Must-Have Makeup Brushes for Blush, Foundation, Contouring, Highlighting, and Powder

Must-Have Blush Brushes
Must-Have Blush Brushes

For nearly a year, I’ve been broadening my brush horizons and specifically testing an array of brushes from several brands. These are the brushes that I continue to reach for even after I’ve wrapped up testing. You’ll most likely see similar shapes across the brushes I’ve pulled, as these are the shapes/sizes that I find to work best for how I apply my makeup.  I tried to keep the list to my very, very favorites–ones I reach for and will use over and over again. I have also made the hard choice of choosing between children by trying to pick my ultimate favorite out of each grouping. When there are multiple brushes that are similar in shape/quality, I’ve also included those so you can have a few brands (and price points, sometimes) to choose from.

I would LOVE to hear about your must-have face brushes, if you would be so kind as to share below!

Note, I have about 30 brush reviews I’ve yet to post, so some brushes mentioned here will eventually have fully fleshed out reviews, complete with individual photos. Stay tuned!

Blush Brushes

I like somewhat flat, lightly domed or tapered, and moderately dense brushes for most blush application. These types of brushes work well for applying cheek color and laying down good color in one go, and then they work well to blend and diffuse the color once on the skin. If I could only pick one, I’d recommend Hakuhodo J5543— the Tom Ford Cheek Brush is just as superb but it is more expensive (and they are very comparable).

  1. Tom Ford Cheek (06) Brush ($78.00) is a luxurious brush that’s densely-packed with bristles and as soft as silk.
  2. Hakuhodo J5543 Blush Brush ($60.00) is very similar in shape to Tom Ford’s Cheek brush, it’s just not quite as dense. I use these two interchangeably.
  3. Sephora PRO Precision Blush (73) Brush ($32.00) is flatter than the two above, and it is slightly tapered, so it works well for really dragging and drawing color upwards towards the temples of the face. It’s also less dense (because it’s flatter), so it can work well for applying more pigmented blushes without going overboard.
  4. Honorable Mention: Hakuhodo Large Yachiyo Brush ($48.00) is a fluffier, tapered, slightly domed-shaped brush that’s not too dense but not too airy. This is a newer addition to my routine, but I had been using NARS’ Yachiyo brush previously and this is similar in use (it’s not as tapered as NARS’). It’s not as soft as the above three brushes, which makes it particularly useful for a blush that’s sheer–it tends to grab pigment really well because it dislodges the powder from the surface more readily than the other brushes.

Foundation Brushes

I typically use liquid foundation, as it tends to be the best fit for my skin type, so my choice of brushes reflects that. If I had to pick one from these four (money being no object), it would be Tom Ford Cream Foundation (02) Brush. However, knowing that it is extremely expensive, I think Real Techniques Expert Face Brush gives this a real run for its money, and at a fraction of the cost, would be my recommendation in most cases.  I would start with that one, quite honestly, and if you were happy with that, then no reason to tempt yourself further!

  1. Real Techniques Expert Face Brush ($8.99) is a synthetic brush that’s great for applying, blending, and buffing in liquid foundation. It’s incredibly affordable and works well.
  2. Hakuhodo G5556 ($69.00) is a blend of synthetic and goat hair with a round brush with an angled, flat edge. It works well for buffing and blending out foundation.
  3. Hourglass Foundation/Blush Brush No. 2 ($58.00) is a synthetic brush with a longer brush head and a rounded, slightly domed edge. This has been a go-to brush applying liquid foundation for at least year prior to trying some of my other new favorites, but I still like this one a lot. I like this one for particularly thin or watery foundations. I will note that it can be a pain in the behind to get totally clean and pristine again.
  4. Tom Ford Cream Foundation (02) Brush ($72.00) is a smaller, dense, somewhat flat and rounded brush that delivers an exceptionally streak-free, well-blended, flawless finish with ease. This brush was also the easiest to clean.

Contour Brushes

The most common type of contour brush is an angled brush, but I also like a tapered shape. If you don’t do a lot of contouring, you may find a tapered contour brush works better because it can also be used to apply blush or highlighter. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend MAC 168, as it has been a cult favorite for years, and it remains a classic in my stash.

