Most of my tools are HGs - maybe that makes me sound very old and set in my ways, but at this point I've been wearing makeup long enough to have a really good idea of what I like. I rarely find myself looking for anything new on the tools front, so here are my current (and maybe forever) favorites:
Whether I use a brush or a sponge to apply really depends on the formula of the foundation - looser liquids get the sponge, but for thicker liquids or creams I always use a brush (I only use my fingers if the circumstances are truly dire, because what a mess!).
I've had the original Shiseido foundation brush for almost a decade now. Its thick, flat top and medium-soft bristles are ideal for buffing - I just dab a little foundation in spots on my cheeks and chin and then blend outward in circular motions. This lets me keep my coverage to a minimum, focused in my t-zone where I need it but blended out to the edges of my face for a natural look. And after ten years it still looks as good as new as long as I keep it washed regularly.
A few weeks ago Shiseido released reformulations of a lot of their products - one of those is a revamped foundation brush. I've been so happy with the original, but I'll probably go ahead and get this newer version as a backup (and so that I'll be more likely to wash at least one of them regularly).
When I need a sponge, I reach for one from the Sephora Collection. I've tried Beauty Blender sponges, and honestly, I prefer the texture of the ones from Sephora. It's not just a matter of cost, although it doesn't hurt that the Sephora sponges come in at a lower price point. I've got half a dozen of the egg-shaped sponges that I bought on a sale three years ago - I wash them regularly, and they still look as good as they day I bought them.
I don't use concealer that often, but when I have the occasional breakout I like to be able to cover it precisely. For that kind of detail, my favorite brush is The Concealer Brush from Kevyn Aucoin. Its tiny brush head makes it easy to dab just a little bit of concealer, and that control helps me keep the concealer texture looking natural.
I don't do big puffs of powder all over my face - in the last few years I've been trying to reduce the amount of powder I use overall because I think it ages me, so I like the tapered tip on the Sephora PRO Sculpting Blush Brush #99 that allows me to tap just a little in the areas I want to concentrate on (my chin, apples of my cheeks, bridge of my nose, and inner eyes - my t-zone, basically). It's ostensibly a blush brush, There is no rule that says you can't repurpose a brush for whatever you want!
Blush may be my favorite product, the one thing I wear every single day, so it's probably no surprise that I have so many brushes to apply it with. When I put on powder blush, I don't use broad strokes, I dab spots across my cheek and blend as I go, so a brush with a fat, round head is ideal for me.
To that end, the e.l.f. Ultimate Blending Brush is my go-to for everyday. Its slightly domed top lends itself to daubing, and the bristles are soft enough to make blending so easy.
My new favorite might be the Zoeva 126/Luxe Cheek Finish brush though. I picked this up in Germany, and the bristles are so soft it just makes blending a dream. The brush head is fuller at the top than the base, so I pick up product and dab onto my cheeks from the side of the bulb.
I don't use it as often these days, but for years my HG blush brush was the Nars Yachiyo Kabuki Brush. My favorite thing about it is actually the ergonomics of the handle. It's thin but has a wrapped texture that makes it easy to grip. The shape of the brush head is not ideal for me, but the way it tapers does offer a lot of different options for application and blending and makes it easy not to use a heavy hand.
I don't use highlighter every day, but when I do I apply it with the MAC 133 Synthetic Small Cheek Brush. What I like about it is that the brush head is small, so it's just the right size to glide along the top of your cheekbone without drifting down onto the rest of your face.
I also don't wear eyeliner that often, but when I do it's a potted gel liner, and the only thing I'll use to apply it is the MAC 263 Small Angle Brush. Its narrow, stiff bristles give easy precision and control, exactly what you need when you're trying to get that perfect cat-eye.
There are definitely more expensive eye brushes out on the market, but Ecotools are still beloved for a lot of reasons. For a budget price point, you can get a full set with a variety of useful brush shapes and soft, flexible bristles. I have a set like this one, although mine is an older version that's no longer on sale. That says a lot though - I got my set almost five years ago and they've held up well through many uses and much washing. The two I use the most are the large flat shadow brush, for applying color to the lid, and the smaller accent shadow for smudging in the crease.
One thing that's common about all of these brushes is that the bristles have never fallen out. I've encountered that with too many brushes, even from expensive brand names. It sucks to be applying makeup and find stray dark strands embedded in your face. I remember once being told - by someone trying to sell me brushes - that this was normal and I should always expect it. But it's never happened with any of the brushes I've listed above, and some of them have been in my collection for years.
Things I don't use:
I don't use an eyelash curler - long, nicely curled lashes are the one thing I come by naturally and I've always been grateful for it. Even in my late 40's, my lashes haven't started to fall or droop - hallelujah!
I do have a MAC lip brush, but I don't use it often - like, maybe once a year. Lip brushes are great for people who are applying color to someone else's mouth, but I just don't need that kind of precision for myself on a daily basis.
How I cleanse:
I probably don't clean my brushes as often as I should (who does?). My foundation brush is the one that I absolutely have to wash every other day or so - if I don't, the bristles get waxy and application gets streaky. The rest get washed anywhere from once a week to every other week, depending on how often they're used.
My process is simple, though - I just wet the brush heads, squish some Dr. Bronner's Baby Unscented Liquid Soap through them, rinse until the water runs clear, then leave them up in a brush stand to dry.