I needed to begin this post with a little mood music… anyway…

If you ever watch any type of makeup tutorials, video product reviews, or beauty v-bloggers on YouTube, you’ve probably seen some buzz about e.l.f. cosmetics.  My young aspiring makeup artist friends are all about e.l.f. because the prices are extremely affordable and they offer a wide range of products, including many tools that your average drug store cosmetic company doesn’t… or hasn’t until recently.

Stila makeup artist, Sarah Lucero (ps I'll get to meet her this weekend!)

Over the last couple of years the consumer has moved beyond just wanting to be able to apply their makeup, now we want feel like we have the knowledge and tools to be our own makeup artist.

To keep up with that demand, cosmetic companies have been expanding their range of tools.  When I was younger, (and not that much younger) the only tool you ever had the option of getting from the drug store was the half inch sponge tip applicator that came with your Revlon or CoverGirl eye shadow. The only brushes I ever saw at that time were the ones in department stores at makeup counters. However, now you can roam the isle of the cosmetic department of your grocery store and find a surprising selection of brushes to choose from.  With the ever-increasing availability of tools, the question becomes what is the difference between the brush that cost $5 and the one that cost $25?  This brings me back to e.l.f.

My brushes

I’m a brush junky, there’s no doubt about that, and so I was really curious about all of these new tools on the market and how they compare to things I’ve been using.  I recently discovered that the Target closest to my home carries e.l.f. products and so I bought a brush and decided to do a little comparing. As much as I love the brands I use, I love an honest review more and so I hope that I can give that here.  My goal isn’t to prove that one type or brand or make is better than another, but to help you understand why some brushes are significantly more expensive than others, and how you can tell a well made brush for a poorly made one, regardless of the price tag.

From e.l.f.'s website

I purchased a Taklon eyeshadow “c”  brush from e.l.f. for $3  a couple of days ago and I’ve been able to use it several times now. To the right is a picture of the brush from e.l.f.’s website. It’s a pretty basic model brush, the packaging and the website both recommend this brush for creating a “smokey eye”  Before I go into a lot of detail in reviewing this particular brush, let me break down brushes for you quickly, because not everyone is savvy to the basic brush categories.

In the world of brushes you have two major families, synthetic brushes and natural hair brushes.  The difference between the two is that a synthetic brush is made of synthetic, man-made, fibers, and a natural hair brush is made out of animal hair. Taklon is a commonly used synthetic fiber and natural hair brushes come from all manner of sources, goat hair, pony… and for the most part at this point, natural hair brushes are animal friendly.  It can be difficult to tell a synthetic brush from a natural hair brush at times by just looking or feeling the brush. The packaging should say why the brush is made of, but in the case that it doesn’t, most often synthetic brush bristles appear shinier than a natural bristle brush, usually the bristles are black or two toned. A natural hair brush typically looks like natural hair, you’ll sometimes find natural hair brushes that have been dyed, or bleached light colors, but they never look plastic, just think about what your own hair would look like died.

As far as the different ways you use these brushes, that is more or less a matter of  personal taste. In my experience synthetic brushes are best used as finishing brushes, and with wet products.  The synthetic fibers are non-porous, so they don’t soak up your product, using them with foundations, wet shadows, cream pigments, and concealers makes the application smooth, the product slips right off the brush and where you want it to go.  On the flip-side, I find that natural hair brushes perform best with dry product, powder pigments, loose powder pigments, powder foundations. The natural hair bristles pick up and hold the pigment and then release it evenly.

e.l.f. brush in black brand "a" brush in silver.

Now lets get down to business. In black is my new e.l.f. brush, and in silver is the similar, more expensive “brand a” brush I’ve chosen to use as a point of reference. I’m not doing a brand to brand comparison here because my point is not to say “this brand is better than that brand” but to simply site the differences.  In my professional opinion the “brand a” brush is a quality brush for the money ($17).  Throughout my review I’ll be showcasing the brushes side-by-side so that you can see the differences in how the brushes are made. Again, this is not to prove that one is better than the other because better depends on a lot of different things (for instance, your budget, what look you’re trying to achieve, if you’ll be using the brushes professionally or not, just to name a few).

