Thursday, April 4, 2013

Best Affordable Makeup Brushes, Updated!

This post was originally written in November of 2011, but I've learned a lot since then, and my brush collection has morphed and grown and been begging me to please, please share it with the world, so I figured I should update it (though L still deserves the credit for inspiring me to make it in the first place!). Needless to say, it's really long, even more so than before (and dear God I shudder to think how many hours I've put into it), but I've tried to organize it in such a way that you can find specific parts easily and skip what doesn't interest you. I'll be including reviews for the brushes in my collection under their respective categories, so keep an eye out for those.

Okay, crash course on why makeup brushes matter: Using quality tools to apply your makeup will ensure you get the most out of your products, or, put more accurately, using bad brushes will make even the nicest makeup look and behave like crap. Regardless of whether you use high- or low-end cosmetics, you want to get the most out of your collection, and good brushes are a vital part of that.
So, what makes a brush good?
Excellent question, me. You want a brush that is appropriately sized and shaped for its purpose (we'll get to that in a bit), that has pleasant-feeling bristles (the degree to which they are soft vs. firm depends on their purpose, but they should never be scratchy), and that doesn't shed. Most high-end brushes fulfill these requirements, but they carry a price tag to match, so the challenge is finding a good brush that won't break the bank. Some people are very careful with their makeup brushes, washing after every use but never getting the ferrule (where the brush bristles meet the handle) wet, but I am so not one of those people. I don't want to have to baby my brushes, and since I realize that means my brushes won't last as long, I don't want to spend a lot on a brush that I know I'll have to replace within a couple years. If you are more careful than me, and less cheap, there is a huge world of brushes at your disposal (and maybe I'll do a post on that someday, but don't count on it; see TemptaliaThe Beauty Look BookCafe Makeup, and The Non-Blonde for reviews of more expensive brushes). For the rest of us, the choices are a little more constrained, but that doesn't mean there's not plenty of variety to choose from.

The best cheap makeup brush lines, in alphabetical order, are: 
elf Studio (also available at Target). All elf Studio brushes are $3 (with the exception of the Kabuki Face Brush, which is $6; they have other brush lines, but they're apparently really hit-or-miss in quality, so I would recommend sticking with the Studio line), and you can order them online or find them at Target. I like their Complexion and Powder brushes, and their Blush brush is nice for targeted application.

Ecotools (also at drugstores) is the most accessible out of all the cheap brands, since they're sold in pretty much every drugstore (Target, Rite Aid, Walgreens, CVS, Fred Meyer, Kmart, Ulta, etc.). They're pretty cheap, not as cheap as E.L.F. but cheaper than Sonia Kashuk or Sigma, and the quality is amazing. As their name would suggest, they're an ecologically-minded company, and use bamboo for their handles, synthetic fibers for their brush heads, and recycled aluminum in their ferrules. They also donate 1% of their profits to charity, which is a nice gesture.

Real Techniques (also at Ulta and some Fred Meyers) make awesome brushes for a good price. Their brush sets are a fantastic deal, and their stand-alone brushes are great, too. They have some really nice sets, and they use all synthetic fibers, but they can be hard to find if you don't have an Ulta or Fred Meyer nearby.

Sigma is the most expensive out of all the lines, which is one reason I haven't tried any brushes from them (the other being I don't want to pay for shipping). The beauty blogosphere is enamored with them, though, and they're supposed to be as good as MAC brushes for much cheaper.   

Sonia Kashuk (at Target) is the next most expensive after Sigma, but you can find her LE brushes on sale sometimes (I got one for 50% off, which was awesome). They're great quality and not too expensive; there are also some nice sets if you're just getting started.

Studio Tools (the store brand at Target) has some surprisingly nice brushes for really cheap (between E.L.F. and Ecotools in terms of price), some of which are made from natural bristles.

Lastly, some brushes from the Sephora store line are comparably priced to Sigma, so I'll mention them when relevant.

