Makeup Without Germs How to Minimize Makeup’s Health Risks—and When to Toss Old Products

Édouard Bisson: The Three Graces, 1899.image

Updated Jan. 6, 2014 7:14 p.m. ET
Some things, like fine wine, get better with age. Makeup isn’t one of them. Aging cosmetics may pose some obvious performance issues, like when the formula for liquid foundation separates or mascara dries up. But the bigger concern is the potential for germs, says Gervaise Gerstner, a New York City-based dermatologist, consulting dermatologist for L’Oréal Paris and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. She weighs in on how to minimize makeup’s health risks—and when to toss old products and start fresh.

Eyes and Lips
Germs in makeup come from two sources: where it is stored and how it is applied. Most women keep their cosmetics in the bathroom, a humid spot that plays host to a plethora of airborne germs and bacteria.

Replace mascara every three months, since it makes direct contact with the eye area and risks spreading infections. Getty Images

When using makeup, many women unknowingly send germs back into the container via their fingers or an applicator brush or the product itself. “It’s our own cross-contamination,” Dr. Gerstner says. Women should never share makeup, she adds.

Mascara and liquid eyeliner are two of the most likely germ transmitters, since their applicators make direct contact with the eye area. Eyes are at risk for conjunctivitis, or pink eye, which can spread easily, says Dr. Gerstner. She recommends replacing mascara and liquid eyeliner every three months.

Lipstick also carries a heightened potential for germs, especially in the winter months when colds and cold sores are rampant. Dr. Gerstner suggests that women regularly—and especially right after an illness—clean their lipstick with a tissue sprayed with alcohol, removing the top layer that has been exposed to the germs. That can make lipstick last for up to a year.

The same trick can be used on pencil eyeliner, cleaning the tip with alcohol and resharpening it to remove the outer layer.

Shun the Sponge
Liquid foundation and pressed-powder cosmetics, like eye shadow or blush, can be used for up to a year, too, as long as the applicator tools are cleaned regularly. Makeup brushes should be washed at least once a month. Dr. Gerstner suggests dipping them in baby shampoo, rinsing them thoroughly and laying them flat to air dry on a clean towel.

Makeup sponges, another popular way to apply products, can easily trap germs. Dr. Gerstner recommends women avoid them altogether. For women who insist on sponges, she suggests buying inexpensive ones.

“Sponges are so cheap, why not just throw them out once a week?” she says.

Loofahs, or more abrasive and porous sponges often used for exfoliating, trap even more germs and fungus and should never be used, Dr. Gerstner says.

Pump for Safety
Dr. Gerstner also tells her patients to stay away from makeup or skin creams that come in jars. “I don’t want to stick my own fingers in the jar,” she says, because it can easily contaminate the product.

Avoid using fingers to reach into pots or jars. Use regularly cleaned makeup brushes instead. Getty Images

She recommends her patients to buy products with pumps or squeezable tubes, which minimize finger contact with the material.

In general, all makeup should be kept away from the toothbrush area of the bathroom, which Dr. Gerstner says can carry more germs than the toilet.

And make sure makeup is sealed tightly after use to keep out moisture, fully screwing on the cap of the mascara or firmly fastening the latch of a compact, she suggests.

“The more air it is exposed to, the more likely it is to go bad,” she says.

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