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A Guide to Makeup Brush Construction

A guide to makeup brushes construction, including the parts of a brush and what the bristles are made from.

Bristles

  • The toe is the bristle tips – the bit that goes on the skin.
  • The heel is the bottom end of the bristles. Here, the bristles are tied and then glued in the ferrule. Some ferrules are also clamped tightly around the bristle heel.
  • The length, softness, shape, and amount of hairs used in a brush are dictated by what makeup products the brush has been designed for.

Ferrule

  • The bristles are held in place by the ferrule, which is sometimes pinched flat.
  • The ferrule is usually metal, such as nickel-plated brass or aluminium. The ferrule can also be plastic. 
  • The bottom of the ferrule is glued to the handle to make it secure. It is best to not leave brushes in water or let water get into the ferrule.

Handle

  • Handles are made from solid materials, such as wood (coated in either varnish or paint), resin or plastic. 
  • Recycled or sustainable materials (like bamboo) can also be used to make brush handles. They are growing in availability and popularity due to having less impact on the environment.
  • Printed on the handle can be various information, including the brand logo and the brush’s purpose or size. It varies from brand to brand.

TIP: If you work as a makeup artist, mark your brush handles with your name or a symbol. Use coloured nail varnish, that way you will know they are yours!

What Bristles Are Made Of

The bristles are from either animal hair or synthetic fibres – or a mix of the two. Here is a look at both types of material.

Animal Hair

  • 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 camel hair but a combination of several types of animal hair (including horse, goat and squirrel) – it depends on the desired softness and cost.
  • Why is animal hair used? Simply because it has been used traditionally for a long time. There was no other suitable material until synthetics came along. 
  • How is hair constructed? 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 unique strengths and advantages. For example, sable hair is soft, flexible and goes to a fine point – suitable for precision work. Badger hair is stiff and 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 – and is obtained from animals by hunting, farming and slaughter. Animal welfare standards are generally poor. It is not a pretty business.
 

Synthetic Hair

  • What is synthetic hair? Synthetic hair is 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. Powders can also be applied with synthetics designed just for this purpose. For example, Taklon and Natrafil were designed to mimic the different properties of animal hair, making them suitable substitutes for powder cosmetics.
  • How is the hair made? In factories – and can be cut to any length and dyed to any colour.
 

Types of synthetic fibres used in makeup brushes:

  • Taklon – is a soft, smooth polyester derivative – developed by DuPont to mimic the qualities of natural sable. Therefore, it is soft and flexible with a good point. It is an incredibly versatile material and can create bristles in all types and sizes of makeup brushes.
  • Nylon – has smooth fibres 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, initially designed to replace animal hair for use in powder brushes. Here, it is essential to pick up the powder product and release it evenly over the skin. Natrafil® is a polyester-based composite 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 this type of bristles.

Summary of the Differences

 

Synthetic Hair

Animal Hair

Hygiene and CleaningSmooth 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 UsesCream, gel and liquid. Powders can also be applied with the textured synthetic bristles.Powder makeup products.
Feel on SkinBristles 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.
DurabilityStands 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.
EthosCruelty free. No protein element, so vegan friendly.Animal treatment issues.
Bristles Made FromMan-made materials like nylon and 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 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.

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11 thoughts on “A Guide to Makeup Brush Construction”

  1. An amazing written article and a great resource for everyone in search of answers to makeup brushes. I was doing some research on synthetic hair brushes and found your info very useful. I’ll make sure to save and share your page. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the wealth of information. I couldn’t find anything related to the reason why almost every brush handle is sized differently based on the bristles. I can understand why there’s a large difference inbetween the thicker bristles compared to the really small ones. However within the small category of bristles, almost every handle has a slight size variation in thickeness. Does this make a huge difference when applying makeup? For example pencils have different lead sizes but the handle is the same size. I’m asking because I’m interested in designing my own brushes and would like to make one uniform brush thickness.

    1. For us, makeup brushes are about being able to do the makeup application you want to do easily, quickly and accurately. Brushes need to be balanced so they handle well – so the weight of the bristles needs to be balanced with the weight of the handle. But we see no reason why, as you say, those brushes that have bristles of a similar size/weight couldn’t have more uniform handles. However, one uniform brush thickness wouldn’t work for a full range of brushes, as the variation in bristle size/weight is too much (from the thinnest pencil liner to the largest powder brushes) – this would mean some brushes are more difficult to handle as they would be unbalanced in the hand. 🙂

  3. Hello,

    I loved all the great information you provided on the construction of makeup brushes. It’s very informative and helpful. I’m trying to construct my own brushes, so do you have any information regarding suppliers of the bristles already set in the ferrules without the handles? Any recommendations and information would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks,

    D. Sanders

    1. Hi there – thanks for getting in touch. Sadly we’ve no idea who supplies the various parts that go into makeup brushes. We only ever get the finished product! Good luck in your search.

  4. Thank you for your information! I would like your permission to use the photo of the makeup brush construction picture. I am writing a professional makeup artistry curriculum for Southern Calif. cosmetology schools. Please let me know asap. I would be glad to give photo credits if you would like.
    Thank you, Sally You can find me on Linked in Sally Eggleton/Henshaw

  5. How do I know what type of bristles I have!? It’s not written anywhere 🙁 I want to make sure I’m using synthetic for ethical reasons.

    1. Brands should (but they don’t always) tell you what they are made off – online stores should state the materials used; shop staff should be able to answer this when buying in-store. Some brands only sell synthetic brushes e.g. Urban Decay, Aveda, Body Shop. So look at the brands you have bought! Foundation brushes (whatever the brand) tend to be synthetic. Well-made synthetics used in fluffy brushes can be hard to distinguish from animal hair, as they are designed to mimic animal hair, but generally synthetics tend to be smoother in feel and look, as they don’t have a cuticle.

  6. I suppose there must be some mistaken on how to obtain animal hair, most of the goat hair was cut down from goat, but no animals was harmed, except for some bad guys hunt the animals but get the hair is not their goal, hunt animals is their goal, they sell animal hairs to other just in order to get more profit and make everything become profitable. Hope my opinion could correct some opinion in your mind.

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