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How To Clean Makeup Sponges: Expert Tips On What Actually Works 

August 26, 2020
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Makeup sponges are beloved by artists and amateurs alike, as they make for a dewy, oh-so-natural finish. And with the plethora of shapes and sizes out there, you can rely on them for everything from foundation and concealer to even shadows or blush. And all of their uses out there brings us here: How do you clean these little things?

You might've seen a viral hack here and there about how best to sanitize your makeup sponges, but we're here to tell you the actual best tried-and-true ways. 

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Why you need to wash your makeup sponges.

You need to wash your sponges for the same reason you need to wash your makeup brushes: In the same way they're good at soaking up and transferring makeup, they're good at doing that for a whole bunch of other gunk. "Your natural oils, bacteria, makeup, dead skin cells, dirt, and grime accumulate on the brush, and then you are just reapplying that on a daily basis," says holistic dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. "This can lead to a lot of skin issues—acne, contact dermatitis, infections."

If that doesn't scare you into cleaning things up (it should), this buildup can also mess with the sponge's function: Dirty, overused sponges just don't work as well as freshly cleaned ones. 

How often should you wash your brushes?

There's what we know we should be doing and what's, ahem, realistic. In a perfect world, experts say to wash them with every use. "I highly recommend cleaning your sponge daily. With daily use, any makeup tool can accumulate dead skin cells, dirt, oil, pollution and bacteria," says makeup artists Rea Ann Silva, founder of Beautyblender. "So just like washing your face or brushing your teeth every day, this will help keep your makeup tools in tiptop shape."

But in case you just know you're not going to be that diligent, makeup artists Jenny Patinkin—who boasts her own collection of sponges, brushes, and tools—says every three to four uses is OK, or "at least once a week!"

And in case you want some sensorial cues it's time for a rinse, Patinkin looks for these: "There's the obvious visual cue of how dirty the sponge looks. If you use your sponge damp, you'll also start to feel it squish differently when there's too much product built up on the inside," she says. "And this is really gross; very dirty sponges will start to smell weird. Please, please wash your sponges before that happens!"

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Rinse manually with gentle soap and water.

It's pretty simple: Grab your sponge and soap and head to the sink. Wet the sponge, apply a small amount of your soap, and start working up the lather between your hands. Rinse regularly while doing this. At first rinse, the water will likely look pretty full of makeup, but with diligent work, it will start to clear up. You've done your job when the water is back to transparent and there's no more lather left. 

As for the soap, there are plenty of sponge-specific washes on the market, but any gentle option will do in a pinch. "Any fragrance-free cleanser will do," says Patinkin. "I personally prefer to stay away from sodium lauryl sulfates because that's a detergent that runs off into our waterways, and I avoid fragrances because they can damage the sponge foam."

She goes on to explain that more severe or harsher soaps (like traditional shampoos or dish detergents) may cause issues in another way: "One of the most important steps is you must fully rinse out the soap," says Patinkin. "If you don't fully rinse, your sponge can get kind of hard and dense. Liquid dish soap and shampoos do get sponges clean, but there are so many foaming agents in them, they can be really challenging to fully rinse."

Silva agrees, noting that some soaps run the risk of shortening the life span of the sponge: "If you are using anything that isn't alcohol-free and gentle and was not formulated for makeup tools, you risk breaking down the foam."

Try a silicone cleaning pad.

For true makeup fans who opt into everything, you can also use cleaning pads. These are simply silicone tools that have small indents, spikes, and nodules that help you work the sponge or brush more thoroughly. (They're especially helpful for brushes, as they allow you to get in between the bristles.)

While there are several varieties out there, most more or less function the same: Apply soap and water, grab your pad, and move the sponge around in circular motions, being mindful to work all the sides.  

Just be careful of how hard you are doing your movements. "You have to be careful because they can tear the delicate surface of the sponge," says Patinkin. 

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Skip the microwave.

There seems to be an endless number of articles and posts about how you can use the microwave to zap away germs and bacteria. But nearly all the experts say to skip this hack, as it doesn't hold up to scrutiny—plus, good old-fashioned soap and water does just fine. 

"I have seen and heard of so many different, crazy ways that people have tried in order to clean their blenders. And I have tried them all myself, just to see if I was missing anything," says Silva. "The first time I tried this, I set my blender on fire. So I don't recommend it."

Patinkin notes that it's not just that it's unnecessary, but there might be real reasons you don't want to use it. "Most sponges are made from antibacterial foams, so the idea that heating them up will make them more sterile is not accurate," she says. "And many sponges are treated with stuff like flame retardants, and I certainly can't recommend cooking them up with microwave rays. I'd be concerned that it might alter the chemical composition." (And on that note: Look for clean sponges that are made with ingredients you trust.)

Always allow for proper drying time.

After you've rinsed, you must always allow for proper drying time and ventilation. "After washing or using your sponge, you always want to make sure you let it air dry in an open space," says Silva. Never simply toss it back into a makeup bag. Remember that you just washed your sponge, so why would you want to dirty it again by exposing it to all the things you just spent time washing away?

You can also speed up the drying process by removing water with a clean towel: "I also recommend using a towel or washcloth to blot the excess moisture out of the sponge before you set it down to dry." 

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 The takeaway.

If this article makes you realize one thing, let it be that you really must be cleaning those little things. They can fill up with gunk fast—causing loads of skin problems. Not to mention, they just don't work as well. But when you go to rinse, skip all the internet fads and hacks—a clean, gentle soap and water is really your best friend.

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Alexandra Engler
Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.