Goldilocks and the Three Lip Brushes

If you’ve watched as many geisha documentaries as I have (she said, too casually), you’ll be familiar with the clichéd close-up shot of a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) painting her white-powdered lips with a brush dipped in rouge. The inevitability of this shot, in both Japanese and foreign documentaries, makes me roll my eyes every time it comes up; there’s something fetishistic and exoticizing about it. But the allure of the ritual itself is undeniable. Applying lipstick with a bullet can be sexy, but it’s more often matter-of-fact: swipe it on and go. Applying lipstick with a brush is never anything but artistic. It forces you to slow down, to think critically about shape and precision.

Until recently, though, I’d never felt the need to own a lip brush. The good old bullet, it seemed to me, was a perfectly effective technology for transferring color to my lips. And if a bullet failed to deliver a crisp line and even pigmentation, then I certainly wasn’t going to buy extra tools to make an inferior lipstick work. Frankly, I pride myself a little too much on my resistance to outlandish advertising claims. Like many academic types, I like to think of myself as a natural skeptic, but my smug pride is born of insecurity. My makeup obsession has made me realize how vulnerable to marketing I really am, and I’m terrified of becoming the sort of person who believes that Marc Jacobs’ Twinkle Pop Eye Stick contains “an infusion of Alpine Snow Water [that] adds a special cooling effect to refresh tired eyes.” So I sometimes go to the other extreme and take my skepticism too far, refusing to entertain the possibility that any extra thingum or widget will make my beauty life easier.

Then NYX Matte Lipstick in Alabama entered my life. Alabama was exactly the deep matte interbellum brown-red I’d been pursuing forever (or for two months, which is the same thing in beauty-geek world). It was also trickier to apply than any other lipstick I’d encountered. Alabama is a true flat matte, and because the color is so bold, so rich, and so difficult to remove once applied, there’s little room for error. I could have given up on Alabama; after all, I had a Rimmel liquid lipstick in a similar shade. But I couldn’t let that moody brick-red go. So I did the previously unthinkable: I decided to buy a lip brush. And I soon discovered that lip brushes are bizarrely hard to find.

First I searched Walgreens and CVS, but came away empty-handed. Then I went to Target, assuming that e.l.f. or Sonia Kashuk must make a cheap lip brush. Nothing. I’d once read that a small angled eyeliner brush could work for the lips, so I picked up a $3 e.l.f. eyeliner brush and took my business to Sephora. There I found a retractable lip brush for $10. Armed with both of these, I began to experiment.

The Sephora Collection Retractable Lip Brush #60 was good, but not good enough. Since I returned it so soon after buying it, I never managed to take a picture, but here’s a low-quality image from Sephora’s website. (I tried drawing it from memory instead, but gave up after three tries. I don’t want to lose all my dignity on the Internet.)

This image depicts the brush when expanded; to retract the brush head, you push the two end parts together, and the bristles slide back inside the handle. This sounds like a marvelous innovation, but it actually created more problems than it solved. The bristles had a pesky habit of retracting while I was using the brush. Even when expanded fully, the handle was shorter than I’d have liked, so I didn’t get enough leverage while painting my lips. The bristles were also too short, which meant that the rim of the handle kept bumping into my mouth. The Sephora image depicts a thinner black part between the bristles and the main body of the handle, but I don’t remember that part at all; the bristles just stuck out from the larger tube. Maybe I got a defective item? In any case, my brush went back to Sephora, but not before proving to me that a lip brush was a worthwhile acquisition. I loved painting layer after layer of Alabama on my mouth, watching it deepen from a berry stain to an opaque dark red.

Next I tried the e.l.f. Studio Small Angled Brush from Target. I appreciate that e.l.f. is cruelty-free and uses synthetic hair for all its brushes.

(Brushes are hard to photograph, it turns out.)

