Guide to Makeup Applicators

Applicators -- both puffs and sponges -- come in different sizes and textures.
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For quick makeup jobs, 10 different tools might be overkill. You can probably get away with three or four, push comes to shove. Still, as makeup artists will tell you, ideal application does require the ideal tool. A one-applicator-fits-all approach is often not the one that's going to earn you the very best results.

Applicators come in wide variety of sizes, shapes and textures. Brushes, which you can count by the dozens, are really a category unto themselves; "applicators" most often refers to sponges and puffs. Even in that group, though, there are so many types it can be tough to figure out what's essential, what's extra and how to match them up with the cosmetics you have at home.


Here, a guide to the ones you probably see on store shelves all the time -- and leave them there because, really, what would your face need a triangle for?

A few things, actually. But first, let's identify that stuff you see on the shelves ...


Types of Makeup Applicators

Wedge-shaped applicators work well for precision jobs.
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Sponges, like brushes, are a highly varied group of tools. Puffs, on the other hand, are a lot more straightforward.

A puff is a soft, pancake-shape applicator. Size and material can vary. Puffs run up to about 4 inches in diameter, come in similarly soft, light textures like velour and microfiber, and are typically synthetic. Polypropylene is a common material used in puffs.


We'll get to their purpose in a moment; first, those sponges. This is a group of applicators that takes some delving into. Sponges vary by size, shape, texture, material and lifetime, and the ones you see in pretty much any makeup aisle include:

Flat (and usually egg-shaped) -- This is often considered a multipurpose sponge, a few inches long and no more than a half-inch deep, with either a flat or a curved edge.

Wedge -- This triangular or nearly triangular sponge has multiple flat sides and edges. Wedges are typically smaller overall than flat sponges, but they are considerably deeper.

Rounded -- While wedges are deep, and flats often have rounded edges, there are sponges that combine those traits into a single tool. It may look like a bulb or teardrop, with one large, spherical end that tapers down to a point, or it may be more elliptical. A length of 3 to 4 inches is typical.

Swab -- A sponge swab looks a lot like a cotton swab. It may be single- or double-tipped.

There are other distinctions in sponges, most notably cell type, natural vs. synthetic and lifetime.

Lifetime -- These tools come in both disposable and reusable forms, which is purely a matter of preference. If you go reusable, though, cleaning with soap and hot water after each use is essential.

Natural vs. Synthetic -- Unlike with brushes, the natural vs. synthetic choice is more personal and less about quality or use. Synthetic fibers may be softer than natural ones, but some people just prefer organics. The larger issue here is the presence or absence of latex, which can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Cell-type -- This is about texture. Sponges can be open-cell, kind of like a kitchen sponge, or closed-cell. In a closed-cell sponge, you can't really see the holes. The surface is far more dense, stiff and smooth. You may also see some multi-purpose sponges that fall somewhere in between, with very tiny holes that mimic the texture of closed cells but have a bit more give.

Identifying applicators is the first step in figuring out what you need and what you don't. Now, let's get practical: You've got your cover-up stick in one hand, your foundation in the other, and your setting powder waiting in the wings. Which tools are you going to use?


Deciding Which Makeup Applicator to Use

Sometimes, applicator choice depends on personal preference, like which wedge feels better in your hand or which puff fits best in your makeup bag. More often, though, it depends on what it is you're trying to do.

There are several questions you can ask that will point you toward the right tool for job:


Is it a powder, a liquid or a cream? Powder is easy. If you're not using a brush, you're using a puff. For either liquid or cream, you're grabbing a sponge -- typically an open-cell sponge for a liquid, and a closed-cell sponge for a cream.

Is your application space large or small? For large areas, you'll look to the sponge with the largest continuous surface area, like the flat or rounded kind.

Is this an all-over or a precision job? For all-over application, flat or round sponges work best; for precision, you'll go with hard edges (a wedge, typically) and points.

So, to match your makeup to your tool:

  • For liquid foundation, try a flat or rounded, open-cell sponge.
  • For cream foundation, grab a flat or rounded, closed-cell sponge.
  • For cream cover-up, a closed-cell wedge works well.
  • For setting or bronzing powder, use a puff.
  • For blending layers, almost any sponge will work; if you're blending heavy creams, a closed-cell sponge will likely be the better tool, while lighter products respond best to the open-cell kind.
  • For cream eye shadow, sponge swabs are ideal.
  • For applying liquids or creams in tight areas like the eyelids or the sides of the nose, wedges and points are ideal.

It's pretty straightforward once you know the basics, and here's the thing: You do not need to have every one of these tools in your makeup kit. Ideally, you'll have at least one puff and a few sponges: one swab, one open-cell and one closed-cell, with at least one of the latter providing contours, points and/or edges.

Fifteen tools or three, though, a point that bears repeating: Applicators, especially sponges, must be clean -- soap and water after every use or pick a fresh one from a disposable set. If you're blending bacteria onto your face along with your cover-up, you're better off going bare.

For more information on cosmetics, beauty and style, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "13 Everyday Habits That Are Giving You Acne." Total Beauty. (Aug. 14, 2012)
  • "Brushes and Applicators." Ulta. (Aug. 14, 2012)
  • "Sponges & Applicators." Sephora. (Aug. 14, 2012)
  • "Tools of the Trade." Mehron Theatre Makeup. (Aug. 14, 2012)