“Over time, product preservation can break down, allowing bacteria and fungi to grow.”
Beauty products containing probiotics—aka “good” bacteria—have become ubiquitous on natural health store shelves, and that’s great news for your skin. But at the same time, you shouldn’t ignore the harmful microbes that may be lurking in your beauty bag.
Cosmetic contamination is widespread
A recent study from Aston University in the UK found that 79 to 90 percent of used cosmetic products, including lipstick, lip gloss, eyeliner, mascara, and makeup blending sponges, were contaminated with a variety of potentially harmful microbes. These included Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Citrobacter freundii, and other pathogenic organisms that can pose serious health risks, such as skin infections.
While many of these bugs already live on your skin’s surface without causing problems, when they’re absorbed into the body, they can become harmful. This can happen through an injury in the skin such as a cut, scratch, or open sore. Applying bacteria-laden cosmetics onto broken skin or dry cracks, eczema, or burns adds to this risk.
Eye and lip products are especially concerning
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that every year, many women develop eye infections from their cosmetics. Rare cases may lead to temporary or permanent blindness. If not cleaned regularly and replaced frequently, eyeshadow brushes, mascara wands, and eyeliners can carry a buildup of bacteria, increasing the chance of eye infection with each use.
Lip glosses and lipsticks have the unique risk of oral ingestion and, because the mouth area is also prone to cracking, cankers, and cold sores, penetration beyond the outer layers of the skin. Avoiding skin wounds and discarding older cosmetics is especially important with lip care.
Microbes love makeup tools
Most people use makeup brushes and sponges over and over. This gives these tools repeat exposure to your hands and your face, making handwashing along with sponge washing essential.
In the Aston University study, makeup sponges had the highest levels of harmful bacteria. The researchers also discovered that 93 percent of the sponges had never been cleaned, while 64 percent had been dropped on the ﬂoor at some point and yet continued to be used.
What you should do
Clean your tools
Cleaning your beauty tools is an important line of defense. Wash makeup brushes weekly with mild shampoo, rinsing them until the water runs clear. After this, swish them in a solution of one part vinegar to two parts water. Vinegar is a natural bactericide with a wide microbiological spectrum.
Sponges (makeup blenders) should be washed after each use and discarded every three months. After washing, ensure sponges and brushes are dried completely; dampness encourages microbial growth.
Remember to refresh
Over time, product preservation can break down, allowing bacteria and fungi to grow. In other words, using older cosmetics increases risk of infection. Unfortunately, in a recent survey, almost 98 percent of participants reported that they use makeup after the expiration date, with eye mascara the most frequently mentioned product.
Unlike the European Union, the US does not require cosmetic producers to list an expiry date, though some companies voluntarily use PAO or “period after opening” symbols that let you know how long a product can be used for after you’ve opened it. In the absence of listed expiry or use-by dates, some experts suggest throwing away cosmetics after three to four months. Mascara should be replaced every two to three months. Other beauty products should be kept for no longer than six to 12 months at the longest.
Brush and sponge cleanliness is also important when trying on makeup at beauty counters and salons. One study that looked at microbes in these places found Staphylococcus aureus on all brushes and sponges, while 70 to 82 percent of the tools were contaminated with Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The main cause of contamination was repeated use on customers without cleaning or replacement. Opt for single-use applicators to reduce your skin’s exposure to these bugs.
Beauty hygiene 101
- Always wash hands before applying makeup to help decrease microbial transfer to skin, products, and beauty tools.
- Keep cosmetics properly sealed when not using them.
- Ensure cosmetic brushes are cleaned with mild shampoo at least weekly, especially those used near the eyes.
- Wash makeup sponges daily with warm, soapy water, and leave them
out to dry completely.
- Avoid sharing makeup, and ask for individual-use applicators when sampling makeup at the beauty counter.
- Discard older makeup and applicators.
- Store cosmetics in a cool, dry place.
- Don’t apply makeup on open or injured skin (cuts, scrapes, cracks, burns, etc.).
- If you think you have an eye infection or the eye area is red, wait until it’s healed before applying eye makeup.