The first thing noticeable about the difference in these two brushes is their weight, which obviously can’t be show in a picture… unless I had a little scale handy, which I don’t. =) The weight of a brush is not generally something that matters much to the general public, but may be something you want to consider at the back of your mind. For a professional brush weight and how that weight feels in your hand is going to make a lot of difference in how fluidly you’re able to use the brush when working on someone else, but what the weight speaks to that is important for the casual user to consider is what the brush handle is made of.  This particular brush is very light for it’s size, it almost feels as if the center of the handle is hallow, which could mean that it is easily broken or cracked. A light handled brush could also be an indication of how deeply your bristles are clamped inside. The deeper the brush bristles are clamped, glued, or braided into the handle, the less likely they are to fall out. If your brush handle feels very light, it’s probably an indication that the brush bristles are clued or clamped (braided bristles are necessarily expensive) very near the top of the brush.

The next thing I want to point out is the shape and cut of the bristles themselves. Of the less expensive brushes I’ve seen, this one had one of the best cuts. A well cut and shaped brush makes all the difference in application. You will notice, however that the “brand a” brush is still slightly smoother and better shaped, and this is after 2 years of use and lots of cleaning vs. the e.l.f. brush that’s 2 days old.  Another thing to notice is the dent in the metal of the “brand a” brush. That dent makes the metal flush with the bristles and holds them securely in place. You can’t see it very well in this photo, but the top of the metal on the e.l.f. brush pulls slightly away from the bristles, giving them room to spread and lose some shape.

In this photo you can see the clamp of the metal on the “brand a” brush a little better and you can also she the width of the bristles on both brushes. This is the main reason, aside from the fact that the e.l.f. brush is synthetic, that I will not be using this brush to build pigment.  While it is a brush that’s bound fairly tight, a brush that fat and made of Taklon is going to give you a softer application. For this reason I will use it for blending and finishing. I do want to restate that this is something that really goes back to personal preference as an artist, I’m sure there are those who will say that they think a synthetic brush works just fine for building pigment, but in my opinion, the application with a synthetic brush is more sheer, and is thus better suited for blending. I’ll also point out again that for a $3 brush, the shape is really, really, good. That’s what you want to look for when trying to determine quality.

To the left you want to notice the “ferrel” (the metal part) of the brush and how snug it seems to the wood of the handle. Notice how the ferrel of the “brand a” brush seems a little tighter, a little more flush with the wood than the e.l.f. brush.  The e.l.f. brush isn’t too loose, but I have definitely seen some that look a lot looser. You want this connection to be really tight because your brush is being held together at this point.  This and the clamp at the top of the ferrel is going to make a a huge difference in the lifespan of your brush when it comes to cleaning. If water is able to seep through either place you run the risk of the handle rotting, or the bristles getting loose and falling out. It’s also really annoying when the ferrel gets loose and starts to wobble when you’re trying to put eyeshadow on yourself or someone else.

Here it is again (with my shiny, shiny, hand!), usually this is something that is easy to spot.

So all things considered, for $3 I think you could do a lot worse.  When it comes down to it, the honest truth is that I probably wont be able to keep this brush in as good condition for as long as the “brand a” brush, but at $3 it’s not painful to replace.

What’s important is to realize exactly what you’re paying for and how it’s going to function, and I hope that this little review helped define the differences a bit. I’m definitely not opposed to using less costly tools when it’s worth it to do so, my advice is just to make sure it is worth it, and that the piece you’re looking at will do what you’re hoping for it to.

And that is all, comments are welcome and encouraged, even if you disagree. I’m off to make dinner. Ciao!