Updated: Apr 7, 2021
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Here is a look at the pros and cons of all three popular ways to apply foundation as well as other cosmetics. Enjoy this read and, as always, click the links in the square brackets for all the references!
I am assuming no explanation is needed for what these are.
You probably already have them.
They warm up your product before application. Many makeup artists have said this warming makes the product more blendable but, not surprisingly, there is zero scientific research on this.
You can spread bacteria from your fingers to your face[i,ii]. The most common issue people have is spreading the bacterium P. acnes which is one of the underlying causes of acne [iii]. The more you are exposed to it the greater your risk of getting inflamed acne [iv] so wash your hands thoroughly before using them.
More bacteria gets transferred under humid conditions so your fingers will transfer more bacteria to your face if you are nervous, in a hurry, it is summer time, or on any other sweaty occasion[v].
You could spread more oil onto your face from your fingers which might be an issue if you already have oily skin.
As an applicator your fingers have a small surface area so you might end up with an uneven blend if you are using them for a full face application.
These are a foam made of different products such as latex[vi], polyurethane[vii], and microfibers among others. Many companies site the ingredients as “proprietary foam” meaning a secret sponge recipe. They are often marketed as hydrophobic (repel water) or hydrophilic (soak up water). In my experience both types have about the same pros and cons (all sponge marketing would vehemently disagree with me but c'est la vie!).
Applicator with a big surface area so you get a very even and blended finish.
The sponge texture does a really good job imitating the texture of your skin so the finish looks more natural.
It soaks up some product every time you use it, regardless of if you wet it a little. Even the famed Beautyblender soaks up some of your product despite their “specially formulated material” (whatever that means).
If they aren't washed frequently bacteria can accumulate and get into your pores when you use the sponge the next time. You are supposed to wash it every week [viii] (I definitely do not...oops..).
Click the image to try some make-up sponges!
Silicone Sponges (a.k.a. non-porous)
These were really trendy for a while but I have seen them drop off recently because, tbh, they suck.
They don't soak up your product.
They don't blend well at all, you just have to smack them against your face a bunch and it just makes me feel like I'm using a spatula (whole new meaning to cake face).
They are often touted as being very environmentally friendly but that is not always the case. They are made using silica as a base which is then extracted and processed with other elements [ix]. The process isn’t particularly environmentally friendly and often means the end product isn’t really biodegradable.
They are made from a number of different things but mainly split into natural or synthetic bristles. I will do a whole piece on the differences so stay tuned!
You get different precision based on the size of the brush so you can get in nooks and crannies or get a wide even blend all over your face.
A brush is the quickest way to get foundation on if you use a large one (due to it being a Class 3 lever [x]) so if you are running late this would be your best bet.
Makes you feel like an artist.
Same as your sponges and fingers, bacteria to the face is a concern if your brush is not washed well [xi] and apparently you need to wash it just as frequently as sponges, makes sense.
If you take poor care of your brushes it results in the bristles getting stuck together which causes an uneven (and gross feeling) application.
Good brushes are pretty pricey which can put some consumers off when there is a free sustainable option attached to you.
Finally, sometimes the result looks almost streaky so I would recommend patting your painted face with a sponge to get a better finish.
Some brushes, sponges, and a cleaner I have researched and are worth trying:
Honestly there doesn't seem to be any wrong choice (except silicone sponges). I use all three for different products and depending on my needs. Generally for a quick and natural face I will use my fingers to tap on concealer or foundation. For a medium amount of makeup I will use my sponge for a bit more coverage but still use my finger to tap on concealer. For a full coverage fancy face I will use a combination of my brushes and a sponge to get a nice even coating all over.
Basically you do you, science says they are all fine as long as you wash them.
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