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A guide to how makeup brushes are constructed and the differences between synthetic fibre and animal hair bristles.
Makeup Brush Construction
A makeup brush consists of three main parts – bristles, ferrule and handle.
The bristles are the action end of a brush. The “toe” is at the top and the “heel” is the end of the bristles that are secured into the ferrule. The length, softness, shape and amount of hairs in the brush are dictated by what makeup application and products the brush has been designed for.
The ferrule is usually made of metal (for example, nickel-plated brass or aluminium) and, less commonly, from plastic. The bristles are held in place by the top of the ferrule, which is sometimes pinched flat, and a good dollop of glue. The bottom of the ferrule is glued to the handle too, so don’t leave your brushes in water or let the ferrule get water in it.
Handles are made from wood (coated in either varnish or paint), resin or plastic. Some handles are made from recycled or sustainable materials like bamboo. The brand logo and other information about the brush (like it’s purpose or size) is printed on the handle.
TIP: If you work as a makeup artist, mark your brush handles with your name or a symbol (use a coloured nail varnish) so you know they are yours!
What Bristles Are Made Of
The bristles of a makeup brush can be made from animal hair or synthetic hair (or a mix of the two). Here is a look at both types of material.
- What is animal hair? Animal hair (sometimes referred to as “natural”) comes from animals, including goats, badgers, squirrels, weasels (“sable”) and horses (“pony”). Camel hair brushes are not actually made from camel hair, but a combination of several types of animal hair (including horse, goat and squirrel), depending on the desired softness and cost.
- Why is animal hair used? Simply because it has been traditionally used in brushes for a long time and there was no other suitable material until synthetics came along. The hair has a cuticle, a layered outer coating on the hair shaft, which picks up and distributes powder products well. The cuticle also means that animal hair is not so good for cream, gel or liquid products, as it picks up too much product and can lead to clogging, blobs or streaking.
- Each type of hair comes with its own unique strengths and advantages. For example, sable hair is soft, flexible and goes to a fine point, which is good for precision work. Badger hair is stiff and is used in brushes that work to define and shape, like brow brushes. Squirrel and goat hair is very soft.
- How is the hair made? A commonly asked question and the answer is simple: the hair is not given willingly – it is obtained from animals by hunting, farming and slaughter. Animal welfare standards are generally very poor. It is not pretty business.
- What is synthetic hair? Synthetic hair is made from 100% manufactured fibres, like nylon and polyester.
- Why is synthetic hair used? Synthetic hair does not have a cuticle, so it is very smooth and traps less product in the hair than animal hair brushes. Therefore, they are great for creams, gels and liquids. Powder can also be applied with synthetics designed specifically for this purpose. For example, Taklon and Natrafil were created specifically to mimic the different properties of animal hair, making them good substitutes for using with powder cosmetics.
- How is the hair made? It is manufactured in factories and can be dyed to any colour.
Types of synthetic fibres used in makeup brushes:
- Taklon – is a soft, smooth polyester derivative, originally developed by DuPont to mimic the qualities of natural sable Therefore, it is flexible and soft with a good point. It is an incredibly versatile material and can be used in all types and sizes of makeup brushes.
- Nylon – has smooth fibers and is used in makeup brushes that need a degree of firmness to the bristles, like concealer, brow and mascara brushes.
- Natrafil® – is another DuPont creation. It was initially designed to replace animal hair for use in powder brushes, where being able to pick up the product and release it evenly onto the skin is important. Natrafil® is a polyester-based composite and is made with a textured surface, allowing the hair to grab the powder. The commonly-held belief that synthetics are no good for powder makeup is no longer so with these type of bristles.
Summary of the Differences
|Hygiene and Cleaning||Smooth fibres used lack a cuticle, making it easier to clean thoroughly, when done properly that is.||Has an irregular surface (due to cuticles) which traps powders, dead skin cells, bacteria and chemicals. Cleaning may not necessarily remove all these particles.|
|Best Uses||Cream, gel and liquid. Powders can also be applied with the textured synthetic bristles.||Powder makeup products.|
|Feel on Skin||Bristles tend to be firmer, though more flexible versions are available.||Bristles can vary from very soft and fluffy to firmer, depending on type of hair used.|
|Durability||Stands up to solvents and doesn’t dry out. Keeps shape well. Dries quicker than animal hair after washing.||Over time with washing and cleaning, hair is prone to breakage, drying out and can lose its shape. Hair can shed.|
|Ethos||Cruelty free. No protein element, so vegan friendly.||Animal treatment issues.|
|Bristles Made From||Man-made materials like nylon, polyester||Animal hair from squirrels, goats, horses, badgers and weasels|
What Do We Prefer?
As professional makeup artists, we use every type of makeup that there is, in all situations, and on all sorts of faces – and we have 100% synthetic brushes in our kit.
As well as the other advantages we feel that today’s synthetic brushes have over animal hair in terms of reliability, durability and hygiene, we simply cannot ignore the cruelty involved in obtaining hair from animals just to make makeup brushes. Yes, we are biased towards synthetics and don’t like cruelty.