6. Makeup Tools

Good tools are necessary for good makeup. Let's talk about the most important ones.

Sponge Applicators

These are tiny little sponges attached to tiny little handles. (Sometimes the handles are larger.) They usually come for free with drugstore eyeshadow and the like. It is possible to apply makeup with these, but most people eventually outgrow them. Brushes are the makeup tool of choice for anyone who really wants to do great makeup.


Anyone who does makeup will tell you that brushes are the single most important tool you can have. Their importance in the makeup world is clear: Every company has their own line of brushes. Individual makeup artists sell their own line of brushes. And all these lines contain a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes and uses. Let's sort it all out.

Synthetic or Natural Bristle?

This is a common beginner question. The answer is that you need both. Synthetic bristles are the perfect match for cosmetics with a high oil or water content. Because they are synthetic they won't absorb these products like natural hair does, so more will get onto your skin and they will also be easier to clean. Natural bristle brushes are best for powders of all types, from eyeshadow to blush to bronzer or contour.

Which brushes to buy?

In my early efforts at makeup, I got what I thought was a great deal from a vendor on Amazon, 30 makeup brushes for $7! These were probably from China and the brushes were decent quality. I still have a few. The problem with the set wasn't the quality, it was that the brush shapes included were not what I needed as a beginner. They had fancy fan brushes and all other kinds of poofy shapes for someone who barely knew how to put on lipstick! What I needed were some basic brushes, stuff for the most common makeup tasks like putting on eyeshadow, lipstick, contouring my face. But there was nothing like that to be found in this "awesome" brush deal. Don't follow my bad example. Get useful brushes instead. You can buy them as you need them for what you want to do. Build your brush collection a few useful brushes at a time.

Whose brushes to buy?

There are so many great brushes by all kinds of companies. I now have brushes from Robert Jones (the well-known makeup artist), MAC and Morphe. I love and am very happy with all of these. I'm a brush whore so I will be buying more brushes down the road, even though I don't really need them. On the "lower end" I also have some brushes from Real Techniques that I bought in sets which I like. If you're a beginner, these are interesting, because they are inexpensive and readily available.

Real Technique Brushes

You can get these brushes in almost any drugstore. After I realized my error with the Chinese brushes from Amazon, these were the next ones I tried. I bought the Real Techniques "Core Collection" set, their "Eye Starter Set" and a large, fluffy brush I still use to brush off loose powder. Altogether these 10 brushes cost me about $34 U.S. That may seem like a lot to you, but makeup brushes are expensive. If I had bought these from a makeup Company like MAC or Morphe, I would have spent over $200 U.S.

As a beginner, you could do very much worse than buying these. They have an unusual construction - most brushes have a wooden or plastic handle, with a metal ferrule that covers and protects the bristles attachment to the handle. The Real Techniques Brushes have a ferrule-less design. The bristles are fastened together at the end of the handle in a bundle and inserted into a hollow metal handle. For the flat brushes, the handle is then crimped down over the bristles.

This might seem like a bad idea, but I have to say that these have held up as well as any other makeup brush I own. On one of the brushes, the bristles started falling out after I had it for about a year. Because of the construction, they came out as one bunch. I just reinserted the bunch into the handle, and they have continued to function as well as ever. With traditional brush construction, if the bristles fall out, your brush is history.

The brushes are generally good and even having bought quite a few "higher-end" brushes since these, I still find myself using a few of the Real Technique's brushes. The larger eyeshadow brush is handy, and both sets have these really good small brushes which are great for detail work and sharpening the edges of eye and lip work.

Things I don't like about the Real Technique Brushes

The eye set brushes really need a couple more to be a workable set. They give you two rounded, fluffy eyeshadow brushes of different sizes, but you really need some smaller ones as well. It would also be great to have a blending brush - this is a medium sized fluffy brush that you use only for blending, not for color application. Bottom line: if you are a beginner, you can do a lot with this set for very little money.

I have been less happy with the core collection. In particular, there is a pointed contour brush that worked well at the beginning, but has lost its shape and is now pretty useless for applying contour. Not only does it not hold the color well, it doesn't hold its shape. It spreads out widely which makes it impossible to control the application. The blush and small brushes have held up well however. Even with these problems, I think this collection is a reasonable one for a beginner to purchase.

Higher End Brushes

I love my Robert Jones/MAC/Morphe brushes. That doesn't stop me from lusting after other companies brushes. (I am a makeup junkie desperately in need of an intervention and completely uninterested in fixing my addiction. Follow my example at your peril.)