The handle of this brush, at just over 6″, was longer than the handle of the Sephora #60, so I had greater control over its movement. Unfortunately, the squared-off, sharply angled brush head was hopeless at applying color to my lips; I have no idea why anyone would recommend an eyeliner brush as a substitute lip brush. I kept it, though, and have been loving it for applying eyeshadow to my upper and lower lashlines. The head is thin and stiff enough to cover that elusive space between lashes and mobile lid. God, is there any way to write about makeup brushes without producing what sounds like awkward Literotica fodder?

Finally, I went to another Sephora 3,000 miles away from the first one (I promise that wasn’t the reason I made the trip). The second Sephora, in Union Square in San Francisco, had a much larger selection of brushes. I came away with the Sephora Collection Pro Lip Brush #81, which turned out to work beautifully.

At 6.5″, the handle is the longest of the three, and since there’s no annoying rim between bristles and handle, painting my lips is remarkably easy. I do wish the brush head were larger: it doesn’t pick up much pigment, meaning I can’t get perfect opacity all over my mouth in just a few swipes. With Alabama, the only lipstick I’ve used with the brush so far, I have to put on three layers. Time-consuming, yes, but very gratifying. I haven’t painted anything but my face in at least ten years, but using a lip brush reminds me of the visceral thrill I used to get from painting with watercolors. Plus, I find that Alabama lasts far longer when applied with a brush.

Let’s see what this brush can actually do! One layer of Alabama, plus apologies for painfully dry lips:

Two layers:

Three layers:

The final result–after applying three layers, I patted the bullet all over my lips to even out the color:

And here are some arm swatches of Alabama, made with the Sephora #81 brush. Left to right: one, two, and three layers. Look at the smoothness and evenness of the swatches! My finicky heart rejoices.

To clean the brush, I fold a paper towel into quarters, wet it, and rub bar soap on it; I’ve been using Yardley’s oatmeal and almond soap, though I’ve heard that Dr. Bronner’s is another good bet. I swirl the bristles around the soapy surface until they’re no longer leaving color on the towel, then give them a final rinse. I like that the bristles are tipped with white, which makes it easy to tell when the brush is completely clean again.

If my eyeshadow brushes had lighter bristles, I’d definitely wash them more than, oh, once a month or so. As it is, let’s hope that confessing my secret shame on my blog forces me to correct it.

12 thoughts on “Goldilocks and the Three Lip Brushes

  1. HAHAHA I LOVE THIS POST omg. It is insanely hard to find a good lip brush. You'd think it were the simplest thing in the world, but noooo. I've been unhappy with the ones that come with OCC Lip Tars (no cap, pretty streaky application) and I got one from MUJI, but it was POINTY. Wtf??? I am so scared that I'll snap at some point and blow my money on the beautiful square-tipped ones from luxe~ brands. And I am resisting and telling myself that my dinky MUJI pointy brush is GREAT, but who knows with me, right?P.S. That lip color is so pretty!P.P.S. I think I would draw the line at Alpine Snow Water.


  2. Hmm.. what's this wash brush nonsense you speak of? Can I tell you a secret? *lowers voice* WHITE BRISTLES DON'T NECESSARILY MAKE ME WASH THEM MORE OFTEN! ha!I don't use lip brushes very often (uh..weird considering I own several, actually carrying two right now in my makeup bag), but for intense reds or vamps, I use brushes because I do love the very clean defined look from brushes. All the other times it's a quick swipe of the bullet and it's good enough for me. 🙂


  3. I love the imagery you evoked. This post may actually convince me to use my lip brush. Then again, probably not. Laziness trumps all. I do have one, but only because someone gave me one. It's a nice one! But I hate washing it so I rarely use it, LOL. If I really feel something needs crisp lines, I usually just take my clear lipliner and run it around my lip line after I apply lipstick from the tube.


