Every aspiring, and professional, make-up artist knows that the right tools are essential for creating a perfect and flawless look. Consequently, the average brush set can hold around 20 different shaped brushes for different purposes; blending, defining, contouring etc. Choosing between a natural fibre brush and a synthetic alternative, however, can be confusing, particularly when taking into consideration industry standards and ethical values.

Two key brush functions are application control and precision, and it is in these areas that the choice between natural or synthetic can really make a difference. With a large selection of brands to choose from in each camp, it is important to first understand the advantages that both sides can offer.

Some natural fibres include goat, squirrel, pony, and sable hair. When it comes to powder make-up, such as blush and bronzer, natural fibres are widely considered to be the best option. The bristles hold powder better, due to the animal scales in the hair, allowing the make-up to be distributed evenly and smoothly on the face; consequently making it a favourite among professional make-up artists.

Each animal hair has a different quality: Goat hair bristles flare out from the center and are incredibly soft, making them perfect for even blending. Squirrel hair bristles, on the other hand, come to a point and are a good choice for heavy pigments such as eye shadow.

So how is the hair collected? The animal hair used in some natural brushes is gathered when grooming the animal, then is colour matched and assembled into a brush. However, there is much controversy surrounding the ethics of this process and it’s important to remember that not all natural brushes are created in this way. In many cases, the animals are farmed or hunted, and the hairs are collected and are often a by-product of the fur industry. It is also worth noting that some companies get their product imported from countries where animal welfare is extremely low.

It’s these ethical concerns that have prompted some major make-up brands to create cruelty-free/vegan brushes, using synthetic materials. They are created from manmade fibres like Nylon or Taklon, and are a lot easier on your wallet. Urban Decay, for example, have a great collection of synthetic brushes made from recycled PBT plastic bottles. Benefit Cosmetics’ range, Nanshy brushes and the Kelly Quan vegan brush selection also come highly recommended. For those who are truly committed to ethical beauty; The Body Shop not only has a fantastic (although limited) set of super-soft synthetic brushes, but is totally against animal testing and uses fair trade products across its cosmetics ranges.

So, are we sacrificing industry level quality for ethics and price? Not necessarily. These synthetic materials are better for creams or liquids because the bristles have no cuticle, allowing for a heavier coverage. The most common uses for these brushes are applying foundation, lipstick, cream eyeliner and concealer. There is also a strong argument regarding cleanliness and longevity; synthetic brushes are less prone to collecting dirt and bacteria than natural fibres and are easier to clean – requiring less maintenance in terms of retaining their shape. They also shed less and are a solution for those with animal hair allergies.

Demonstrating that industry professionals see the benefit in both types of brush, MAC Cosmetics has added the 233 Split Fibre Eye Shadow Brush to its expansive repertoire of natural, synthetic, and natural/synthetic blend brushes. By combining both types of fibre, the brush delivers two distinct results; ‘soft and diffused’ or ‘sheer and polished.’ In the end, it all comes down to desired finish, personal preference and how important ethical products are to both you and your clients. Most importantly, it is the quality of your brushes that will ensure a professional result and a long lasting kit. As the saying goes; ‘a workman is only as good as his tools.’

Written by Chelsea Davis.