Sanitizing Makeup 101: Everything You Need To Know About Keeping Products Clean
Imagine, for a brief moment, not washing your bathroom towels regularly, not sanitizing your eating utensils, or not cleaning your reusable water bottle. If any of these caused you to shudder, take a moment to think about your makeup. You've likely been lectured to clean your makeup brushes before (as you should), but have you thought about the makeup itself?
Why do you want to be diligent about cleaning makeup, just as you may be about cleaning brushes? Simple: "When you don't sanitize your makeup regularly, bacteria will grow on it. Bacteria can cause irritation and acne when it comes into contact with your face," says Titus Tse, co-founder of Coral UV.
There are a few broader rules that can apply to any product or item. But, of course, since there is so much variety of makeup out there—we'll also get into some specifics. By the end of this, you'll know everything you need to know to make sure your makeup bag is germ-free:
Do not share makeup, under any circumstances.
There was a time and an age when swapping lip glosses and using a swipe of a friend's mascara was a rite of passage: If you haven't already, stop doing that. "For goodness sake, do not share makeup, now or ever, but especially now!" warns celebrity makeup artist Jenny Patinkin.
In the same way we are warned against swapping other personal items, we need to keep the same mentality for makeup. Sure, makeup is fun and therefore gives the air of it being swappable: But sharing makeup should always be a no-go.
Keep your makeup in a clean environment to avoid contamination.
Remember that makeup touches very sensitive areas of the body, like the lips and eyes, so you should take every precaution to keep these items germ-free. This means examining where you are storing your makeup: Avoid placing it open on a bathroom counter, as it leaves your makeup vulnerable to very icky avenues of contamination, as studies have shown. Sure, it may be your most convenient option, but it is the least hygienic.
Removing it from the bathroom may also help you avoid mold. "If you have a small bathroom that gets very steamy, move your makeup, brushes, and sponges to a clean, dry place where they're less likely to go through the humidity cycle and get moldy," says Patinkin.
Only use clean brushes.
"A dirty makeup brush or sponge can contaminate your makeup (foundation, blush, etc.). After dipping a bacteria-filled brush or sponge into your makeup, bacteria will grow in the makeup container, because of the dark, moist environment. This is not only bad for your skin, but it can decrease the quality of the makeup," says Tse.
Derms agree, too: "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 board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. "This can lead to a lot of skin issues—acne, contact dermatitis, infections—but then from a functional aspect the brushes aren't going to work."
For a full explainer on how to clean your brushes (and how often) check out our brush cleaning guide.
Dip, wipe, or spray solids.
So as for actual sanitizing measures, grab your pure isopropyl alcohol. "I'm a purist. I like straight rubbing alcohol with no added ingredients or fragrances," says Patinkin. For solids—like lipsticks, stick blushes or highlighters, pencils, and so on—there are a few ways to handle them. You can wipe off the top layer (or sharpen if it's a pencil) and then spray it with alcohol to catch any residual germs. You can also directly dip the product into alcohol before letting it fully dry.
Scrape and spray powders.
Powders typically don't contain water, and thus have a lower risk of bacterial overgrowth or contamination. You can scrape off the top layer (if you really think it warrants it) or simply spray with your alcohol: "It's fine for powders because the alcohol evaporates very quickly," says Patinkin.
Add a few drops of alcohol to liquids.
Liquids typically have a water base to give them a fluid consistency. This creates a problem insofar as water creates a breeding ground for bacteria and mold. And thus a few extra precautions should be taken with these sorts of products.
As a general rule, always avoid dipping fingers or used brushes into jars, as this will transfer bacteria into the pot where it can grow and fester.
"With liquid makeup or mascara, you can add a small amount of rubbing alcohol directly into the container or onto your applicator, but be careful—if you use too much, it can change the texture of the product or irritate your skin or eyes," she says. So start with a very small amount (a single drop), and whisk it in. You can always add more if you feel the size of the jar warrants it, but you can never remove it if you feel you've gone too far.
Or she has another tip for application: "If you're worried about something like foundation being contaminated, put it on the back of your (clean) hand, very lightly spray with rubbing alcohol and let it dry, then apply as usual." Don't worry, you don't have to every time you're applying foundation—especially if you are just using your own bottle and you have no fear that it's been contaminated—only if you have doubts and need to take extra precautions.
Invest in an LED light.
LED lights have become popular as a means of sanitizing everything from masks to keys. They can work for your makeup and brushes, too. If you invest in a high-quality LED sanitizing tool—that's been vetted by third parties—the LED can kill up to 99.9% of germs.
"It's important to note that the light must be touching it—for example, you wouldn't want to bunch something up and throw it in there, as the folds will not allow light to reach some places," says Tse. "If you place a foundation sponge in the box, you can ensure 99.9% sanitation by either placing it in the hanging basket, which ensures it gets hit by the light at all angles or running it through two cycles and turning it over."
Know when it's time to toss.
Makeup hygiene doesn't stop at regular cleaning—you need to know when it's time to say goodbye. It's never easy tossing a pretty lipstick or a mascara that you're just sure has a few more swipes left in it, but it's for the best.
The first thing to look for is the actual expiration date, which should be listed on the label as a number inside or beside a jar. Other signs that something is past its prime is if the color is off or separating (like in the case of pigmented liquids). You can also look for textural or consistency changes. Finally, be very mindful of changes of smell in all liquid- or water-based products: "Use the smell test to make sure mascaras and liquids don't have a bitter odor," says Patinkin.
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 Allure.com. 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.