The tools of the beauty trade are many and varied, but in general, makeup brushes can be divided into two categories: natural and synthetic. Hare’s feet may no longer be in circulation for makeup application, but if the idea of setting your makeup with squirrel fur gives you the creeps, it pays to be informed as to the material, source and particular specialism of the brushes in your kit. Here’s the lowdown on the two main brush types, along with a few pros and cons to consider…
Natural might seem like the way to go given the current preoccupation with all things wholesome and unprocessed, but tread carefully in the forest of brushes on the market; sometimes there’s no telling where natural animal hair has actually come from, never mind how said animal was obtained, treated or even killed in the brush making process. It’s not the jolliest of starting points for building a brush collection I know, but if you’re vegan or in any way concerned about animal welfare (and hopefully most of us fall into the latter group), it’s important to take into account a brush’s provenance.
If you are indeed vegan you’ll be out of the ‘natural’ camp already, but if you’re curious as to the benefits and drawbacks of using a natural brush, adhere to this guide. For your reference, natural makeup brushes are often made from squirrel, goat, sable (hair from the tail of the kolinsky species of weasel), and occasionally horse or even badger hair.
They have exceptional product pickup powers
In the past, it’s been the case that natural brushes are softer and fluffier than their synthetic sisters. Manmade brushes are catching up fast, and in some cases overtaking natural alternatives in terms of performance, but in general natural brushes are known to pick up powder pigment more effectively and blend it into the skin with less work on your part. This ‘absorption’ of the product is thanks to the porous cuticle structure present in natural hair, and the polished finish, when used with powder, is the reason that many makeup artists deem natural blusher, bronzer and powder brushes essential to their professional arsenal. The tide is changing (see below), but high-quality natural brushes remain in demand for their buffing prowess.
They can be less messy
In general, you’ll experience less product ‘fall out’, as powder traditionally clings better to natural bristles.
Well-made natural brushes are conventionally thought to be good long-term investments due to the durability of natural hair fibers, but synthetic technology is advancing fast in terms of longevity.
They’re often incompatible with cream products
The permeable quality of natural brush brushes is a big detractor when it comes to cream products; natural brushes will absorb your precious liquid foundation, cream blusher, and highlighter fluid. The fact that the bristles drink up makeup also means that a natural brush won’t apply cream products evenly.
In general, they’re less hygienic
Unfortunately, natural bristles don’t really distinguish between makeup and grime, as makeup artist Justine Jenkins highlights: “The cracks and ridges in the natural hair shaft can also house dirt and bacteria. To make matters worse, they’re also tricky to clean thoroughly.” Of course an effective deep clean is possible if you’re disciplined about it, but just bear those bacteria havens in mind and come to terms with the fact that you’ll have to wash your natural brushes more frequently than your synthetic tools.
They can trigger allergic reactions
Natural hair can trigger allergic reactions and aggravate sensitive skin. Sneeze at the sight of a horse? A pony hair powder brush probably isn’t for you.
Natural brushes tend to be more expensive than the synthetic equivalents. If a natural brush is a top performer and the company in question has a clear cruelty-free policy, the fine craftsmanship could justify the cost, but it depends on your requirements and priorities.
Generally flatter and sleeker than natural brushes, synthetics are usually made from nylon, taklon or other technical manmade fibers. Some brands exclusively sell synthetic brushes, also marketed as vegan or animal-free.
They’re smooth operators
When it comes to applying liquid and cream products, synthetic brushes are a must. Just take it from Justine:
“Due to the way that synthetic brushes are shaped, using them can enhance the precision application of liquid and cream products such as foundation or concealer, as the bristles tend to gravitate towards one another creating a smooth finish.”
They’re less likely to leave you hairy faced
Justine bigs up synthetics for their capacity to keep it all together:
“Synthetic brushes don’t shed. When I’m working, I really hate it if hairs shed off a brush and stick to the skin (not a good look). Synthetic brushes ‘molt’ far less, if at all, and they also tend to retain their shape better.”
They’re a doddle to keep clean
Due to the fact that synthetic brushes don’t have a ‘cuticle’, they’re far less prone to attracting and collecting dirt and bacteria. Another plus on the hygiene front is that they’re easier to clean and dry quicker too. Basically, synthetics are far more low maintenance in the hairdressing department.
They’re less irritating
Synthetic brushes shouldn’t pose problems if you’re an allergy, sensitivity prone (as long as you keep them clean of course).
They won’t break the bank
In general, synthetic brushes are less costly than the natural alternative.
Quality is improving, fast
Modern synthetic brushes can often be more durable and long-lasting, meaning that if you do choose to invest in a top of the range model, it ought to go the distance.
They can be patchy in terms of application
Synthetic brushes aren’t renowned for their product blending ability as above.
They can be problematic when used with powders
Cheaper or poor quality models often don’t ‘hold onto’ product as effectively as natural brushes. If you’re used to using natural brushes to apply powder, blusher, bronzer, and eyeshadow, bear this in mind and be prepared to have a whip round with a cotton pad and/or makeup remover if your application has gone a bit off-piste.
You may need more makeup than you think
Along the same lines, you may find that you need to use more powder product than you usually would with a natural brush to achieve the desired effect. Many makeup professionals agree that this is less and less of an issue with the advance of synthetic technology, but it still crops up depending on the synthetic brush you’re using.
They can be less flexible
Occasionally synthetic brushes can be stiffer and ‘tougher’ than natural bristles. Again, this is by no means a hard and fast rule.