How Much Do Your Eyeshadow Brushes Matter?

I was one of them. “ELF studio eyeshadow brushes are basically just as good as the nice brushes,” I rationalized. And yes, in comparison to my dinky discount brushes from $10 brush sets, ELF was performing pretty well.
It all changed, though, when I got a hold of theBalm’s Give Crease a Chance Eyeshadow Brush. “OH. This is what all those people were talking about.” Although there is a serious dearth of reviews on theBalm’s brushes, this sucker is solid. I was seriously shocked at the magnitude of shadow it could get on my eye. Both sides of this double-sided brush feel genuinely luxurious and perform admirably.

However, the two disadvantages were clear. First, the whole double sided brush thing in general is inconvenient. It makes storing the brush a significant pain. Secondly, the shadow side of the brush is enormous for anyone who doesn’t have anime-character eyes. As a result, I turned to a new solution. Armed with the knowledge the brushes were a big deal, I purchased a Real Techniques brush set and a few MAC brushes. This post is intended to demonstrate their efficacy for those of you still devoted to inexpensive brands like ELF.

This post doesn’t qualify as a mega-comparison because I didn’t choose these brushes methodologically. I don’t have the cash to purchase all of the best-reviewed brushes out there to compare. However, I think it is a suitable demonstration of the importance of acquiring some decent brushes. I found six eyeshadow brushes in my collection to compare. Because many of them are from sets, it’s hard to precisely divide them up based on cost, but I put them in approximate order based on what I paid for the kits:

ELF Studio Eyeshadow C Brush
Some Dinky Sephora Brand Brush From the Gilded Trio Brush Set
#5 Eyeshadow Brush From the Holiday 2015 Brush Set (I assume, based on
quality, that this is a dinky version of their single #5 brush.)
Real Techniques Deluxe Shadow Brush from the Started Kit
TheBalm Give Crease a Chance
MAC 239 Eye Shader Brush

From left to right: ELF, Sephora, Stila, Real Techniques, theBalm, MAC

For this comparison, I used Peace by Urban Decay. I used two strokes of color on the top row and one stroke of color on the bottom row. None of this was done over any sort of primer.

From left to right: ELF, Sephora, Stila, Real Techniques, theBalm, MAC

The differences are stark. The dinky kits from Sephora and Stila looked terrible, with very poor pigmentation. In comparison, ELF looks fabulous. However, it pales in comparison to Real Techniques. TheBalm is better, and MAC is better still.

Based on these results, I would recommend avoiding any limited edition, super discounted kits. Kits are not always bad (as evidenced by Real Techniques), but wait until you have sufficient reviews before throwing down any money. ELF is a good choice for someone on a very limited budget, but for those who are not, it is better to splurge on brushes that are actually good.



  1. Katey

    Thank you for this review! I recently bought some of my first high-end eyeshadows, and I’ve realized I need some better brushes to make the most of them, but I don’t have the budget for whole outfit of MAC brushes. this reassures me that Real Techniques is a good choice. I’ve also heard good things about Ecotools brushes. Have you ever used those?

  2. Alexis Stewart

    I’ve used the Ecotools, I’d avoid them.. they shed and are scratchy, and also don’t pick up product well. Hautelook has crown brushes on sale fairly often. They are decent brushes (I actually love mine, and they are super soft). I think I got a 10 piece set for something like $15, they were 70ish % off. I have had them about a month, and washed them more than a few times without any shedding, and they are still soft.

  3. Anna

    This is great and it was something I’ve been thinking about recently – I’m still using my $3 H&M brushes and wondering if that’s really the way to go… but I do have a follow-up question. Given that eyeshadow isn’t a question of how-much-do-i-stick-on-there but is usually kind of complex and blendy, and that presumably you could just stick on more stuff with the cheapo brushes, maybe you could do a head to head blinded (as much as possible) test of brushes on each eye? Like, the same smokey eye colours left and right, but done with posh brushes on one and cheap as chips brushes on the other? (With tape over the labels so you didn’t know or something… that would be hard to blind!) If I had any posh brushes I’d try this myself and report back!


    Hm. I will think about potential methods. The ELF and MAC brushes might be able to be done blind if they were the same color, but they aren’t.

  5. Anna

    Tape the handles with colored electrical tape, flag them brush 1 and brush 2, do the test, and then remove them? It peels off again pretty easily so I think your brushes would survive. Obv it would be a pretty teeny comparison since you only have two eyes but still… I’m really curious about this now, I want your brushes!


    Unfortunately, the bristles are also different colors so that would give it away, and there is no way to cover those.

    I could always just do it not-blind and do my best to not be biased? (Tall order, but it would give you a sense.)

  7. Anna K.

    Perhaps you could get someone you know (and trust with makeup) to do your eye makeup using the two brushes? If you keep your eyes closed throughout the application, then the bristle color shouldn’t matter. You (the judge of the results) wouldn’t know which eye was done with which brush, so the results would be less biased.

  8. Anna

    Oh yeah, that would be a bit of a giveaway. Durn. whatever you do, I’d be interested to see the results… particularly as this is a welcome distraction from the less fun analyses i’m theoretically “doing” right now… #itsagoodthingnoonecanseemyscreen