The best way to clean makeup brushes is as easy as 1, 2, 3...steps. Here's how to (and how often you should!) deal with washing dirty brushes, according to makeup artists.

By Melanie Rud
Updated June 24, 2020
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Guilty of not cleaning your makeup brushes on the reg? Don't worry, you’re not alone. But here's the thing: While it may seem like a hassle that can be skipped, washing your makeup brushes is actually super important.

"Dirty makeup brushes harbor dirt, bacteria, and all kinds of germs that can be transferred to your skin, leading to irritation and breakouts," says  Jo Levy, a professional makeup artist. And, not to be an alarmist, but unwashed (and thus bacteria-ridden) brushes can even lead to infection. So, skipping cleaning these tools is not only gross but it’s also a matter of health.  (Here, more health threats hiding in your makeup bag, plus why you should never share makeup brushes.)

Then there's the issue of performance: "If the bristles are filled with product, colors will look muddy and application can become streaky," adds Levy. (FYI, all of the above applies to grimy sponges, too.) So, what's the best way to clean makeup brushes and how often should you do so? You should wash makeup brushes weekly, according to Levy. And Chicago-based makeup artist Branden Melear agrees, especially if you're wearing lots of makeup daily. Otherwise, you can stretch it to every two weeks, according to Melear. A good rule of thumb: "Wash your makeup brushes anytime you wash your pillowcases," he suggests. (Related: 12 Places Germs Like to Grow That You Probably Need to Clean RN)

Ugh, as if you needed yet another chore to add to your already-packed schedule. But before you start to groan, there’s some good news: washing makeup brushes every week or two is surprisingly simple and quick. Ahead, the experts explain how to clean your makeup brushes in three easy steps.

1. Pick your cleanser.

Whether you want to go with a liquid or solid is a matter of personal preference since both clean equally well, says Levy. When it comes to liquid cleanser, any kind of mild soap, shampoo, or face wash will do the trick. Just be sure to look for fragrance-free options, since the brushes will be touching your face and you don't want any ingredients that may cause irritation, says Levy, who likes Dr. Bronner's Baby Unscented Pure-Castile Liquid Soap (Buy It, $11, target.com). (Speaking of which, there is no shortage of ways to use Castile soap beyond washing makeup brushes.)

Solid brush cleansers, on the other hand, are an especially great option for travel (read: no mid-air explosions). But, of course, they’re also an A+ cleanser at home. Just take it from Melear who’s a fan of solid formulas for washing makeup brushes and sponges (more on the latter below). Try: Jenny Patinkin Luxury Vegan Makeup Brush Soap (Buy It, $19, credobeauty.com). Note: Regular bar soaps don’t work quite as well for this, as many are actually very harsh.

Left: Macy's
Center: Target
Right: Credo Beauty

2. Wet the bristles and start washing.

Run the bristles under warm water so that they're wet, but not soaking. Keyword: bristles. Be sure to keep the brush handle and ferrule (the piece that connects the handle and bristles) away from the water, as H2O can wreak havoc on your tools—but more on that below.

If you're using a liquid cleanser, squirt a drop into your palm, then swirl the brush in your hand in circular motions for 30 seconds. When using a solid cleanser, swirl the brush directly onto the soap. "If you want a little more lather, you can also moisten the solid cleanser itself by adding just a few drops of water to it," says Melear. Either way, as you gently move the brush around the cleanser, you’ll start to see the gunk and grime run off into the sink and the sudsy foam turn all kinds of colors. It’s. so. satisfying.

If you want to give brushes an extra-deep clean, consider bringing in the big guns: makeup brush cleaning tools, such as the Sigma Spa Brush Cleaning Mat (Buy it, $29, macys.com). Recommended by Levy, this textured, nubby rubber mat helps remove even more product and dirt from your brushes. Once you've lathered them up with your chosen cleanser, massage the bristles with your fingertips against the mat to remove any remaining grime. On a budget but still need some extra oomph when washing your makeup brushes? An 8-inch mesh strainer (yes, like the one in your kitchen) can also work wonders, says Melear. Soap up your brush, then gently push the bristles against the mesh. Similar to a textured mat, this helps break down excess makeup that may be lodged on the brush, he explains. (See also: Budget-Friendly Makeup Brushes You Can Snag at the Drugstore)

That’s great and all, but you probably want to know how to clean makeup sponges as well. Right? Right. Melear’s got you covered: Begin by dampening the sponge with warm water and then roll it on a solid cleanser. Once all sides are covered in the cleanser, gently massage the sponge with your fingertips and watch the makeup residue melt off, he says. While solid cleansers are recommended for sponges, liquid versions can do the trick as well. Just squirt and massage the product into a wet sponge.

3. Dry properly.

You can't talk about the best way to clean makeup brushes without talking about the best way to dry makeup brushes, especially because this part of the washing-makeup-brushes process is essential for preserving the integrity of your tools.

Start by giving your brush a gentle squeeze with your dry hand to remove excess water and restore the shape of the brush head; it should start to look somewhat like it did prior to washing, though the bristles won’t be quite as fluffy because they’re still wet, says Levy. Then, position the brush so that it’s lying flat with its bristles hanging over the edge of the counter. For makeup sponges, squeeze out the water, then let them dry standing up. This is important for several reasons: One, it allows for even air circulation so that the brush or sponge dries thoroughly. Two, it keeps the shape intact. And most importantly, it prevents water from dripping into the handle of the brush. (Related: 8 Beauty Tools Everyone Needs)

"If you stand the brush up to dry, excess water can drip into the ferrule, the piece that connects the handle and bristles," explains Levy. "No matter what kind of brush you have or how much it cost, water in the ferrule loosens the glue that holds the brush together and will ultimately ruin the brush.” For this reason, steer clear of soap and water and, instead, swipe the ferrule and handle with some rubbing alcohol or even hand sanitizer, says Melear. Finally, leave the brush to dry overnight in a well-ventilated area and wake up to brushes that are completely clean.

Oh, and a few caveats. If your brush has bristles falling out, feels scratchy on skin, has a damaged ferrule, or smells weird, don't even bother cleaning it. These are all signs that it's a goner and you're due for a replacement, says Melear. Similarly, if your sponge remains stained even after a thorough cleaning, has chunks that are missing, or simply doesn't pick up product well, toss it. (See also: Common Household Items You Should Probably Toss ASAP)

Stick with the described cleaning protocol once you get your new tools to help prolong their lifespan and ultimately get the most bang for your buck.

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