  4. I agree! It is impossible to find a good lip brush. A retractable one that actually functions? Forget about it. A must-have lip color totally justify a makeup journey like this (and your lip pictures are the clear proofs), but for this reason I detest lip palettes. I like my lip brush a little shorter (I've found out I feel the same way about my lipgloss wand, too). I am thinking it's probably because I usually stand too close to my mirror and a longer handle gets in the way (ha, I swear it sounded perfectly normal in my head).Some of the eyeshadow smudging brushes and even gel liner brushes work as lip brushes for me, too. 🙂


  5. Almost all the beauty bloggers I read have mentioned using lip brushes, so I assumed it would be easy to find a decent one. NOT SO. Maybe lip brushes are a beauty-geek-only thing? I certainly don't have any friends who use them.I've so far resisted looking into the brush offerings (eye, lip, or otherwise) from ~luxe~ brands, but the fact is that better brushes = better makeup application, so I might succumb eventually. Very eventually. Like, when I have a real salary and not a grad-student stipend.


  6. Yeah, on second thought, lighter bristles might not force me to clean my brushes more often. Eyeshadow brushes are just so easy to wipe clean without washing! Bah.After you've applied lipstick with a brush, do you touch it up in the same way, or do you just use the bullet? I'm not sure I could use a lip brush in a public restroom without making a mess or looking way too fancy for my own good. (This is also the reason I've never bought an OCC Lip Tar, despite being tempted by many of the colors. Hell yes, I want metallic indigo lips, but I don't want metallic indigo hands or nose or clothes.)


  7. I've never used clear lipliner before, but I hear great things about it! That certainly seems easier than spending five minutes painstakingly painting your lips. I'm glad I have a lip brush now, but I'm still going to try to avoid buying lip colors that absolutely require a brush, because laziness *does* trump all. Hence my love for cream eyeshadows. 😀


  8. You could probably find decent brushes at art-supply stores, too! And lip palettes have never appealed to me either; they just seem so…messy. I know that lots of people like getting messy with blending and layering, but I'm weirdly squeamish about such things…


  9. I HATE retractable lip brushes for the reasons you described. I wasn't as dogged in my search and just resorted to using a small flat synthetic concealer brush for lips and it works out marvelously on the odd occasion such tools are necessary. Good to know about that Sephora brush though! And unscented Dove soap bars are apparently great brush cleansers as well. (Mimi at Makeup Withdrawal has a great post about it.)


  10. I don't even know why retractable lip brushes are a thing. Is there some overwhelming need to protect the bristles from the elements? A concealer brush is a great idea; I should have been looking for something without angled bristles, but since I'd never actually *seen* a lip brush in real life, I wasn't certain what to expect…


  11. Lip brushes are so much fun to use! There's not much in makeup, I feel, that simultaneoulsy satisfies both the obsessive, detail oriented me, the tactile part of me (I have a possibly unhealthy obsession with fondling soft Kabuki brushes, for example), the artist in me, and the part of me that desperately wants to feel like a glamorous, sophisticated woman (still trying).The only lip brush that I've found to satisfy this is the one that came on the end of my Dior transparent lipliner. When that pencil finally gets used up, you can bet your bottom dollar I'll be contriving a way to turn the nubbin at the end that holds the ferrule and brush back into an actual beauty tool. It was an unnecessarily expensive if totally functional lipliner, but I can definitely say I got a really high quality lip brush to go with it! Otherwise, the selection of lip brushes is similarly dismal here…Having said all that, of course, by far the biggest part of me is the lazy one that just uses the bullet, even for blackened purple, slippery bright red, etc. What can I say? A lazy rogue is an adventurous rogue… 😉


  12. So much makeup these days is focused on streamlining the application process (chubby crayons, the YSL Kiss & Blush stuff, etc.), and I appreciate that lip brushes do the exact opposite. They demand focus and extra time, and make you feel like a lady of leisure for the few minutes you spend painting your lips. Since I study the history of leisure anyway, I relish this aspect of lip brushes. I like thinking about what our ancestors thought worthy of their time. And when I use a lip brush, I remind myself that self-adornment is worthy of *my* time….then again, there's something to be said for just slapping on the color and getting out of the house. 😀


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