The Brush Guide
Face Brushes
Foundation brushes are intended for use with liquid or cream foundations, though they can also be used with cream blushes and other emollient products.
They're usually synthetic and flat and kind of wedged for spreading it around the face and into crevices; they can sometimes leave brush marks behind, so many people like to go over it with a sponge or stippling brush to give an airbrushed finish. I've tried foundation brushes, but I find they're just an utter fail for me, not giving good enough coverage and wasting product and just looking messy. There are many people who do use them, though, and if you wear liquid foundation, it's definitely worth trying out different methods of application to see which works best for you. The Studio Tools Large Foundation Brush ($7), Sonia Kashuk Pointed Foundation Brush ($13, with a white handle), and Ecotools Bamboo Foundation Brush ($5.99) have all received great reviews, and the Foundation Brush that comes with the Real Techniques Core Collection (left) is small and maneuverable, which makes it nice for around the eyes.
There are also flat-top foundation brushes, which I find work way better, and in fact that is the only way I like to apply my foundation now. The Buffing Brush (left) that comes in the Real Techniques Core Collection alone is worth the $17.99 for the set, and I highly, highly recommend getting it if you wear foundation, liquid or powder, with any regularity. I like dotting foundation onto my face with my fingers, then blending and buffing it on with the brush––it gives excellent coverage that still looks very natural, and it doesn't waste as much product as dipping the brush straight into the foundation would. If you don't want to buy a full set, the Ecotools Buffing Brush ($6.99), Sonia Kashuk Synthetic Flat-Top Multipurpose Brush ($15.79), and Sonia Kashuk Synthetic Buffing Brush ($12.99) are all supposed to be good.
Bonus pic: Real Techniques Foundation vs. Buffing Brush comparison

Concealer brushes can be like miniature foundation brushes, or can be fine and pointed.
The former type, which is what I use, is good for mineral concealer and larger areas, while the latter is best for precision concealing with liquid or cream concealer and getting into the nooks and crannies. The Ecotools Deluxe Concealer Brush ($3.99, right) is what I use; you can buy two-packs on Amazon, or purchase them individually in-store. They were my first Ecotools purchase, and their quality inspired me to buy others. I am in love with these brushes. The head is quite large, and the bristles are so soft, yet still firm enough to blend product. I find it works equally well with mineral concealer and liquid concealer, and also serves as a good all-over shadow brush. The elf Concealer Brush ($1, left) is small and flat, and I find it impractical as a concealer brush for my own needs, but it works awesome as a cuticle clean-up tool when I'm doing my nails. Dip it in 100% acetone, swipe it around the nail bed, and voila! No more messy cuticles. Lastly, the Concealer Brush (center) that comes with the Real Techniques Core Collection is also small, but tapered, and I use it exclusively as a lip brush, a purpose it serves extremely well! Sonia Kashuk Synthetic Concealer Brush ($5.99) has gotten pretty good reviews, and is similar to the elf and Real Techniques shown above.

Powder brushes come in two major types, fluffy and dense.
I like to use fluffy brushes for dusting on finishing powder, but they're good for anything that you want sheerly and evenly distributed over a large area. I use the Ecotools Kabuki Finishing Brush ($6.99, left), which is so, so soft, and applies powder nice and sheerly, so it's good for illuminating powders. Before that, I had the elf Complexion Brush ($3), which lasted me several years without issue and served me very well, but has since been passed on. Other good options are the Ecotools Powder Brush ($7.99) and the Real Techniques Powder Brush ($9.99). Sonia Kashuk makes a couple of fluffy powder brushes, but the only one worth trying is the one with a black ergonomic handle ($17.99), which has gotten good reviews all around.
The latter dense brushes, often flat-topped, are good for applying mineral makeup, as they allow for more opaque coverage and are better for buffing and blending. They're also good for applying finishing powders for extra longevity, as well as powders with mica (like Make Up For Ever HD Powder), which give a white cast if they're not buffed into skin properly (you sometimes see celebrities whose makeup artists were not diligent enough in their buffing with bright white spots on their face––not pretty). I use the Ecotools Bronzer Brush ($9.99, right), which is just absurdly soft and dense and wonderful, made from synthetic bristles and a bamboo handle. It's excellent for buffing in powder and mineral makeup, but it takes forever to dry after washing; I try to wash it on Saturdays so it's dry by Monday. Previously I used the elf Powder Brush, which is super affordable ($3) and of generally good quality, though they're not terribly consistent in that regard; the first powder brush I got had a loose handle within 3 months, and the next one I got shed like crazy until I washed it, but it was fine for the 2+ years I used it after that. For $3, it's a steal, even if you happen to get one that falls apart after a few months. If you're willing to spend a bit more, Sonia Kashuk's Flat Top Synthetic brush ($15.79) or Sigma's Flat Top Kabuki brush ($18) are excellent choices.
Bonus pic: Ecotools Finishing Kabuki (left) vs. Bronzer Brush (right); see how much denser the Bronzer bristles are?

