Beauty Debate: Natural vs Synthetic Make-up Brushes - Which do you use and why?

Friday, 24 August 2012

If you're a make-up junkie, chances are you'll also have some kind of make-up brush collection, whether it's small, large, or somewhere in between.  I never used to have many make-up brushes, but as my cosmetics collection grew, I found myself becoming a lot more interested in brushes and discovering which ones I liked using and which ones I didn't for a variety of reasons. 

Natural hair brushes
Make-up brushes that are made from natural hair come from some sort of animal.  Common animals used are goat, pony, squirrel and sable and brushes can be made from a singular animal or a mixture.  Each animal has a different kind of hair, so each is used for a different purpose, but mainly natural hairs are used because they are soft, durable and can be naturally thicker or finer.   For hair brushes, boar is popular because of its flexibility and strength, and badger has been used for making men's shaving brushes for centuries.

Synthetic brushes
Synthetic brushes are usually made from either taklon (a polyester derivative) or nylon, although they can be made from any man-made substance that can mimic animal hair, and many cosmetics companies are now developing and blending new materials for brush use.     

The Main differences: Natural vs Synthetic

Applying make-up: Natural brushes have long been preferred by many MUAs to apply powders because they hold / pick up more product and can give a smoother, more flawless finish.  Synthetic brushes are best used for cream and liquid based products because the synthetic fibres don't absorb the liquid like water (think about it, when your hair gets wet, what does it do?), so they transfer the product better onto the skin.

Texture, longevity and price: Traditionally natural brushes have always been deemed a lot softer and less scratchy.  However, the new generation of synthetic brushes on the market are now made of high quality materials like taklon which are as soft, if not softer, than natural brushes.  Do remember though that the overall quality of natural and synthetic brushes, does varies from brand to brand.  When discussing the longevity factor, natural brushes have always been seen as much more of a long standing investment, but new synthetic brushes are just as durable nowadays and may last longer due to the fact they don't have to be washed as regularly (see below).  Price wise, natural brushes will almost always cost you a lot more than synthetic ones.

Hygiene & sensitivity: In this case, natural brushes don't fare very well at all.  The natural fibres are composed of irregular surfaces which act like a trap for bacteria, dead skin cells, chemicals and whatever else it comes into contact with.  You'll need to use a good antibacterial cleanser and deep clean your natural hair brushes much more regularly to combat possible infections.  Synthetic brushes on the other hand are much more hygienic because they're man-made and have a flat uniform surface which means that they absorb less bacteria in general, and are much easier to clean (as well as drying a lot quicker too).  Some people also can be more sensitive to animal hair and experience irritation which can worsen conditions like acne and eczema etc, so synthetic brushes are a much better option if you have those or sensitive skin overall.  

 A selection of my make-up brushes from a variety of brands including Ecotools, Real Techniques, Everyday Minerals, Elf, Japonesque*, The Body Shop etc.  Synthetic brushes first photo, natural brushes second.

The Cruelty Debate
For many, the choice to purchase either natural or synthetic brushes comes down to personal ethics.  There are cruelty concerns as to how natural hair is obtained to make brushes, and each brand that makes them will either have a strict policy, a vague policy, or simply no policy at all.

Strict policies usually say that the hair used in their brushes is technically 'cruelty-free', in that it is sourced from animals that are not killed, so instead they are shaven/shorn like sheep are to make wool.  They usually also say that they have good relations with their source/have traceability in place, and some may even monitor animal welfare practices etc.  They're also often very insistent that their hair is not a by-product of the fur industry. 

Vague policies are just that; vague.  They may consider and label themselves as being cruelty-free like the above, but won't properly answer any questions regarding how or where they source the hair from.

No policies generally indicate that the hair is sourced directly from the fur industry, all animals of which are always killed, and mainly just for their fur.

Whether a brand has a policy or not, if you are interested in finding out where the hair in a make-up brush comes from, contact the brand direct and ask as many questions as you want.  If you're not satisfied with the answers that you receive, then consider contacting another brand or purchasing synthetics instead.  Also it's worth bearing in mind that a lot of natural hair used in brushes is sourced from China and Russia, both of which have rather sketchy animal welfare practices  So make sure the brand you're wanting to buy from is upfront and honest about what countries they use/work with.  If you're not happy, don't buy.

