Brushes can be broken up by so many categories.
To start off with, there are two types, natural hair bristles and synthetic hair bristles.
Natural hair brushes generally range from sable, squirrel, goat, pony, badger, and boar. These hairs, like human hair, are porous, so they do cling onto things like natural oil, but also can be very soft. But like human hair, bristles can break over time due to natural wear and tear with use and become scratchy if of poor quality.
Synthetic brushes range from taklon and nylon fibers which are the softer of the synthetics available out there. These brushes do not absorb oil, therefore decreasing the chance for bacteria to breed and linger. Look for very fine strands, these will most likely be less coarse on the skin and are great for applying cream based make up as they won't absorb your product.
Kssweetheart brough up a good point, don't get caught up all in brand names. Though there are certain brands that make stellar brushes on the more high end route, some brushes on the more cost effective side work just as well.
For personal references, here are my takes on brands/brushes.
E.L.F., they range from about $1 to around $3, available online and at Target and Kroger. Their $1 line brushes aren't bad, compared to what you get for the price, but their large brushes (powder/blush) can get scratchy over time because the bristles aren't as fine though they are natural hair. The studio line brushes ($3) are synthetic and much softer, they feel and stay very nice on skin and are a great buy. They have an amazing set for $30 that comes with a zip case and good range of starter brushes.
Crown Brushes, the site offers a full range of mini to larger brush sets and single brushes from natural to synthetic hairs. This is again, a wonderful site to snag up beginning sets or hard to find single brushes.
Bare Minerals, I like their finer/detail brushes like their shadow and concealer brush (which stays nice and compact), but I'm not a fan of their powder brushes. I've noticed that over time they tend to break and get scratchy on skin. It may have to do with the fact BM states to "buff" make up with the brush onto skin so the fact that you're pressing down and working the brush's bristles in such a manner works harder on the bristles.
Smashbox, has one of my all time favorite foundation brushes in the traditional build of being a curved top, flat brush, like a paint brush. Their brow brush is my favorite as it stays stiff but is wide enough to apply product well.
Urban Decay, this line uses synthetic fibers, they stay super soft and are a beauty to work with.
Too Faced, very similar to the UD brushes, they are synthetic as well, their kabuki brush is amazing. I've had mine for 4 years and have seen it shed maybe 4 hairs.
Studio Gear, this line is available online as well as in Macy's and Ulta. They use natural hairs and are of great quality. They offer a very extensive range, especially for powder brushes, and their stippling brush is my favorite.
MAC, also makes great brushes, their limited edition or holiday brush sets are always a great value and steal.
Eco Tools, a synthetic brush line, sold in stores like Target and Ulta, on the more cost effective end, they have sets and singles available and feel like the UD and TF brushes.
Japonesque, this line ranges with some synthetics, but mainly natural hair brushes, they do a good job and are mid level in terms of pricing.
Real Techniques, a synthetic line, also with nice quality and a range of brush types.
To care for and prolong the life of your brushes, use a daily brush cleaning spray between uses. This is normally an antimicrobial spray that rids bristles of bacteria, oil, and excess/lingering make up so you're not mixing up colors or slapping on two day old make up back on your face. Mist a kleenex or towel with the spray and brush your brushes against the misted area to clean. If you use your brushes regularly, wash them about once a week or once every week and a half. Though brush shampoos are available, you can use a mild baby shampoo or mild soap to lather, and rinse them. Squeeze out excess water and form the brush back to it's original shape, lay them flat to dry. If you leave your brushes standing while wet, the water can run down the bristles into the base and eat away at the glue holding bristles in place causing excess shedding.
I've even taken up to going to craft stores to find make up brushes. Often times you can find good quality natural and synthetic brushes for detailed work like concealer, eye shadow, liner, or even fan brushes for a deal!
Hi marshiemallow - There are so many amazing brushes out there it could make your head pop off trying to figure out what's right for you. There are a ton of brushes if you put makeup brushes in the search field. I just got a set for my niece that I had a really hard time not keeping because they looked Gorges and had a beautiful silver case to put those brushes in and I'm pretty sure even more brushes can fit.
If you want to know what it was I'll look it up for you, think it was around 50-ish dollard - now if you break that down over the number of brushes and the time you'll have them if you take care of them (proper cleaning and drying- I can also give you more info if you need)
Most of my brushes are from Bare Escentuals (bare minerals) because I've gotten so many kits from them with brushes included) I also really like IT Cosmetics Brushes, only have 2 so far but they're great. Shisiedo an d Make Up For Ever are supposed to be awesome, though may be a littlle more pricey.
If you're looking for makeup, like Bare Minerals, their Grand Collections and 10 Piece sets usually include a few brushes. That might be a nice option for you. Their smaller kits, like a kit for eye products will likely have an eye brush or two.
It really depends on what your willing or able to spend. If you're young and on a budget go for something less expenside (also got a small golden case for my niece, then I found the big one so the mini is going back, as cute as it is. Don't get caught up in the Big Brand Names,. Again, a BE Large kit would be great, though it's usually near $90-100 - but you're also getting makeup. If that's not for you, then search 'makeup brushes' and try to keep yourself in the middle, not the cheapest $6.00 set, but not the High end super expensive one. You also don't need Tons of brushes. Depends on what make up you use or plan on using. You really only need a brush for a mineral or powder foundation (there are ones for liquid as well, don't go there yet) You also need a Brush Blush, an Eyeshadow brush (naybe 2 - one for all over your lid and another for contouring - you can often do both with one brush, depending on the brush. You may want to pick up an Eyeliner brush and a Curling brush for your lashes (I can't live without one) You don't need a Lip Brush, yet. They are great though depending on your needs. If there's a great, affordable kit that includes one, great if not, not big deal, that's for down the road. I hope this helps you. I've never been to a Sephora store but if there's one near you, the might be able to help or you can call Sephora diredtly on their 800#. You can send me a Private Message if you'd like more info. I'm not yet familiar with this new site and haven't been on much, so I need to work on that,
Sorry this was Sooo long and also for any errors, typos or whatever, I didn't proof this.
I love using real techinque brushes because they are affordable and does not shed all over your face when you do your makeup. You can purchase them online or at an ulta near you.
Another line of brushes I love would be Sigma. They are also affordable and great quailty brushes. The only thing is you can only order them online at Sigmabeauty.com.
Hi there! I absolutely LOVE the Real Techniques brushes (I think you can get them online, at ULTA, or sometimes even at Bed Bath & Beyond if they have a beauty section). I personally prefer these brushes over sephora or mac brushes, and honestly think they are of superior quality. I have yet to experience any shedding (when the bristles fall out), they are super soft, and they provide flawless application of products and rinse very clean. And to top it off, the brushes are super cheap, even though their quality should make them more expensive. I highly recommend these brushes, and you can usually buy them in sets (for example, a set of brushes meant for the face, or a set meant for the eyes).
Another brand I highly recommend is EcoTools. Awesome brand. Brushes are really great (again, not much shedding, rinse clean, and are super soft). You can usually find these at most stores like ULTA, walgreens/CVS, and a lot of groceries stores have them in the beauty department. Wonderful brand of brushes that I highly recommend!
Lastly, if you'd prefer to get brushes that are considered more "higher-end", I suggest Bobbi Brown (AMAZING brushes in my opinion), MAC (quite expensive, though), and to be honest I really like the Nordstrom brand brushes as well. Sephora makes pretty good brushes too, but in all honesty I think they are priced way to high given their quality (sorry sephora...hate to say it! I still love you though!)
Hope this helps and best of luck!