Kabuki brushes are kind of between the two previous types, though generally with a larger brush head and shorter bristles; they're both dense and large, so you can cover a lot of space really well, and if you choose an angled variety, they can be good for applying contour products, too.
elf Kabuki Face Brush
I don't own or use a kabuki myself (the Ecotools Finishing Kabuki, above, is rather misleadingly named, in my opinion––the sparseness of the upper bristles belies its kabuki base and makes it more suited to sheerly applying powder; the Ecotools Bronzer Brush is closer to being an actual kabuki brush), but the Ecotools Retractable Kabuki ($7.99), elf Kabuki Face Brush ($6) and Sigma Round Top Kabuki ($18) have all received a lot of praise.


Blush brushes are used for (can you guess?) applying blush (good job!).  Besides stippling brushes, which are good for cream blush and really pigmented products, there are a couple of main varieties of blush brush.
Some blush brushes are big and fluffy, which is nice for just sweeping across your cheekbones; they also tend to pick up less product and so are more forgiving. The Real Techniques Blush Brush ($8.99) is one such brush. It's made from synthetic fibers and is sort of duo fibre (though the domed shape means it doesn't work quite the same way) and is oh so soft and fluffy. It has a wide base, so it can stand on its own for storage, if that's something that matters to you; I keep all of my brushes in containers, so it's a moot point for me. The size does mean it's not great for really localized placement of blush, but for really natural results, it's awesome (and works equally well with blushes of varying degrees of pigmentation!). It's also large enough that you could use it as an all-over powder brush if you so wanted (though make sure it's clean before doing so, because otherwise you risk getting blush all over your face). It works well with mineral blushes, too, though you should still definitely tap off excess powder, especially for more pigmented powders. Another good fluffy blush brush is the Ecotools Blush Brush ($7).
Look how fluffy!!!

elf Studio Blush Brush

Others are smaller and more precise, which can be nice for really careful application of blush and for controlling how much product you put on; I used to use the elf Blush Brush ($3) but have since gifted it to my mother and now use exclusively the Real Techniques one. However, if you're wanting a decent cheap precise blush brush, it's a good choice!

Real Techniques
Stippling Brush
Stippling brushes, also called skunk and duo fibre, are made from two kinds of bristles; the longer white ones are designed to pick up small amounts of product, and the shorter, firmer black ones are good for blending. I haven't used a stippling brush myself, but they're a really great, versatile brush, and I plan to buy one this summer to use with cream blush (which I also need to buy, ha!). You can also use them to apply liquid foundation, cream highlighters, and really pigmented blushes, since their design means you can really control how much product you put on (very handy for people with pale skin). The Real Techniques Stippling Brush ($9.99) is the best cheap choice, though elf's Stipple Brush ($3) has also received decent reviews.
Fan brushes can accomplish many of the same things as stippling brushes; they're good for very light, sheer applications of powder (finishing or highlighting), blush, or bronzer, and for dusting off fallout from eyeshadow. I wouldn't say this is a really necessary brush, but should you purchase a brush set that has one, those are some uses you could put it to!

Contouring brushes are used for applying blush, bronzer, highlighter, or contouring powder to the face.
I have two contouring brushes, one that is slanted and fluffy (Sonia Kashuk's Large Angled Contour Brush, $9.99, which can be a bit scratchy; left), and the other that is domed and precise (Real Techniques Contour Brush from the Core Collection, right). Depending on how pigmented the product is, and how dramatic a look you're going for, you can choose different contour brush styles; I tend to use the Sonia Kashuk one with 'depth' products on my cheeks (particularly NYX Taupe) and the RT one with highlighter and for contouring around my nose and eyes. You can also use flat top brushes for this, but I find that I prefer using brushes that are more flexible. The Sigma Angled Top Kabuki ($18) has also gotten good reviews.

Bronzer brushes are typically very dense, much like kabuki brushes, and are good for applying bronzer all over the face (whereas contouring brushes are better for localized application, say, just under the cheekbones). The previously-mentioned Ecotools Bronzer Brush, under Powder, also fills this function for a nice all-over glow.