Buying a selection of brushes from any of these companies (or from Cozzette whose web page I can't stop visiting) will give you a set of brushes which are unquestionably superior to the Real Techniques brushes in quality and selection. The downside is that this will cost you much more money. Let me make this very clear: WARNING: makeup brushes are very expensive. If you have plenty of spare cash (or simply lack good sense, like I do) then go for it. I support you.

However, if you are willing to put in some work, there is a way to get the same kind of quality brushes that you can get from MAC and friends for a fraction of the cost.

Using Art Brushes for Makeup

It wasn't so long ago (like the 1990's) that anyone who wanted a makeup brush went to an art store, not a makeup store, because makeup brushes really didn't exist yet. This remains a perfectly viable alternative today. The major differences between makeup brushes and art brushes are: (1) Makeup brushes are more expensive and (2) they have shorter handles. Paying a lot less for the same brush quality sounds like a good idea to me, and the differences in the handles are not that great. Unless your hands are extremely small, the slightly longer handles should not be a problem.

Art Brushes VS MAC Brushes

I went to Michaels, a very good art/craft store in the U.S. and compared some of my favorite MAC brushes with the high-end art brushes they sell. Ask any artist and they will tell you that Loew Cornell and Royal or Langnickel are as good as it gets for art brushes. Here's what I came up with:

Brush Type MAC Dupe MAC Price (US) Dupe Price (US)
Powder/Blush 129 Loew Cornell 277 Round MOP (Size L) $35 $7.59
Large Powder 150 Loew Cornell 277 Round MOP (Size XXL) $42 $13.79
Concealer 194 Loew Cornell American Painter Filbert Size (Size 8) $25 $5.19
Pointed Liner 211 Royal and Langnickel SG-255 (Size 6) $20 $3.49
Flat Definer 212 Princeton Velvettouch Chisel Blender (Size 6) $25 $7.75
Pencil Brush 219 Royal and Langnickel SG-255 (Size 10) $25 $3.49
Mini Shader 228 Loew Cornell Maxine's Mop (Size 3/8 '') $20 $4.19
Small Shader 231 Royal and Langnickel SG-955 (Size S) $20 $3.49
Large Shader 252 Loew Cornell Maxine's Mop (Size 1/2'') $32 $3.63
Small Angle Brush 263 Royal and Langnickel SG-160 (Size 3/8'') $20 $3.49
Small Angle Brush 266 Loew Cornell American Painter Angular Shader (Size 1/4'') $20 $3.49
Medium Angled Shading Brush 275 Royal and Langnickel SG-393 (Size 3/8'') $25 $3.49
Lip Brush 316 Royal and Langnickel SG-170 (Size 8) $20 $3.49

If you were to purchase every brush on this list, it would cost you $329 at a MAC store, but only $66.57 at Michaels. That's an incredible 80% cheaper at the art store! To be fair to MAC, they do sell "sets" where you can get substantial discounts, and they also have sales. On the other hand, to be fair to Michaels, they have more frequent sales and in fact, if I had bought these brushes today, I would have spent only $32, since they are having a sale today.

Hunting around for "dupes" is a lot more work, it's true, but it's also true that once you learn more about brushes, you won't be looking for dupes. You'll know what you need and just be looking for the right brush. When you reach that stage, you'll find it easier to get all kinds of things. Getting to that stage will take some effort, but it's a lot of fun.

Final Word on Brushes

Here's a final list of your options:

  1. Buy Real Techniques Core and Eye set, along with a large brush for powder. Cost is around $35. You'll have a set of decent brushes you can use right away. Downside: They won't be the best brushes and you will need to get more as your skills improve.
  2. Buy expensive brushes from a well-known company like MAC, Morphe, Robert Jones, Cozzette or any number of wonderful brush makers. You'll have a set of great brushes. Downside: Incredibly expensive.
  3. Buy "dupes" to your desired MAC/Robert Jones/Cozzette etc. brushes at an art store. You'll have great brushes for only a bit more than the Real Techniques brushes cost you. Downside: This will require quite a bit of effort on your part, research, and it's possible you may make some mistakes.

Wherever you buy your brushes, it is likely to be one of the largest single investments you make over time, so take care of them. Good brushes, well cared for, will last a long time. I have an article on how to clean them here, but let me repeat one word of advice from that article: do not let your brushes dry standing up - this will destroy them as the liquid seeps into the ferrule and destroys the adhesive.

Other Tools

Eyelash Curlers

Eyelash curlers are a requirement, even if you use false lashes. I think everyone should have two: The standard "crimp" curler for the main part of their lashes, and a smaller one for the lash "corners" that the larger curler does not reach. The absolute best crimp curler in the world is by Kevin Aucoin (who, even after his death, remains my favorite makeup artist). It has a large curve that fits every eye-shape, and (pure genius) a red cushion that makes it easy to see your lashes and helps prevent pinching. You should replace the cushion every six-months and the curler every year. Sephora sells these curlers, as do many other places, for about $21 USD.