  1. Hakuhodo J5521 ($36.00) is a small, tapered brush that works well for contouring and highlighting, so I really like that it’s a more veresatile/dual-purpose brush. It’s very soft, picks up and lays down powders well, and is easy to clean. If you want something more affordable, the Contour Brush in Real Techniques Core Collection ($17.99) is a nice alternative.
  2. Hakuhodo J511 ($33.00) is a small, angled brush with silky-soft bristles and a moderate density–it has a fluffiness to it that works well for blending and laying down natural contours. This is smaller than MAC 168, so it would be ideal for smaller faces or for more detailed/precise contours.
  3. MAC 168 ($35.00) is a classic, and it’s still a favorite for me. It’s just the right size–not too big, not too small–soft, blends powders beautifully, and fits well into the hollows of the cheek. It has a nice fluffiness that works well with contouring/sculpting powders to deposit enough color but not too much all at once.

Highlighting/Finishing Brushes

Fan brushes, in general, are superb for giving a soft, diffused coloring with minimal blending required. I really think they’re an underrated tool! I always reach for these throughout the week. I find the size, shape, and materials of the MAC 184 to make it my favorite–I like that it’s a blend of fibers, so it still works well with cream/liquid products as well as with powders.

  1. MAC 184 ($24.00) is a duo-fiber fan brush that’s not too big or too small (I really love the size), and I love that it works well with powders, liquids, and creams. I tend to use it for highlighting or finishing powders, but I also use it for applying cream blush or any intensely pigmented blush that I need to take it easy on.
  2. Sephora PRO Fan Brush #65 ($27.00) is wider and denser, so it is particularly lovely for applying an all-over highlighter or finishing powder.
  3. Hakuhodo J4004 ($26.00) is incredibly soft, so if you have more sensitive skin, it may be the best bet for you when it comes to a fan brush. It’s slightly smaller than MAC 184, but it has a nice feathery quality to it and I reach for it when applying a more frosted highlighter.

Powder Brushes

I find myself using Make Up For Ever #128 anytime I apply a setting powder–it’s really a go-to and completely made other powder brushes I’ve used in the past obsolete. The two other brushes mentioned here are nice-to-have brushes that I do use often, so for me, they’re must-haves, but I don’t think they’re necessarily as applicable for everyone.

  1. MAC 138 ($53.00) is a large, tapered brush. It’s fantastic for applying any powder all-over the face where you still want a lighter/more natural application. I often use this with Guerlain’s Meteorites.
  2. Make Up For Ever #128 ($52.00) is my new go-to for applying setting powder, because it has a nice “press” feeling due to the way the brush head is constructed (read my review, which is linked in the beginning, for a better explanation of this).
  3. Tom Ford Bronzer (05) Brush ($115.00) might be touted as a bronzer brush, but I like it for dusting on finishing powders or other translucent, sheer powders. It’s a massive brush, so it takes care of that task in no time.

I store my brushes in wide, cylinder vases/jars and have filled them with glass beads.  I only keep out the brushes that I use regularly (I go through a fair amount of brushes in a week span with how much I test), as you may have an issue with dust gathering on unused brushes if they’re left out and rarely used.  I find that I use mine frequently enough that I haven’t noticed this as an issue.  Brushes I don’t use or infrequently use, I store in plastic containers in my bathroom drawers.

See more photos!

Must-Have Foundation Brushes
Example of How I Store My Brushes

Must-Have Blush Brushes
Must-Have Blush Brushes: Tom Ford Cheek, Hakuhodo J5543, Sephora PRO Precision Blush

Must-Have Blush Brushes
Must-Have Blush Brushes: Hakuhodo Large Yachiyo, Sephora Pro Precision blush, Hakuhodo J5543, Tom Ford Cheek

Must-Have Foundation Brushes
Must-Have Foundation Brushes: Real Techniques Expert Face, Hakuhodo G5556, Hourglass No. 2, Tom Ford Cream Foundation

Must-Have Foundation Brushes
Must-Have Foundation Brushes: Real Techniques Expert Face, Hakuhodo G5556, Hourglass No. 2, Tom Ford Cream Foundation

Must-Have Contour Brushes
Must-Have Contour Brushes: Hakuhodo J5521, Hakuhodo J511, MAC 168

Must-Have Highlighting Brushes
Must-Have Highlighting Brushes: MAC 184, Sephora Pro Fan Brush #65, Hakuhodo J4004

Must-Have Highlighting Brushes
Must-Have Highlighting Brushes: MAC 184, Sephora Pro Fan Brush #65, Hakuhodo J4004

Must-Have Powder Brushes
Must-Have Powder Brushes: MAC 138, Make Up For Ever #128, Tom Ford Bronzer (05) Brush