What to Buy First
If you're just getting started, or are wanting to revamp your brush collection, some brushes will be more useful than others. Of course, this depends a lot on what kind of makeup you wear, but in general, here's what I would suggest:
If you only get one thing, have it be a dense powder or kabuki brush. These are vital for applying mineral foundation or pressed powder, but they can also be used for loose powder, blush, and bronzer.
If you wear blush or bronzer on a regular basis, get a contouring brush.
If you wear blush and bronzer on a regular basis, get a blush brush and bronzer or contouring brush. This helps keep colors from ending up in the wrong place.
If you wear mineral concealer, get a wide concealer brush. If you wear cream, liquid, or stick concealer, you don't really need a concealer brush, though you should consider getting one if you feel the extra precision and blending would be helpful (as I do).
If you use emollient/creamy products, particularly foundation or blush, get a stippling brush. They're incredibly versatile, and can also be used to apply really pigmented powders (though I wouldn't recommend using the exact same brush for all those purposes, for the same reason you shouldn't use the same brush for blush and bronzer).
If you wear liquid foundation, you can try applying with a foundation brush, though I recommend playing around with the different kinds of foundation brushes––I can't live without my flat-top buffing brush and can't stand traditional foundation brushes. Go with what works for you, and if fingers do the trick, no need for an extra brush!
If you wear finishing powder or use loose priming powder, get a fluffy powder brush. I use mine all the time, but I do realize it's not a strictly necessary part of a brush set.
The moral of the story: For maximum versatility, get a dense powder/kabuki brushcontouring brush, and stippling brush. Keep in mind, though, that I don't have a stippling brush and have gotten on just fine without it, so you have to take your own personal preferences and needs into account. My personal must-haves are the Ecotools Bronzer Brush, Ecotools Concealer Brush, Real Techniques Buffing Brush, and Real Techniques Blush Brush. And, of course, you can opt for a set of brushes, like those immediately below.

Face Starter Sets
Many sets come with a combination of face and eye brushes, but there are a couple of great ones that focus on the face.
The Real Techniques Core Collection ($17.99) comes with buffing (kabuki/dense powder), contour, foundation, and concealer brushes, along with a handy traveling case/stand. The case is really nice for travel, since it protects the brush heads and keeps them from getting smooshed, but I find it utterly impractical as a stand, because it's a pain to get the brushes into the little elastic holders, so I use it only when actually en route. Bottom line, though: The only brush I don't use is the foundation brush, but I cannot live without the buffing brush, and I heartily recommend the set for that brush alone! The Ecotools Bamboo 5 Piece Mineral Brush set ($10.50) comes with mineral powder (fluffy powder), concealer, baby kabuki (dense powder) and eye blending brushes in a travel pouch. Ecotools also recently released a new brush set, the Fresh and Flawless Complexion Set ($14.99), which comes with a flat concealer brush, buffing concealer brush, precision foundation brush, complexion blending brush, and full powder brush; I've not heard anything about the quality of these, but it looks promising! If you're willing to spend $50+, Sigma has some nice sets, but that's more than I personally want to spend.

Phewf! Now, on to the eyes.

Eye Brushes
Eye brushes come in a truly staggering array of shapes, sizes, textures, and purposes. I highly recommend you check out Temptalia's eye brush guides here and here, since she has much more knowledge of the nuances of eye brushes than I do, and her guide has contributed a lot to this one.

Almost all of my experience with eye makeup comes from using pressed powder shadows, not loose/mineral shadows, so this guide will be biased towards brushes and application of the former, but I will make note of what brushes are recommended for loose shadow when applicable.
All-over shadow brushes are used for applying shadow to the whole lid and/or browbone. They can vary in size and are generally somewhat fluffed and rounded. If you have only one eye brush, make it one of the smaller ones of these, because they're very versatile.
Some good choices are the Sonia Kashuk Medium Eyeshadow Brush ($5.79), Sonia Kashuk Medium Fluffy Eye Shadow Brush ($11.99), , Ecotools Bamboo Eye Shading Brush ($3.99), and Studio Tools Medium Shadow Brush ($2.49). I recently picked up the Real Techniques Shading Brush ($5.99, left) for 20% off, and it's very soft, dense, slightly domed, slightly fluffed, and small, which makes it extremely versatile. I've used it in the crease and on the lid, and it works beautifully in both cases. I want to buy a couple more––seriously, I think I could get by with just this one brush (well, I mean, just the one design––I'd really need more than just one to avoid shadow contamination). Before that, I used the mark. Eye Shadow Brush ($7.00, right), which I got when I went through an Avon and Mark phase a couple years ago. It's small enough to fit into my crease, large enough to spread shadow over my lid, fluffy enough to feel soft, firm enough to pick up product, but can feel scratchy. I think I'll pick up another RT Shading Brush and retire this one.

