Everything you ever wanted to know about natural and synthetic makeup brushes

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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 brushes

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), mink and occasionally horse or even badger hair.

The pros

1. 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 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.

2. They can be less messy

In general you’ll experience less product ‘fall out’, as powder traditionally clings better to natural bristles.

3. They're long-lasting

Well-made natural brushes are conventionally thought to be good long term investments due to the durability of natural hair fibres, but synthetic technology is advancing fast in terms of longevity.

The cons

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. They can trigger allergic reactions

Natural hair can trigger allergic reactions and aggravate sensitive or sensitised skin . Sneeze at the sight of a horse? A pony hair powder brush probably isn’t for you.

4. They're pricier

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.

5. They can be bad news for animal welfare

Speaking of priorities, animal cruelty should be a big one. As makeup artist Lou Dartford  emphasises, the natural brush industry can pose serious ethical, and also religious, dilemmas:

“Brands can be listed as cruelty-free in that they don’t test on animals, but unless they are vegan they can still carry products with animal ingredients, including brushes made with animal hair. It can be a very grey area in terms of how the hair is collected and how the animals are looked after. Therefore I think the only way to ensure brushes are truly cruelty-free is to choose those made with synthetic bristles.”

If you do find that synthetic options aren’t getting to grips with your powder products and you prefer the feel and application of a natural brush, ensure that the brands you buy from are clear on where the hair they use is sourced, and how. Check company websites, investigate whether brands have an animal welfare programme in place and bug customer services with as many questions as you see fit. Too many natural brushes are made as byproducts of the fur industry, or hail from countries that simply don’t uphold the same animal protection laws that we do.

If you’re worried, Bareminerals , Jane Iredale , Smashbox , Trish McEvoy , Anastasia Beverly Hills  and Marc Jacobs Beauty  are all certified cruelty- free by PETA , and each brand happens to make exceptionally masterful brushes, both natural, synthetic or a combination of both.

Synthetic Brushes

Generally flatter and sleeker than natural brushes, synthetics are usually made from nylon, taklon or other technical manmade fibres. Some brands exclusively sell synthetic brushes, also marketed as vegan or animal-free.

The pros

1. 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 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.”

2. 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.”

3. 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.

4. They're less irritating

Synthetic brushes shouldn’t pose problems if you’re allergy, acne  or sensitivity prone (as long as you keep them clean of course).

5. They won't break the bank

In general, synthetic brushes are less costly than the natural alternative. There are a few notable exceptions, however, as Justine flags, but they earn their stripes in terms of flawless application:

“For those of you that love luxury, check out the high end brush ranges from Hourglass  and Artis . Hourglass brushes are made from ultra soft taklon bristles, and what I particularly love about them is the weighted handles that allow for precise control, plus the beautifully tapered designs. Artis represent the Rolls Royce of cruelty-free brushes; these innovative, modern designs enhance the experience of applying makeup and encourage the efficient use of products. The soft CosmeFibre bristles feel like velvet on the skin and have superior blending capabilities.”

6. 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.

7. There's no animal cruelty ambiguity

You can be 100 per cent certain that no animals were harmed in the making of a synthetic brush.

The cons

1. They can be patchy in terms of application

Synthetic brushes aren’t renowned for their product blending ability as above, but tables are turning according to Lou:

“In the past synthetic brushes have almost been a ‘poorer’ option next to hair bristle brushes. It’s true that synthetic bristles were formerly not so great for powder products but now they’re becoming so refined that you can use them for anything; they can be just as good for blending and buffing as hair brushes. I am a big fan of Ecotools . The brushes really are very good quality; each one is super soft and many could actually be mistaken for real hair. The team seem to always be introducing exciting new designs and the price point and availability is brilliant.”

2. 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.

3. 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. Lou, Justine and many other 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.

4. 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.

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