My Opinion
Practically all of the brushes that I currently use are synthetic, and the main reason is because I've never felt the need to buy natural ones.  The synthetic brushes on the market today are simply fantastic (I don't think there are many bloggers out there who don't agree that Samantha Chapman's Real Techniques Brushes are anything short of amazing!), affordable, don't shed, last a long time (I've had some of my Ecotools and Everyday Minerals ones for years), dry quickly and are super-soft. 

I only own three natural hair brushes and I didn't buy them myself (two were mistakes in PR samples that were sent to me, and the other came with a make-up palette that was gifted to me).   From a cruelty point of view, I'd NEVER purchase or wear real fur, so why would I want to use natural make-up brushes?  I'll just continue to buy synthetics instead. 

As a blogger, I am sometimes approached by brands and PR companies who offer to send me samples of products to try out.  In the past month alone, I was contacted by four different companies who offered to send me natural hair make-up brushes which is why I thought I'd write this post.  I politely declined for the reasons mentioned above and unsurprisingly didn't receive any answers when I asked how they sourced the hair for their brushes.  There was also no information regarding this on any of their websites.

What's your opinion?  Do you use natural, synthetic or both?  
Do you think natural brushes are cruel?  Have your say in the comments below!

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*PR samples
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  1. Interesting post! I use a combination, yet I do feel guilty when I use natural brushes. I use a highly synthetic brush to apply foundation as it's really good quality. x

    1. I love using the Real Techniques Buffing Brush for foundation, works so well for liquid and mineral :) x

    2. I've heard great things about those brushes :) I just use a cheap Superdrug one which is so obviously synthetic, haha!

    3. Oh are those Superdrug's own brand line? If so, I've seen quite a few bloggers recommend those! x

  2. I have a collection of natural hair brushes, and i have really bad skin. I've just realised this might because of the brushes i'm using? As i don't clean them too ofter. Today I bought the Real Techniques core set and I think in a few weeks i might have to build upto the whole set :D That's a good excuse to buy them :P

    1. It could be, it might be that your skin is sensitive to the animal hair. With natural brushes you really need to clean them often with an antibacterial cleanser because they absorb so much stuff. Have a switch to using just the Real Techniques set and see if it makes a difference!
      I love those RT brushes, I've got the Core and the Eyes set and want all of the others! x

  3. I've always used synthetic brushes - I've never felt the need to buy natural brushes! Really interesting post :)

  4. I don't have a lot of makeup brushes but the ones I do have are synthetic - IMO you really can't go wrong with Real Techniques! I started using their buffing brush in Feb and haven't used anything else since! xx

    1. I agree, I couldn't be without their Buffing Brush now! xx

  5. Firstly, great post. I really enjoyed reading it

    Secondly, I own both natural and synthetic brushes but i only tend to use my synthetic. I find natural hair brushes are nothing special, I get that they last longer but they require cleaning more which is irritating. Your right that natural hair brushes are great for powder and synthetic for cream based products, but i find synthetic also work great on powder too so again, kind of ignore my natural hair brushes. PLUS major bonus, synthetic brushes are soo affordable.

    Synthetic all the way!

    1. Thanks for reading Sam, I agree, I think synthetic brushes are so much easier to look after and ones like Real Techniques work brilliantly with powder. The price has always been a deciding factor for me too, they're so much cheaper and less hassle! xxx

  6. Loved reading this post! Feel very informed now. I think I've only ever purchased synthetic but I can't be 100% sure as I've never really checked! Will do from now on though
    Daniella x

  7. 99% of my brush collection is synthetic, but mainly because Real Techniques takes up a large portion, followed by Ecotools. I don't feel the need to buy natural hair brushes as the synthetic ones I have are beautifully soft and do the job just fine :)

    1. That's how I feel, I love my Real Techniques and Ecotools brushes :)

  8. Really interesting post! I will stick to synthetic unless the brush is definitely cruelty free.x

  9. Really interesting article! Got me thinking about ethics and what I have in my collection! I never really thought about it before but now I am the thought of natural brushes is kind of off putting.

    The majority of mine are synthetic anyway, as I find they work brilliantly and I just must subconsciously lean towards them anyway. I'll keep this article in mind when I next purchase some more brushes definitely! :)


    1. Thanks for reading and I'm glad you found it interesting! I think synthetic brushes work fantastically these days so I never had a need to buy natural hair ones :) x


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