Unused make-up attracts bacteria. Here’s what to toss or clean.

Allyson Chiu

The Washington Post – When one of Noëlle Sherber’s patients came to see her several months ago, the dermatologist noticed that the woman had an eye infection. It was a small sty and easily treatable, but Sherber still wanted to know what caused it.

Sherber learned that the patient, who had been at home since mid-March, recently put on a full face of make-up using products that largely had sat untouched for months after she, like many others, scaled back her usual beauty routine during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I asked, ‘How old is your mascara? Your eyeliner?’“ said Sherber, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and co-founder of Sherber and Rad. The woman, Sherber noted, had not purchased new cosmetics in a while and seemed to think that because she was not using her eye make-up often that it “extended the life span of the product”.

Even though many of us have felt as if we’ve been frozen in time since the beginning of the pandemic, Sherber and other experts emphasised that “the clock marches on” for make-up and skin-care products, which typically have shorter shelf lives than most people expect and can become contaminated with potentially harmful microbes.

“Some people think that what is contaminating their products is daily use – opening, closing, applying to the face,” Yale School of Medicine’s Aesthetic Dermatology Programme Director Kathleen Suozzi said. Although frequency of usage is a factor, the real “Achilles’ heel”, Suozzi said, is when preservatives in products start breaking down, leaving the make-up more susceptible to growing bacteria, such as Staphylococci or E coli, that may cause skin  irritation, or worse, infection.

In the eyes of dermatologists, most people fall short in their efforts to keep make-up products clean. “It is challenging, because we are moving so fast when we are in the bathroom and we are getting ready in the morning,” GW Center for Laser and Cosmetic Dermatology Director Pooja Sodha said. “It is the smallest things that we forget to do that can potentially contaminate our make-up.”

Make-up users also tend to be overconfident that cosmetics can “stick around for a long time and be usable just because it looks normal and does not have an off smell”, Sherber said. “But microscopically, there can still be a lot going on.”

A 2019 study out of the United Kingdom examined used lipsticks, lip glosses, eyeliners, mascaras and popular make-up sponges known as beauty blenders. It found that 79 per cent to 90 per cent of the products tested were contaminated with bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus and E coli. Beauty blenders, which are often used damp, had the highest bacterial load, according to the study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

Ideally, Sodha said, brushes should be washed after every use, and any type of sponge treated as disposable, but ultimately, the process is “very individual” and people need to figure out what works for them.

Ivy Lee, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist, encourages patients to follow good hygiene practices and build a routine.

“We are aiming for perfection, but we also do not want perfect to be the enemy of good,” Lee said.

Stacie Thomas, a make-up artist and educator in Seattle, said she does a deep clean of the brushes and sponges she uses on herself weekly. In between washes, she recommended spot-cleaning after each use with a sprayable instant brush cleaner.

If a weekly wash is not possible, Suozzi suggested setting aside time twice a month. She noted that people should not worry about sticking to a schedule if they have not been using their brushes or sponges. But if those tools are in storage, it would be wise to wash them before use.

“It is pretty labourious if you actually try to clean all your make-up brushes,” she said. “How you clean them matters, too.”

Experts generally recommend using a gentle facial cleanser and water to wash brushes and sponges. The cleanser should be the same one you use on your face, Lee said. “Keep it simple. What is safe and gentle on your face is safe and gentle for your products.”

Beauty blenders are often more challenging to clean than brushes, Sodha said, because their dense, absorbent material can make it difficult to gauge how well they have been cleaned.

“There is no way to guarantee how effectively you are removing the bacteria from these blenders,” she said, and you will probably have to judge cleanliness by looks.

Lee said beauty blenders should return to their original colour and shape after a good washing. Noticeable signs of wear, like missing chunks or a dull tip, are signs the sponge should be thrown out. Another way to mitigate cleanliness concerns is to purchase cheaper sponges that can be replaced every one to two weeks, Suozzi said.

Brushes should be washed with their tips pointed down to minimise the amount of water that collects where the bristles meet the base because mold can form there, Suozzi said. Avoid wringing out a brush after washing, which can damage its bristles, Lee said. Instead, gently squeeze to draw out as much water as possible.

To dry brushes, arrange them around a sink with the bristles hanging over the edge, Suozzi said. Lee said she lays her brushes out to dry in the sun and will check that they have completely dried by doing a light brush on a clean hand to feel for any residual dampness.

Clean brushes and sponges should be stored away from any dirty tools. “Be careful popping a dirty brush right into the middle of your clean brushes unless you are prepared to wash all of them again,” Sherber said.

Experts stressed that it is equally important to keep track of product expiration dates.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there are no United States laws or regulations that require cosmetics to have specific shelf lives or expiration dates on their labels. But products often indicate a suggested time frame on the packaging, denoted by a small icon of an open jar with the number of months written inside.

“That clock starts ticking when you begin to use the product,” Sherber said, adding that she frequently tells patients “make-up really should not celebrate a birthday”.

Liquid formulations, particularly eye make-up such as mascara and eyeliners, have the shortest shelf life. Mascara, for instance, should be replaced every three to six months, Suozzi said, whereas powder products can last one to two years. Even unopened cosmetics can go bad, she said, noting that if you have had a product longer than three years, it should probably be tossed.