Larger all-over brushes are useful for laying down color all over the eyelid. The Base Brush from the Real Techniques Starter Set (left) is really a medium-sized all-over brush, but it's larger than either mentioned above; I find it's a good size and shape for putting shadow on my lid below my crease and blending. The Ecotools 6 Piece Eye Collection has a very large, flatter Base brush (right), which is entirely too large for me to use for anything except covering my entire lid with a cream/ivory base shade; if you want to purchase one individually, the Sonia Kashuk Large Domed Eye Shadow Brush ($9.59) is a good choice.

Crease brushes are uh-ma-zing, seriously. They have tapered heads for putting color in the crease/contour part of the eye, and can double as blending brushes if you get one of the larger, fluffier crease brushes.  Once I started the blog and doing more complex eye looks, I decided having a dedicated crease brush might not be a bad idea.  I've been amazed at what a difference it actually makes!
There are a lot of different shapes that are labeled as "crease" brushes, so what works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. My favorite for really dark shades is the Sonia Kashuk Large Crease Brush ($5.99, and rather misleadingly named, because it is the smallest of the bunch; far left), though I have noticed it's started feeling a little scratchy recently, so it may be time to purchase a new one. I find it offers precise control and placement, as well as working well to blend. The Studio Tools Crease Brush (~$2.49, center) is similarly shaped, though longer and less dense, and I've discovered it works best as a blending brush for me, since it doesn't offer quite enough control for work in my crease; it's very cheap, but also somewhat scratchy. The Real Techniques Crease Brush from the Starter Set (second from left) is denser, and is really large, so I only use it for lighter shades in the crease when I'm going for a light, natural look, as it doesn't offer enough precision for darker shades, and for applying color all over the lid. The Ecotools Highlighting Brush from the 6 Piece Eye Set (second from right) isn't designed for crease work, but I find it works really well, similarly to the Studio Tools but smaller and more precise. The Ecotools Crease Brush from the same set (far right), on the other hand, is completely useless for me as a crease brush, as it's just too big (and I don't like the angled nature of it, though many people do like angled crease brushes). However, it makes for an awesome highlighting/blending brush, so I just pretend that the brushes were mislabeled and reverse the functions of those two! Other good choices for crease work are the E.L.F. Contour Brush ($3.00) and Sigma Small Tapered Blending Brush ($9.00; also works as a blending brush, see below). Angled contour brushes are also intended for use in the crease/contour, but are slanted at an angle rather than being evenly rounded. Besides the afore-mentioned too-large Ecotools crease brush, the E.L.F. Angled Contour Brush ($3) is a good low-cost choice, and Sigma Medium Angled Shading Brush ($9.00) is a safe bet, too.

Blending brushes are used for softening the lines between eyeshadow colors, and are usually less dense with longer, soft bristles; they're also good for applying highlighter shades along the browbone. The Studio Tools Crease Brush ($2.49), Real Techniques Base Brush, and Ecotools Crease Brush mentioned above all work best as blending brushes for me, and the Sonia Kashuk Pointed Blending Brush ($3.99) is also supposedly great.

Firm, flat brushes are good for laying down cream eyeshadow or other emollient eye products (primer, concealer), applying powder shadow wet, and patting on mineral and powder eyeshadows.
They're often pretty large for maximum efficiency. I used to have the Loew Cornell Maxine's Mop 3/8" paint brush that I used for this purpose, but I got rid of it after finally deciding it was just too scratchy. Now I just apply cream shadows with my fingers, which works better for me anyways; if you want a brush, though, the Sigma Large Shader ($12.00) is supposedly a good option. I have a Sonia Kashuk Medium Eye Shadow Brush (since discontinued, on the left) which, while flat and firm, has synthetic bristles that don't cooperate very well with cream eyeshadow. It's great for laying down powder shadow on my lid, though. The Ecotools 6-Piece Brush Set Shading Brush (right) is a miniature flat brush, and I find it works really well for patting shadow on to the center of my lid, as the small size makes it easy to get precise placement.