The mini-eyelash curler I use is from "Reveal Beauty" - I don't think it's available in stores, but you can get it directly from them for $12.99 plus shipping. They also sell a slightly more expensive rose-gold one (such a deal) but I use the black one. If you get one, tell them Pammy sent you. By the way, an off-label use for this curler is to help tack down your false eyelashes. It's quite useful for that.

If you don't like the look of the one from Reveal Beauty, there are many other designs available. If you buy a different one, please let me know which one you bought and how you like it.

How to use an eyelash curler

First of all, a word of warning: Mascara is sticky. If you use an eyelash curler AFTER you put on mascara, there's a good chance you will lose some eyelashes. And they may not grow back. It's probably not a good idea to do that. So always curl before using mascara. The whole idea of the eyelash curler is to turn what is pretty close to a straight line into a curve. The usual way curlers are used is to make one (or at most two) crimps on the eyelash, and you are also often told to hold it tight for many seconds.

I find no advantage to holding it tightly for 30-45 seconds and then releasing it. I also find no advantage to only one or two crimps. What is required is not one long crimp, but many simple, firm crimps. Do as many crimps along the eyelash as the length of your eyelash will allow. If you do only one crimp, you'll just have a bent, crippled eyelash. Multiple crimps, closely spaced together, will simulate a beautiful, elegant curve.

The procedure will be like this: position the curler as close as you can to your lid, then crimp and move it out a little, do the same thing again, and keep "walking it out" until you run out of eyelash. If it doesn't seem curled enough, just repeat this once or twice more. As you curl your lashes more often, they will start to hold their new shape and be prettier all the time.


Sponges are a necessary item. A genuine Beauty Blender (I must have pink!) is one of my HG makeup items (see Lingo if you don't know what HG means). I can't imagine how awful my life would be without my Beauty Blender. Beware cheap knockoffs, none of which have been found to work as well as the original. You can get a Beauty Blender for around $20-$30 U.S.

I also like to have triangular sponges around. These are small makeup wedges that you use once and then throw away. They have a multitude of uses. I personally prefer the latex ones, but some people have latex allergies, so beware. You can buy big bags of them from makeup shops or from Amazon very inexpensively. The last bag I bought cost me $10 for about 45 wedges.

Powder Puffs

Also nice to have are powder puffs. These are actually sponges wrapped in some kind of cloth. My favorite kind are wrapped with velour. These can be washed and reused. They have lots of uses and I always replace the cheap ones you get with face powder with one of my own.

If you do makeup on other people, you can use a powder puff to form a protective barrier between your hand and their face. Hold one in your hand with the fingers that aren't holding your brush or pencil. This way, if you need to rest your hand on their face, or even just brush it accidentally, the powder puff will protect their face from any oils and stray makeup on your hand.

They are easily available, and a reasonable price is around $2.75 per puff.

Pencil Sharpener, Scissors, Tweezer, Skewers/Toothpicks

These are all miscellaneous items that you always need. A pencil sharpener is a necessity for keeping those makeup pencils sharp. I like the ones that have two sizes, one for the usual "pencil shape" makeup pencils, and one for the larger, "Jumbo" pencils. Make sure you check the size before you purchase - I have one pencil sharpener with a large opening that isn't actually big enough for Jumbo Pencils.

Wooden cooking skewers have multiple uses. One of the most common is to use it place eyelash glue evenly on a lash. You can use a toothpick for this, but I find the nice long cooking skewers to be easier to use and more elegant. It's like smoking with a really long cigarette holder. I also use the skewer for making my own facelift tapes.

Nice sharp shears come in handy. They don't have to cost a lot.

I have to confess that I don't use tweezers much. A common use is to tweeze eyelash hairs, which I do very rarely. This is because I usually just cover them so I can draw in my own. I will yank out the occasional errant brow lash, however. If you want to use your natural brows, then you will definitely need tweezers. Tweezers should have a slanted tip, not too sharp, so you don't injure yourself. Really good tweezers will also have an address where you can send your tweezers to get sharpened.

Other uses for tweezers are to put on false eyelashes or place sequins on your face. I find it easier to use my fingers for the eyelashes. For the sequins, I have a special tool that works fabulously better than tweezers, at least for me. But many people love tweezers, and they do come in handy from time to time. So keep one in your bag.

    That's it for now. As always, questions, comments or anything friendly can be sent to me