I recently went on vacation and realized that on a daily basis, whether you need to do a day look or night look, you don't need more than about six brushes. Since MAC is a popular brand for both quality and accessibility for most of us (the MAC website offers FREE SHIPPING on all orders over $60) most of my brush recs here will be MAC. (Even though my personal stash of brushes includes some Bobbi Brown, Sephora, and even some Sonia Kashuk finds.)
So let's get right to it. What makeup brushes do you really need? It mostly depends on your personal style. If you like to do up your eyes in dramatic colors everyday, you may need a few more eye makeup brushes than your girlfriend who just likes a little blush, lipstick, and mascara for her daily look.
I personally believe there are about six basic brushes no girl should be without: a Blush Brush, Powder Brush, Eyeshadow Base Brush, Eyeshadow Crease Brush, Angled Eyeshadow Brush for lining and touching up eyebrows, and a Precision Shading Brush to define eyes and create the "smokey eye" look. Note that this list can be cut down to the bare bones of having just two brushes: a Blush Brush and an Eyeshadow Brush (a MAC 217) if you're not into wearing face powder and doing complicated eye looks, and prefer pencil liners to shadow liners. And...if you're like my mom, you can possibly get away with needing no brushes at all if all your products are cream based, like cream blush and cream eyeshadow, because all of these products work best when applied with your fingers. I personally don't have the dexterity to deal well with cream products. I still can't figure out how to apply cream blush without looking like a clown, so for me, it's powder products and brushes for nearly everything.
Here's a more detailed breakdown of the brushes and my personal recommendations:
I think if you're just starting out with makeup or don't care much for contouring cheekbones, stick with the MAC 129 for your blush needs. This brush is ideal for applying color to the apples of your cheeks, which is really the most natural place blush should be. The head is shaped in a way that it automatically diffuses and blends the color for you in the right place, so it's totally goof proof. Make sure you apply your blush in a well-lit room (bathroom mirrors are great for this) so you get the color on evenly on both sides. About two or three swipes on each cheek is usually enough to get the color on right, depending on what blush you're using. With daily use, this brush should last you about 8 years, after that it starts shedding like a squirrel and won't work well anymore. But hey, 8 years is a long time right? If you want to be able to do more dramatic blush looks, or just want a firmer blush brush, go with MAC 116 or Bobbi Brown's Blush Brush. Both of these brushes can be used not only for the apples of the cheeks but also for contouring and highlighting.
Many face powders and powder foundations sometimes come with a cosmetic sponge, but I find the powder/foundation goes on too heavy with sponges. You get a more sheer look and have more control over how much powder gets applied if you use a Powder Brush. A good powder brush should not be too stiff, it has to be able to glide over your face to deposit powder evenly over your skin. I prefer Bobbi Brown's Powder brush, I've owned this for 10 years, and it's still in excellent condition. MAC also makes an excellent option, the MAC 138. I like the MAC 138, as opposed to the MAC 134 and MAC 150 because it's tapered and can be used for contouring and getting into all the hollow areas of your face, like around the nose and under eyes. In a pinch, it can also be used as a blush brush, making it very versatile.
Here's where most makeup enthusiasts pick only the brushes that suit their needs. Like I mentioned earlier, I prefer quite a few to do my eyes.
Base Brush - I use a MAC 239 if I want the color to go on opaque, or the MAC 252 if I want to put a sheer wash of color on the whole eye area from lash line to brow bone. The 252 gives you more control over the product if you want to build up the color, whereas the 239 just cuts to the chase and delivers opaque coverage, perfect if you just want color on the eyelids only.
Crease Brush - I use the MAC 224. It's simple and puts the right amount of color on every time.
Angled Lining Brush- MAC 266 is my brush of choice when I need to line the eyes with eyeshadow.
Precision/Pencil Shading Brush. - The MAC 219 is one of my favorites. I use it to apply color to the "outer V" area of my eye when I'm contouring, and apply shadow on and under the lash lines, an absolute must if you want to do the "smokey eye" look. It's also excellent for applying light shadow to the inner corners of the eyes to make you look more awake.
HOWEVER, if you just want a simple eyeshadow look and want to line your eyes with pencil, you could considerably cut down the cost and number of brushes you need to do your eye makeup to just ONE BRUSH: the MAC 217 Blending Brush. It's called a "blending brush", but it's actually a base brush, crease brush, and highlighter brush all rolled into one. You can even use it to apply cream products like cream eyeshadow and concealer. If you buy it at the counter, as the MA to show you a demo how to use it and then use it on yourself to see how easy it is to get a polished eye look with just one brush.
There are also optional brushes you can buy, like concealer brushes and lip brushes, etc...but in my experience, I don't think they are essential. The only reason I have them is because the MA selling them to me told me I needed them and I did use them for a while, but it's so much easier to pat concealer under the eyes with your ring finger as opposed to using a brush. And the lip brush, I can't even remember the last time I used this one.
Another thing to remember is no matter what brush you buy, give it a good tug and brush it along the back of your hand before purchasing it to make sure it doesn't shed easily. This is the best way to test the quality of a brush. Well-made brushes should give you at least 5-10 years of use and if it's already shedding on day one, it's a sign of cheap manufacturing and you should look elsewhere. The best manufacturers of brushes are of course, MAC and Bobbi Brown, but don't overlook Sephora, Smashbox, Stila, and even art supply stores like Michael's for quality brush finds.
Be sure to also take a peek at this video I found. This makeup maven has done an amazing job of describing all the brushes she uses and has given some great tips on low cost brushes she picked up at Michael's. I love how she also raves about the MAC 217. Retailing for only $22.50, it's that one makeup brush no brush kit should be without.