The Best Makeup Brushes

Whether you prefer drugstore sets or individual designer brushes, the best makeup brushes should be functional and stylish. We spoke to dermatologists and makeup artists to understand what to look for, then hand-tested 70 brushes from 16 popular brands. Our favorites were lovely to look at and easy to hold, with soft yet durable bristles.

The 3 Best Makeup Brushes


Best Mid-Range Brand
Sephora
Sephora
Great performance and classic design at a reasonable price.
Pros
Excellent basics
Range of brush options
Locking covers
Cons
Less quality in eye brushes
Sephora for Makeup Brushes

Why we chose it

Excellent basics

For anyone looking to build up a collection of reliable brushes for daily use, we loved the quality of the Sephora Collection ($20 to $40 per brush). Their slim, tapered handles are easy to grip and feel well-balanced, allowing you to change your hand positioning to adjust your level of precision. The fluffy brushes deposit makeup smoothly and evenly and keep their shape well with minimal shedding post-wash. Of the brushes we tested, Sephora’s eyeshadow, foundation, and blush particularly excelled, applying makeup with light, even coverage.

Range of brush options

We also appreciated the sheer range of Sephora's offerings, from its essential brush collection to sparkly holiday gift sets and collaborations with major makeup names like Hakuhodo. Whether you’re collecting go-to brushes for your personal routine or hunting for the perfect gift for a makeup-loving friend, Sephora has you covered.

Locking covers

Sephora was also the only brand we tested to provide a reusable, locking plastic cap with each brush. Even high-end brands like Marc Jacobs and NARS just used plastic tubes or sleeves. Sephora’s design keeps the brushes clean and prevents them from getting crushed if you’re traveling.

Sephora caps for Makeup Brushes

Points to consider

Less quality in eye brushes

Our eyeliner was the only selection that fell slightly flat: While decent, it lacked the razor precision of pricier options like NARS and Chanel. We also noticed more shedding versus brands at higher price points — including a single, errant hair poking out of the top of our eyeshadow brush after we washed it.

Looking for a half-step up in luxury?

If you're looking for slightly higher quality, we'd suggest Chanel ($32 to $60) as the next step up. These brushes push the "mid-range" limit, but our Chanel tester was smitten, describing her brushes as “honestly a dream” — especially Chanel's extremely precise eyeliner brush, which had dense, soft bristles, smooth application, and no shedding. However, Chanel’s options are more limited: The brand includes a couple dozen brushes, versus over 100 from Sephora (including a wide range of gift sets). If you’re still figuring out your preferences and want to experiment with brush designs, Sephora gives you the space to do so. Chanel is better if you already know what kind of brushes you use and are ready to invest in a brand.

Chanel for Makeup Brushes


Best Luxury Brand
Tom Ford
Tom Ford
These brushes are pricey but incredibly soft and dense.
Pros
Gorgeous design
Top performance
Longevity
Cons
Few eye brush options
Tom Ford for Makeup Brushes

Why we chose it

Gorgeous design

We were blown away by Tom Ford's luxurious brushes. Though pricey (ranging from $50 to $115), their quality was mesmerizing. The brushes have extremely soft, dense bristles and perfectly balanced mahogany handles that allowed for a level of control less expensive brushes just couldn't replicate. Besides applying your makeup flawlessly, the brushes are beautiful enough to just display on your vanity, thanks to deep red-brown handles, gold metal ferrules, and white bristles. For luxe gift-giving (to others or yourself), it doesn’t get much better than these brushes.

Top performance

All of our high-end brushes, from Chanel to Marc Jacobs, were excellent, holding their shape and performing well with minimal shedding. But Tom Ford beat out the competition with our at-home testers. One noted that they didn’t soak up any makeup, allowing her to make the most of every bit of product. She reported that her makeup also applied more evenly with Tom Ford than with less expensive tools, making it easier to achieve a dewy, natural skintone. “I would adore having these brushes,” she told us. “I can’t believe how smoothly they applied every type of makeup. SOLD.” For most people, it really will be an all-caps sell: A set of Tom Ford brushes is an investment rather than an impulse buy.

Longevity

On a more pragmatic note, despite Tom Ford’s white bristles, we found the brushes easy to clean. They retained their creamy color and lost zero hairs when we washed them, springing beautifully back into shape when dry.

