says Zias.
“Crunchi’s Luxury Vegan eye brushes help create an airbrushed finish, blend product beautifully and are versatile for countless eye looks,” says Fortier, who recommends brushes No. 6-9 for a full kit.
Kim says she reaches for this brush for a sharp cat eye or slim eyeliner look. “It makes me so happy how thin and razor-sharp it is,” she says.
“I love that it’s a dual-ended brush with the bigger end perfect for blending eyeshadow colors and the smaller end for highlighting and sculpting,” says Hossain.
Kim says the Hourglass No. 11 brush is “excellent for detail work, like deepening outer corners or blending liner.”
Best makeup sponges
While sponges are often second to brushes in terms of application — Fortier says she likes to use a sponge for lightweight product like cream highlighter — most experts by and large agreed that there’s one makeup sponge to rule them all: “My personal favorite is still a damp BeautyBlender,” says Kim. “I haven’t found a sponge that tops its application.
Zias, who says she uses a BeautyBlender for most base makeup, says the all-in-one sponge is a major time-saver for an everyday look. One thing to keep in mind: Be sure to squeeze out excess water before using a makeup sponge, and replace it every six to eight weeks to keep clear of any mold or mildew growth.
“A close second is by a smaller brand called Orcé, which is good at getting into tight corners and also happens to be a stunning shade of blue,” says Kim.
Fortier recommends to “look for one that is made with high-quality materials, sustainable materials and is easy to sanitize.“ While reviewers say they were surprised by the texture of this microfiber sponge, they were equally delighted by how flawlessly it applies makeup — and how easy it is to clean.
How often should makeup brushes be cleaned?
Experts agree: No brush is worth the money if you’re not going to clean it properly. Fortier recommends cleaning brushes once per week with a mild soap and warm water.
You can check out our full guide to cleaning makeup brushes for more tips and product recommendations. Plus, here are few more expert-loved picks.
Kim says that many pro artists, herself included, “like this soap for getting out everything without drying out the bristles.”
A favorite of Fortier’s, this silicone cleansing pad traps dirt and grime that can build up on brushes, even if you’ve cleansed them with warm water. She says it “makes it easy to lather and gently scrub your brushes clean. With proper care, your makeup brushes will last for years to come.”