Take notes if you've been skimping on cleaning your beauty blender.

By Arielle Tschinkel
December 04, 2019
Set of essential professional make up brushes on pink background with copy space
Credit: Getty Images/Kittiphan Teerawattanakul/EyeEm

Even though it takes a matter of minutes, going through your makeup bag and thoroughly cleaning its contents—not to mention tossing anything you've had for a bit too long—is a task that somehow manages to fall by the wayside more often than you might like to admit. But the results of a new study suggest that using dirty or expired beauty products won't just put you at risk for an occasional breakout. If you're not regularly cleaning and replacing your makeup, there could be bacteria hiding in your beauty stash that can make you sick, according to the new research.

For the study, published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, researchers from Aston University in the UK set out to discover the potential of bacterial contamination in five popular types of beauty products, including lipstick, lip gloss, eyeliners, mascaras, and beauty blenders. They tested the bacterial contents of 467 used beauty products donated by participants in the UK. Researchers also asked those who donated makeup to fill out a questionnaire about how often they used each product, how often the product was cleaned, and whether the product had been dropped on the floor. And even though the study's sample size was admittedly small and limited to one specific region, the findings are enough to have you scrubbing everything in your beauty arsenal ASAP.

Overall, researchers estimated that about 90 percent of all collected products were contaminated with bacteria, including E. coli (most commonly known for causing food poisoning), Staphylococcus aureus (which can cause pneumonia and other infections that, when untreated, may be fatal), and Citrobacter freundii (bacteria that can potentially cause urinary tract infections). When these types of bacteria find their way to areas like your mouth, eyes, nose, or open cuts on the skin, they're "capable of causing significant infections," particularly in those with compromised immune systems who may not be able to fight off infection as easily (think: older folks, people with autoimmune diseases, etc.), the study authors wrote in their paper. (BTW, neglecting to clean your makeup could also leave you with hundreds of itchy dust mites in your eyes.)

The study's most jaw-dropping results: Only 6.4 percent of all collected products had ever been cleaned—hence the significant presence of bacteria found in the donated products across the board. The least frequently cleaned product was the beauty blender sponge: A whopping 93 percent of the beauty blender samples had never been disinfected, and 64 percent of the donated beauty blenders had been dropped on the floor—a particularly "unsanitary practice" (especially if you're not cleaning them after the fact), according to the research. Knowing that, it's not surprising that these beauty sponge samples were also found to be the most susceptible to bacterial contamination: Because they're often left damp after applying liquid-based products, beauty blenders could easily be teeming with bacteria like E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus, both of which can make you seriously ill, per the study's findings.

But what if I clean my beauty products on the reg?

Even if you're on top of cleaning your go-to makeup products and tools, you're not totally in the clear. Sharing products with someone else can also up your chances of coming in contact with harmful bacteria, according to the study's findings. So, you'll not only want to clean any product before sharing it with someone (and kindly ask that they do the same before returning it to you), but you might also want to be wary of trying makeup testers at beauty stores. Though the researchers didn't analyze bacteria in beauty counter testers, they noted in their paper that these test products are often "not cleaned regularly, and are left exposed to the environment and to passing customers who are allowed to touch and try the product."

Researchers also noted that holding on to products past their expiration date is a big no-no. Even if an expired lipstick or eyeliner looks fine and goes on smoothly, it could be contaminated with the same harmful bacteria found in uncleaned cosmetics, according to the study.

As a general rule, most products should be tossed between three months to a year, depending on the formula, the researchers wrote. Liquid eyeliners and mascaras should be kept for two to three months tops, while lipstick is usually safe for a year, provided you haven't had any infections, shared it with anyone else who may have had an infection, and have been cleaning it regularly. (Related: How to Make the Switch to a Clean, Nontoxic Beauty Regimen)

How to Clean Your Beauty Products

If this new research freaks you out, don't panic—it's not a matter of the products themselves being contaminated when you buy them, but rather your diligence in cleaning and replacing them as needed.

So, once a week, take the time to clean out your makeup bag, including any applicators, brushes, tools, and the bag itself, professional makeup artist, Jo Levy previously told us. She recommends using a mild fragrance-free soap, baby shampoo, or face wash to clean, and then removing excess water before letting products dry completely before your next use. (Related: Why You Definitely Shouldn't Share Makeup Brushes)

You'll also want to be sure your fingers are clean before applying any makeup hands-on (or opt for a clean Q-tip instead). "Every time you dip your finger into a jar of cream or foundation, you're introducing bacteria into it, thereby contaminating it," Debra Jaliman, M.D., of New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center, previously told us. "The best thing to do is clean products whenever possible like wiping tweezers and eyelash curlers down with alcohol."

As for solid products like lipstick, they can usually be cleaned with a wipe "so that you are removing the surface layer, which would remove bacteria or particles sitting there," David Bank, M.D., director for the Center of Dermatology in Mount Kisco, New York previously told us. "It never hurts to clean them once a week, but if you're being careful and observant, you can stretch that to two or four weeks," he added.

Finally, to keep those beloved beauty blenders clean, use a specially-designed sponge cleaner, facial cleanser, or baby shampoo, and be gentle, so you don't rip or damage the sponge, Gita Bass, celebrity makeup artist and Simple Skincare Advisory Board member, told us in a previous interview: "Just rub the sponge over the soap to create a lather, rinse well, repeat as necessary, and place on a clean surface to dry."


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