Confession: I rarely wash my makeup brushes. As a beauty editor, I’m fastidious about cleansing my skin twice a day — taking the time to remove the dirt and oil that accumulates on your face is crucial for maintaining a healthy, clear complexion. Yet, when it comes to the bristles that bronze, conceal, and highlight my complexion daily, I continue to toss them back into my makeup bag without a rinse.
Here’s why that’s a problem: “Dirty brushes are breeding grounds for bacteria and [viruses] from the environment, which can exacerbate or cause acne flares, as well as other infections of the skin,” explains Patricia Wexler, MD, double board-certified New York City dermatologic surgeon. What’s more, she says, is that bacteria from your bristles can also deposit into your makeup. “[This] will grow bacteria and viruses, especially in damp or moist conditions,” she warns.
Yet despite the risk, in a completely unscientific Instagram® poll, I found that I’m not the only guilty one. Fifty-three percent of voters also admitted to not washing their makeup tools. And, direct messages came in with “It’s such a hassle” and “I never have time.” Nevertheless, bathing our brushes is essential for keeping bacteria off our faces, as well as maintaining the longevity of our tools and makeup palettes. If you suspect you’re having a reaction to germs on your brushes, immediately clean your skin and get new brushes, advises Robert Anolik, MD, a board-certified New York City dermatologist. “If there is redness, drainage, or pain, see a dermatologist,” he adds.
In good news, after doing some research, I learned that the brush-cleansing process doesn’t have to be time-consuming or laborious. “[Washing] should take 10 seconds per brush,” insists Ricky Wilson, a celebrity makeup artist who works with Emma Rossum, Sharon Stone, and Coco Rocha, among others. We were skeptical, but we learned that and much more as we consulted with dermatologists and celebrity makeup artists for tips to keep our brush kits (and complexions) looking fresh. Keep reading for our skin-saving guide.
Why do I need to clean my brushes?
What the doctor says: As makeup and oils build up on your brushes (this starts happening after a single use), they create a breeding ground for bacteria and microorganisms to grow with the potential to cause acne, styes, staph, or herpes outbreaks. “Using dirty makeup brushes can lead to skin irritation, may promote the development of acne by blocking pores, and can even lead to skin infections by spreading bacteria,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified New York City dermatologist. He also warns of a worst-case scenario: bacteria spreading to open wounds that you might have from acne, waxing, or other forms of hair removal. “These are entry points for the bacteria to possibly cause an infection,” agrees Dr. Anolik. If you know you’re not a brush washer, you should avoid these areas at all costs (and start cleansing your brushes).
What the makeup pro says: Of course, it’s really unsanitary, says Wilson, who washes his brushes in between every client. However, he also points out that you’re using tools that aren’t operating at maximum capacity. “You want to prevent product buildup because that can immediately affect the way the makeup looks,” he explains. Brushes caked up with old powders and liquid makeup won’t perform the way they’re supposed to: contours and highlights will look muddy, pale-colored shadows may appear dirty, and foundation and concealer can go on streaky. If your bristles are at a point where they feel stiff or won’t move, your brushes are overdue for a wash.
How often should I wash my brushes?
What the doctor says: “To prevent acne or herpes outbreaks, you must wash your brushes at least weekly, if not more,” recommends Dr. Wexler. “Once the brush is contaminated, it can deposit bacteria on an eyeshadow that you were going to use, and subsequently give you an eye infection.” (This is also the reason we’re told to replace our makeup after a certain period of time, she says.)
That said, if you’re short on time, prioritize the brushes used for liquid foundations and cream-based products as opposed to powders. “The reason is because liquid-based products create a moist environment and are much more likely to become contaminated,” explains Dr. Zeichner. Powders, on the other hand, maintain a dry environment, which is a more challenging habitat for bacteria to thrive in.
What the makeup pro says: For any brush that touches emollient products (i.e. liquid or cream foundation, concealer, blush etc.), wash it once a week, says Wilson. “Emollient products are moist, so they can hold bacteria [which] breed in warm areas like your makeup bag.” For all other brushes, Wilson advises washing once every other week.
What’s the best brush cleansing technique?
The doctors and makeup artists we interviewed all agree that in a pinch, makeup cleansing sprays are acceptable. However, if overused, they can eventually damage and dry out your bristles. Celebrity makeup artist Nick Barose, who works with Lupita Nyong’o, Rachel Weisz, and Winona Ryder, to name a few, says cleansing sprays like Sephora® Collection Dry Clean Instant Dry Brush Cleaner Spray ($14) are best used in between washes. “You still need to deep-clean your brushes after several uses, you can’t keep on spraying and never wash them,” he tells us.
For a truly deep clean, follow Wilson’s steps. Along with your dirty makeup brush, all you’ll need are a few drops of Dawn® dish soap ($6) or baby shampoo spread on the back of a Tupperware lid. Start by holding the bristles of your brush under warm, running water. “Work out some of the initial grime and dirt with your fingers, and then swirl it around on the soapy Tupperware lid,” says Wilson. “The little groove [on the lid] actually helps to get all the gross stuff.” Immediately submerge your brush’s bristles back under the running warm water to rinse off all the soap. “Make sure you squeeze it dry,” he adds.
Repeat this process until the water runs clear and all makeup has been removed from the bristles. Finish by laying them flat over a towel. “It’s really quick once you get the hang of it,” assures Wilson. Pro tip: be careful not to wet the ferrule of the brush (the metal part that connects the hairs to the handle) or the handle itself, as this will degrade the glue and can cause the brush to fall apart over time.
When it comes to makeup sponges — which are porous and soak up more product than brushes — skip the Dawn and baby shampoo, says Wilson, who has found this trick doesn’t work on sponges. For this task, he recommends BeautyBlender® Liquid Blender Cleanser ($18). Unlike brushes, it’s fine to let sponges soak in the sink until they’re clean.
When is it time to buy new makeup brushes?
What the doctor says: With gentle care and regular washing, makeup brushes should last for several years, says Dr. Zeichner. There are caveats, however: “If the bristles are starting to fall out of the brush, the bristles are breaking, or there is any change to the texture or smell of the brush, then you should replace it.”
What the makeup pro says: High-quality brushes last for decades, seconds Barose, which is why he invests in well-made options from MAC® Cosmetics, Nars® Cosmetics, and Make Up for Ever® for his personal kit. Even so, you’ll still eventually see marks of deterioration in a quality brush.
“If you’re applying a powder and bristles collect all over your face, I always say that’s a sign it’s time to throw your brush away,” notes Wilson. Other signs, like a jiggly handle or misshaped bristles, are also signals that it’s time to toss it. And, keep in mind, brushes used with wet products like lipstick, concealer, and eyeliner, tend to lose their shape faster, so those will need to be replaced more often, says Barose. With proper care, however, your brushes — and your skin — will stay in good shape for quite some time.
Dr. Patricia Wexler is a paid Allergan® consultant.