Angled eyeshadow/brow brushes are also firm and flat, but are cut at a slant (hence the "angled" part).
They can be used to apply powder eyeshadow as eyeliner (giving a thicker, diffused line), and are also great for applying brow powder/gel. I love the Real Techniques Brow Brush from the Starter Set (left), but Sonia Kashuk's Brow Brush ($5.99) and Angled Eyeshadow Brush ($4.99) and Sigma Small Angle ($10.00) all fit the bill; if you have thin eyebrows, you can opt for an eyeliner or similar thinner brush for more precision (see "flat eyeliner" for recommendations). Speaking of brows, a spoolie can come in handy, especially if your brows are somewhat unruly (or, like mine, furry little caterpillars); I brush mine into some semblance of shape before applying brow gel. You can buy a spoolie brush, or you can just use an old mascara wand; I use the brush that came with a tube of brow gel (which is now gross and discolored, so I have spared you a photo).

Brushes for eyeliner come in several varieties based on what kind of product you're lining with (powder, gel, or pencil) and what thickness of line you're wanting.

For a softer, wider line, smudge brushes are the ticket. The bristles are very short and dense, and they're typically used for smudging powder eyeshadow along the lashline as liner, and to smudge creamy pencil eyeliner before it dries for a more diffused line. They're also great for applying brow products, as long as your primary concern is filling in, not drawing precisely. I use the Sephora Classic Smudge Brush ($13.00, left), which is a good option if you're wanting to reach $50 for free shipping, but the Studio Tools Smudge Brush ($2.49), E.L.F. Small Precision Brush ($3.00), and Sonia Kashuk Smudge Brush ($4.99) are cheaper and, therefore, what I would recommend, all other things being equal.

Sonia Kashuk
Bent Eyeliner
Bent eyeliner brushes are ideal for thin, precise lines with powder or gel eyeliner, since they allow you to get really close to the base of your lashes. Sonia Kashuk's Bent Eyeliner Brush ($5.99, left) is a good choice.
Real Techniques Accent Brush
For a similar effect, you can use a flat eyeliner brush, which is basically the same thing as bent eyeliner brushes, minus the bend!  Sigma's Flat Definer ($10) is such a brush, as is the Real Techniques Accent Brush in their Starter Set (right), which is what I use.

If you use gel eyeliner frequently, bent eyeliners are great, but if you want more flexibility in the thickness of your line, pointed eyeliner brushes work much like calligraphy pens, in that you can control (in theory) the thickness of the line. The Real Techniques Starter Set comes with a Pixel Point Eyeliner (right), but it's long and floppy and utterly ineffective; if you want a pointed eyeliner brush, check out the Sonia Kashuk Pointed Eye Liner Brush ($5.99) and Sigma Eye Liner ($10.00). The Ecotools Smudge Brush in the 6 Piece Eye Collection (left) is somewhat misleadingly named, as I find it to be closer to a pencil eyeliner brush than a smudge brush, since it's longer and thinner rather than shorter and flatter; I've not used it with gel eyeliner, but I like it for lining my eyes with shadow when I want a thicker line.

What To Buy First
An all-over-type brush is the thing to start with (and, depending on how often you wear eyeshadow and how much complexity you want in your application, the thing to end with!); look for something that's medium in size, and average in every other respect––think Goldilocks: not to fluffy, not too dense, not too flat, not too round, not too long, not too short.
Next, I would say a crease brush is a great brush to have if you like contouring your eyes, because they really are immensely helpful.
If you wear mineral eyeshadow or like applying cream products with a brush, a firm and flat brush will come in handy.
Lastly, some kind of eyeliner brush, depending on what your usual product/look preferences are (see above for a breakdown of each one's purpose and result).
Personally, a full eye look for me uses a smallish all-over brush, a crease brush, a highlighting/blending brush, an eyeliner brush, and a brow brush. A more basic eye look can be accomplished with a crease brush and an all-over/blending brush, plus brow brush.

Eye Starter Sets
There's really a lot of eye brush sets out there, and if you don't already have any eye brushes, I would highly recommend starting with one of these, since they'll pretty much cover any eyeshadow application needs that may arise (they're also a good bet for those who want to expand or augment their existing collection!).
The Real Techniques Starter Set ($17.99, left) comes with a Base Shadow brush, Accent brush, pixel point eyeliner, Crease brush, and Brow brush, along with a travel case/stand. The case is nice for travel, as it protects the brushes from wear and tear, but it's annoying as heck to try and use as a stand, so I keep it tucked away except when traveling.