Brush Close-up for Makeup Brushes

Tom Ford's blush brush (left) was far denser than low-end brands like e.l.f. (right).

Points to consider

Few eye brush options

Tom Ford’s main weakness is its lack of eye makeup options. The brand offers four lovely eyeshadow brushes, but its single eyeliner brush has been discontinued. So if you’re an eye makeup junkie, we’d suggest supplementing your collection with NARS or Chanel. The NARS Push Eyeliner Brush offered some of the finest, most controlled lines we were able to achieve (although testers noted that its bristles weren’t particularly soft). But be aware that the NARS line provides a very sharp, dramatic look. If you want a more natural face, we’d suggest Chanel's eyeliner brush instead.


Best on a Budget
Sonia Kashuk
Sonia Kashuk
A versatile range of entry-level brushes that we loved.
Pros
Exceptional value
Anti-cruelty brand
Great for gifting
Cons
Oddly moulded handles
Sonia Kashuk for Makeup Brushes

Why we chose it

Exceptional value

If you’re a newcomer to makeup and aren't ready to spend a lot, or if you just want decent brushes without bleeding your pocketbook dry, we'd recommend Sonia Kashuk, which runs between $2 and $20 per brush. Plus, you have a diverse range of brush shapes to pick from. During testing, these brushes beat out more expensive contenders like MAC and Lancome thanks to their soft, full bristles. Sonia Kashuk’s foundation and blush brushes were outstanding, easily the best of our budget contenders, providing a smooth, non-streaky application. And the dense, angled eyeliner brush allowed us to easily apply a thin, dark, precise line.

Anti-cruelty brand

Sonia Kashuk does stand out for being cruelty-free — if animal testing is a no-go for you, this brand has historically taken a strong stance against it. (We dig into the details of what "cruelty-free" actually means in our FAQ below.)

Great for gifting

Sonia Kashuk also offers a lot of fun gift sets. We tested a set of 10 brushes shaped like pink unicorn horns and were impressed at how extremely soft and dense the set’s bristles were. Sets are always limited edition, but you will have several to choose from at any given time, making this brand a solid gifting option.

Sonia Kashuk gift for Makeup Brushes

Points to consider

Oddly moulded handles

Some of our testers disliked Sonia Kashuk’s contoured handles, which have bulbous curves that make it hard to control exactly where you grip each brush. This design is a useful way to guide your hands toward proper positioning if you're new to makeup brushes, though it is a polarizing feature and likely unnecessary if you’re a makeup pro.

On an even tighter budget?

We’d be remiss in talking about budget brushes without also mentioning e.l.f. ($1 to $12). Despite having a rock-bottom price point (we bought its whole 12-brush set for $12), the brand was a surprisingly respectable runner-up to Sonia Kashuk. The brushes aren’t terribly dense, but we found that our foundation and blush applied more smoothly than brands like Real Techniques ($6 to $13). The only brush we wouldn’t recommend is e.l.f.’s eyeliner, which was so wide and soft that we ended up with thick, messy streaks (we tested the eyeliner brush e.l.f. includes in its set, but the brand does offer a handful of other models). Additionally, e.l.f. brushes aren’t made to last: Coworkers who already owned them tipped us off that their glue tends to weaken within a year or so, causing the heads to fall off the handles.

e.l.f. for Makeup Brushes
The e.l.f. brushes we tested:

We bought e.l.f.’s entire set because it was so cheap, but for the sake of consistency with our other finalists, we focused on these five brushes:

  • Smudge Eye Sponge
  • Eyeshadow Brush
  • Foundation Brush
  • Bronzer Brush
  • Eyeliner Brush

Guide to Makeup Brushes

How to make makeup brushes work for you

Feel free to mix-and-match

While we chose favorite brushes based on the performance of a complete set, it’s worth noting that some individual brushes stood out from their comrades. If you find your best concealer brush, your best kabuki brush, and your best blending brush from three different brands, you have the makings of a bespoke set. “One brand can’t be all things to everyone,” Mindy Green, makeup artist and owner of MG Beauty, pointed out. “I can name six brands that I have in my primary brush set. One brand has the crease I like, but another has a foundation and blush that I like.”

