What’s lurking in your make-up drawer?

The saying goes that your eyes are the window to the soul. Unfortunately (and less romantically), your eyes are also an open entry point to your body for billions of tiny invaders who would really love to make a home in your snug damp places.

woman holding make up brushes and giving the thumbs upThankfully, you have some excellent defences. Eyelashes and eyebrows catch lots of things that might blow in, blinking helps disperse grit, eyelashes and small particles that might make it past, and lots of lovely immune cells in your tears (plus the pH of the tear film) kill off the majority of potential infections before they even think of multiplying.

However, we’re not always as careful as we might be with our eyes. We wear eye make-up, we often don’t wear eye protection when we’re doing DIY and – let’s be honest – we’re not always terribly careful about removing eye make-up or cleaning our brushes and applicators.

Hygiene 101

(FYI the first class you take in any subject at an American college or university is always numbered 101).

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 21.31If you look on the back of any make-up or cosmetic product there is usually a little pot icon and a number next to it. That is the number of months the preservatives in the item will keep it healthy to use after it’s opened.

If your cosmetic doesn’t have one of these symbols it’s too old to use. The law was changed in 2009 and brought in line with European Regulation (EC/1223/2009) when that was enacted.

Powder products should be used within 24 months and if not used up should be disposed of. Cream products should be used within 12 months of opening.

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However, two products that should be replaced more frequently are mascara and eyeliner pencils.

Mascara is applied to the eyelashes with brushes that frequently come into contact with the inside of the eyelid. You know how horrible it feels when you poke your eye with it.

But what you may not realise is that bacteria come into contact with the brush at this point. Because mascara doesn’t have the sophisticated immune system of the eye, those bacteria multiply.

Mascara packaging will instruct you to replace it within six months. This is for your safety, not to sell more product.

If you get an eye infection, immediately stop using eye make-up. You should throw your mascara away, even if it’s only a week old.

Those bacteria will re-infect your eye and possibly transfer the infection to the other one. An eye infection can be uncomfortable and sticky, it can lead to vision problems and cysts in the eyelash follicles that have to be removed surgically. I know this from bitter and deeply unpleasant experience and I wasn’t even wearing make-up at the time…

Some make-up artists clean their mascara brushes between uses with surgical wipes. Many more use disposable sanitary wands. It saves on product and protects the eyes.

Banish bacteria on your brushes

You cleanse and moisturise your skin daily, and perhaps use an antibacterial spot clearing product. But then you apply your make-up with brushes that you may not have cleaned for weeks, even months, and you’re applying months of grime right back onto your face. Ugh.

If you use applicators other than your fingers these also need to be cleaned. If you look at your make-up bag, or drawer, or flight case… can you honestly remember when you last cleansed your brushes?

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Ideally you would rinse them with an antibacterial cleanser after every use – a little like rinsing out your toothbrush.

Bacteria grow on brushes. Nice, slightly moist places zipped in dark bags or stood in a cup on your bathroom shelf. Each time you use your foundation brush it picks up bacteria from your skin.

These are perfectly normal and are controlled by the skin’s acidity but when you add the medium of make-up with its subtle oils, botanicals and binders, it has a haven in which to multiply.

Bear in mind that if you keep your make-up applicators in the bathroom the fine miasma of pee and possibly foecal matter that hangs around in the air eventually ends up settling, maybe on your make-up brushes or, worse, your toothbrush. Ugh again.

Woman with eye infectionMicrobiology found on make-up brushes include:

  • Streptococcus epidermis
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Psuedomonas aeruginosa
  • Escheria coli
  • Various species of Demodex eyelash and skin mites

And many, many more.

A research project which tested a brand-new, unused brush, a brush used once and stored for three days and an unused brush stored next to the used brush showed frightening results.

There were a few bacteria on the unused brush (which is to be expected), the unused brush stored next to the used brush was actually quite dirty and the petri dish where the used brush was swabbed was absolutely covered.

There were around 20 different bacteria and fungal growths. Just imagine what your brushes, used and stored together for months might be doing to your skin.

How to keep your applicators fresh:

  • Don’t store them in the bathroom. If you must keep them there, zip them away and put in a drawer or a cabinet.
  • Wash your brushes and applicators at least every week.
  • Change your mascara and eyeliner pencils every six months, even if you only use them occasionally.
  • Throw away mascara and eyeliner pencils immediately if you have an eye infection.
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The pay off will be healthier skin, healthier eyes, better colour registration from your cosmetics and far less transfer of dirt and bacteria from skin to brush to cosmetics.

If your make-up bag itself is not clean then get rid of it and replace it. Dirty storage does not make for healthy application.

How to clean your brushes

  • Wash your brushes by hand using a gentle shampoo or antibacterial hand soap.
  • Rinse them by swishing the bristles around in the palm of your hand till the water runs completely clear. You can also do this on the side of a clean white basin.
  • Dry them angled down slightly on kitchen paper so that the water does not run back into the ferule (the metal bit that attaches the bristles to the shaft).
  • Sponges and sponge applicators should be washed in the same way or simply replaced.
  • If you have very expensive brushes the seller will market a purpose-made product to clean them. Use it to care for your tools.
  • Never use biological washing powder. It will damage your brushes and potentially upset your skin.

And finally if any item in your make-up bag is older than your children then please get rid of it. Your wedding lipstick might have sentimental value but it’s probably rancid by now and certainly no longer a fashionable shade…

About Katherine Bellchambers-Wilson

Passionate about looking good and feeling great, I’m a BSc qualified herbalist who won’t make you give up your chocolate, coffee or alcohol (unless you have a stomach ulcer and then only for a while). I believe a little of what you fancy does you good and that all work and no play just spoils a perfectly good Sunday. Herbal medicine harnesses the power of plants to help nudge your body into balance so you can get on with doing what’s important. BSc MNIMH