from Target, because
I forgot to take a picture
of my set
The Ecotools 6 Piece Eye Brush Set ($7.99) comes with a large eye brush, angled crease brush, petite eye shading brush, highlighting brush, and smudge brush, as well as a traveling pouch with mirror. The Real Techniques brushes are softer and generally nicer, but they're also more than twice the price. I'm glad to have both sets, as they complement each other pretty well, though I don't find either to be a sufficient set of brushes for my eye makeuping needs (I'm also super high-maintenance, so take that with a grain of salt). There are other eye brush sets that I haven't tried, including the Sonia Kashuk Essential Eye Kit ($10.69), which comes with a medium eyeshadow, angled eyeshadow, crease, and smudge brushes as well as a foam applicator and case with mirror, as well as a number from Sigma, which run ~$60 (yeesh).

Complete Starter Sets
If you're wanting to cover all your bases, you can either get one each of face and eye starter sets, or you can pick up a set that includes both. The Ecotools Alicia Silverstone 5 Piece Brush Set ($15.99) comes with a blush brush, mini foundation brush, mini powder (fluffy) brush, detailed eye shading brush (small all-over), and spoolie brush (for eyebrows and lashes), along with a very cute travel pouch; Ecotools has a number of other sets, including the Bamboo 6 Piece Brush Set ($12.99), 6 Piece Day to Night Set ($16.99), and Bamboo 5 Piece Brush Set ($9.99) The Real Techniques Travel Essentials ($17.99) has a foundation brush, multi-purpose brush (for powder, blush, and bronzer), and a domed shadow brush (full and fluffy and round), which all comes in a travel stand/pouch. Sonia Kashuk has lots of brush sets, with more around the holidays and in-store, such as the 4 Piece Travel Set ($14.99) and Tres Chic ($34.99) (click on links for details). Lastly, if you're willing to splurge, Sigma has a few set options; the one that looks like it would cover pretty much every need you could have is the Complete Kit ($89.00 without brush roll, $109.00 with), which comes with a whopping 12 brushes (click the link for a run-down).

How to Care for Your Brushes
If you want to take really good care of your brushes so that they last forever and ever, you should probably google for help with that, because I can't really help you there. I'm far too lazy to do any kind of really careful brush maintenance; some people wash their brushes after every use, but I have neither the time nor inclination to do that. I wash my brushes at least weekly, and some of them more often than that (anything I use with liquid/cream products gets washed at least every other use, including my Real Techniques buffing brush and brow brush), and I use a brush spray (Sephora's, which is pretty nice though I'm not sure it's worth the $6) on my eye brushes between washings. I've tried a lot of different methods for washing my brushes, but have found I like using Dr. Bronner's Magic Liquid-Castile Soap best, as it's gentle on the bristles, leaves them feeling soft, and gets rid of everything. Others like clarifying shampoo (which seem to all have coco-betaine or sulfates, which I try to avoid), bar soap (I like Burt's Bees Mango Body Bar when I'm feeling super lazy), baby shampoo (too gentle for my waterproof stuff), baby wipes (haven't tried), and oil cleanser (works nicely for getting gunk off of bristles, but somewhat expensive in the longterm). I pour a few drops of castile soap into a mug, add some warm water, and set my brushes head-down. After they soak for a couple minutes I swirl them around, swish them in my hand to build up a lather, rinse them in lukewarm water, squeeze out the excess water with a towel and halfheartedly reshape them and stick them in their brush holders. Most are dry by morning, but the Ecotools Bronzer brush takes forever to dry due to its densely packed synthetic bristles. If you want to be extra nice to your brushes, you can use Brush Guards to make sure they retain their shape while they're drying (or when traveling), but I am too cheap.

Speaking of brush holders, how should you store your brushes? There are fancy brush rolls and upside down hangy racks and all sorts of magical contraptions, but they cost money and are confusing, so I just store my brushes in little pencil holder thingies I got at TJ Maxx for a few bucks. One is devoted to face brushes, one to eye brushes, and one to the Ecotools brushes and my spoolie, as their handles are all too short for the pencil doohickies (seriously, Blogger? You know 'doohickies' but not 'Swarthmore'? Madness.). Brushes that need to be washed hang out in a mini Coke glass I got at the dollar store (for $0.59, because apparently not everything is $1), which is small enough that I know it's time to wash my brushes when no more fit into it.

And that's that! I hope this guide has proven helpful to you, and that you will now feel better going off into the world of budget brushes. If you have any favorites, post them in the comments and I'll add them––I'm always happy to hear what others use and like!
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