Mascara Wands: The Difference Between Brush Types

When it comes to most makeup products, the focus is on the formula — think ultra-matte foundations, highly pigmented eyeshadows, and skin-enhancing highlighters. With mascara, however, the effect is all in the brush. Most mascaras are comprised of a fairly basic mix of black pigment, polymer, thickening oil or wax, and preservatives. Differences, of course, exist among brands and can influence the product's staying power and final effect, but most of the punch comes from the shape and material the brush is made of.


There are about seven main types of these brushes that you'll see on store shelves, each promising different benefits — but many people don't understand the differences. If you found yourself hating a mascara that everyone seems to love, it might mean that the brush doesn't work for your lash shape or desired final effect. With a bit of research, you'll be able to finally put this confusion to rest and find a mascara that works for you.


Fluffy mascara brushes are arguably the most traditional and well-loved of each of these options. They're great for people that like to get up close and personal to their waterline without the worry of jabbing a plastic brush into their eye, and they prioritize soft, voluminous lashes over separation or precise application. These brushes are what you want if you're looking for an all-over classic, fluttery look as they deposit a larger amount of product to fully coat the lashes. If you're afraid of your eyelashes looking clumpy or want something that you can concentrate at the edge of your eye for a cat-eye look, however, they might not be the best bet for you.


Popular options for mascaras with fluffy brushes include Milk Makeup's Kush Mascara, Pat McGrath's FetishEYES Mascara, and the Maybelline Total Temptation Mascara. This is one of the most common brush shapes available, though, so you're likely to find a myriad of options from drugstore to luxury brands that promise a healthy dose of lash volume.


Tapered mascara brushes start with short bristles at the tip that gradually get longer, creating an almost Christmas-tree shape. These brushes allow you to catch the inner corners of your eyes with the shorter bristles, coating them with a smaller amount of product, while also depositing larger amounts at the outer corner. This will give you a subtle cat eye look with only a couple swipes, making this a great option if you want to get your makeup done quickly and without a ton of fuss. These mascaras also usually have harder bristles than a fluffy brush, meaning they won't leave you with as many clumps.


Maybelline's Lash Sensational Sky High Mascara and Hourglass's Unlocked Instant Extensions Mascara are common choices for those that prefer a tapered brush, but different iterations of this wand shape are pretty common, especially as people become more concerned about achieving clump-free, natural-looking lashes without spending a ton of time on their makeup.


Loyal to your lash curler and want to keep that hold all day? A curved brush might be your new best friend. When you use these brushes correctly — bent end up — they give your lashes an extra push, making them look longer and cementing your hard work with your curler in place. These brushes are also usually fairly thin compared to a fluffy, tapered, or hourglass option. This means you'll have more precision with your application than you would with a larger brush. That translates to fewer accidental bumps and smears on the lashline, even if you're getting up close and personal.


One of the most popular choices for a curved wand mascara is the L'Oreal Paris Voluminous Curved Brush, but Maybelline's The Colossal Volum' Express Cat Eyes Mascara is another best-selling drugstore option. These brushes aren't necessarily rare to find. But the package will typically say what the brush looks like or designate their curved wands as a separate product from the original to avoid any confusion.


Hourglass mascara brushes are exactly what they sound like: a fluffy brush with longer bristles at the top and bottom that create an overall hourglass shape. These wands carry the same benefits and downsides as fluffy brushes — a voluminous final result, occasional clumping, softer bristles — but they bring a specific focus to your inner and outer corner to catch every lash and bring you some balance if your eyelashes are naturally longer in the middle and shorter at the edges. Because of this, hourglass-shaped brushes are great if you have thinner or more sparse lashes and want to keep everything looking even.


An hourglass shape isn't the most common choice on the market, but the products that have this kind of wand have developed a bit of a cult following. Too Faced's Better Than Sex Mascara is one of the brand's most popular products, so (of course) they had to do it again with their Damn Girl! 24-Hour Mascara. For a drugstore option, consider Maybelline's The Falsies Lash Lift or L'Oreal's Lash Paradise, both with unique curvy wands.


Applying mascara without smudging can be a bit of a stressful task, especially when you spent so much time perfecting your eyeshadow look, but micro, ultra-thin mascara brushes promise you as much control as possible while still picking up product. These teeny tiny wands are great for lower lashes or really fine-tuning your eye look because they allow you to focus on exactly where you want the product to go, whether that means an all-over mess-free application or specific focus on the inner or outer corner to enhance your eye shape.


Because these mascara wands don't pick up a ton of product, however, they're not usually the first choice for most people. It might take a couple of coats to build up to what you could get from a different brush, but this is great if you have fine lashes and don't like a ton of added weight. Highly-rated choices include Pixi's Lower Lash Mascara which features a super-skinny brush specifically designed for lower lash application, and It! Cosmetic's Tightline 3-in-1 which boasts multiple uses as a lash primer, liner, and mascara.

Ball or ball-tip

Ball and ball-tip mascaras tend to give off a bit of a medieval torture device vibe, but their shape is much less intimidating once you break down the function. These unique wand designs were made for precise application, especially to coat the smaller lashes towards the inner corner of the eye. A small ball compared to a larger brush gives you more maneuverability and the freedom to use the wand both perpendicular and parallel to the lashline. Finding a brush that's just the ball is rare because most people are looking for an application that they can achieve in a couple of swipes, so a ball tip on top of a regular brush is more common to provide the best of both worlds.


When it was first released, Givenchy's Phenomen'eyes Mascara made waves with its unique-shaped wand, but it's been discontinued recently. Nowadays, it seems the ball-tip is fading in popularity, so it might be a bit difficult to find on shelves. However, wet n wild's Lash Renegade and Covergirl's So Lashy! blastPRO mascara are still available to purchase.


For those that are looking for a guaranteed separated, clump free look, a comb-shaped brush might be the best bet. These wands come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but their main characteristic is the harder rubber bristles that line one side of the brush instead of all the way around. If you find yourself combing out or separating your lashes after you apply your mascara, this can help you cut down the number of steps in your makeup routine. With these brushes, however, you might find that they deposit less product and give you more length and separation than volume.


Maybelline's The Falsies Push Up Angel is a classic drugstore option for a comb-shaped brush, but indie brand Tower 28 also carries a popular choice with their MakeWaves Lengthening + Volumizing Mascara. Overall, however, finding something distinctly comb-shaped is rare, as brands tend to prefer to stick to the all-around bristle look to ensure the brush deposits enough product.