Choose your brush based on your preferred makeup

The general consensus among makeup experts — which we saw reflected in the brushes we tested — is that natural hair should only be used for powders, while synthetic hair can be used for liquids, gels, and powders. “You never really want to use natural brushes with a liquid or cream makeup,” Picou told us. “The hairs trap the product in. Synthetic is cheaper and easier to clean.”

If you have sensitive skin, dermatologist Tracy Evans, MD also told us that it might be safer to avoid natural hair brushes, as “humans are more prone to developing allergies to natural/organic products in general.”

Keep them clean

There are plenty of brush cleansers on the market, but you can also DIY your cleaning solution. Baby shampoo and tea tree oil, or olive oil and dish soap, can help keep your brushes germ-free. No matter which cleanser you use, follow these steps:

  • Wet the bristles with lukewarm water. Don’t wet the ferrule (the metal piece joining the bristles to the handle), which can weaken the glue inside and cause bristles to loosen.
  • Gently swirl the brushes against soap in your palm.
  • Rinse the bristles and run them gently over a clean paper towel. Repeat until the water runs clear and there are no more traces of makeup when running the brush against the towel.
  • Lightly reshape the brush head and lay brushes horizontally to dry, preferably hanging off a counter, to retain their fluffy shape. Don’t set your brushes vertically with the bristles pointing up to dry — that can cause water to run into the ferrule and weaken the glue.

Wash at least once a week to help brushes last longer, and avoid storing damp brushes in dark places like drawers or cabinets. Brushes used for liquid and gel makeup accumulate bacteria more quickly than powder brushes and should be washed more frequently.

Perfect your technique

Getting the right angle and pressure starts with how you hold the brush. For more control and a firmer application, hold the brush closer to the bottom of the ferrule (the metal part joining the bristles and the handle). For a lighter application, hold near the middle of the brush.

Makeup Brush FAQ

How many makeup brushes do I need?

Five. According to makeup artist and hair stylist Katya Gudaeva, “If you choose to use brushes, I would say you need about five for an everyday natural look: foundation, powder/blush, eyeshadow (two sizes), and eyeliner.”

What qualifies as "cruelty-free"?

Makeup brushes can be made of either synthetic hair or natural hair, which comes from animal fur. Most cosmetic brands offer a mix of brushes that utilize both hair types — but most don’t offer much transparency about the source of their natural hair or how it’s obtained. We were able to determine that Tom Ford’s foundation brush is synthetic, while the cheek and eye brushes are made of natural hair, for instance, but we were unable to dig up further details.

“Cruelty-free” is not a regulated term, and often there is no more than the brand’s word that it doesn’t test on animals. PETA and Leaping Bunny are third-party organizations that certify brands as cruelty-free, but this certification process is voluntary, and a brand does not need certification to claim the label: Of our picks, only e.l.f. and Sonia Kashuk claim to be cruelty-free, and only e.l.f. is certified.

If this issue is important to you, a general rule of thumb is to make sure the makeup brands you use don’t sell in stores in mainland China, where animal testing is required by law for foreign cosmetics (companies selling online in China aren’t required to). A company’s policy on animal testing may change over time — one example is NARS, which recently began selling in mainland China — so if animal testing is a dealbreaker for you, we recommend keeping tabs on your favorite brands’ statuses and only buying from companies with a history of cruelty-free transparency.

Do you need to wash your makeup brushes?

When we asked her about the correlation between makeup brushes and skin health, Dr. Evans told us emphatically to “wash your makeup brush after every use! Your brush accumulates bacteria with each use. Not washing brushes can lead to acne or worsening acne.” If that’s not enough reason, dirty brushes can also lead to spottier, more difficult makeup application.

The Best Makeup Brushes: Summed Up

Sephora
Chanel
Tom Ford
Sonia Kashuk
e.l.f.
Best mid-range brand
Looking for a half-step up in luxury?
Best luxury brand
Best on a budget
On an even tighter budget?
Price
$20-$40
$30-$60
$50-$115
$2-$20
$1-$12
Who else recommends them
Allure
Allure, Elle, Nordstrom
Elle, Nordstrom
Elle, InStyle, MakeupAlley
InStyle, TotalBeauty, Ulta

Our Other Beauty Reviews

We hold high standards for everything, but particularly for things intended to go on your skin and hair. We weigh in with dermatologists and dentists alongside beauty influencers to find products that work well and safely. Read up on our standout favorites in the beauty reviews below.