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Photography Gael Corboz and Gohan Keller, courtesy of Ecal

How to decontaminate your beauty products

From not buying from third-party sites to switching to water-free products and thoroughly cleaning sponges, experts weigh in on how to ensure your make-up and make-up tools are safe to use

2019 has been the year of make-up recalls. Last month, YouTuber Jeffree Star apologised to fans after mysterious hairs were found in his new eyeshadow palette, following Jaclyn Hill’s “mouldy” lipstick scandal in June. Not even 12-year-old YouTube star JoJo Siwa was safe from a make-up scandal, with her make-up kit for Claire’s being recalled for containing a dangerous level of asbestos.

If you’ve seen the “Make-up Mayhem” episode of Netflix’s new docu-series Broken, you’ll know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The episode details the counterfeit make-up issue that is infiltrating online, after scarcity marketing retail tactics from retailers like ColourPop and Kylie Cosmetics cause their products to sell out at a rapid rate. With high online demand, consumers are looking for products elsewhere and some of these may be fakes. These “fake beauty products” have no regulation and could contain lead, mercury, and even animal faeces, to name a few. In the episode, a woman explains that she discovered superglue in what she thought was a Kylie Lip Kit that she had purchased on eBay after her lips stuck together. While apps like Think Dirty can help you decipher if a genuine product has potentially toxic ingredients at home, there’s no way for the average person to test the exact ingredients in counterfeit products and so they should be avoided at all costs. 

People have developed more serious conditions like paralysis or even contracted herpes from decontaminated make-up, real-life make-up horror stories, so we could all benefit from knowing more about safe cosmetic practices. Especially considering that post-Brexit, UK consumers might be at a greater risk because they will no longer have protection from EU regulations. Beauty products in America, for example, are not required to put expiry dates on make-up packaging and the United States has only outlawed 11 chemicals (compared to the 1,300 chemicals outlawed by the EU). 

Spa owner and esthetician, Kasey Boone doesn’t want this to make you paranoid. “Please just keep where the products are being purchased from, expiration dates and the integrity of the products in the back of your mind,” she explains. “I highly recommend purchasing directly from a source or a reputable distributor, opposed to an online third party.” Some of Kasey’s clients have previously purchased products from third-party online stores, like counterfeit Kylie Cosmetics products from eBay, which harmed their skin. “I’ve also heard of product bottles being filled with sand and Vaseline, but there have been other unknown substances as well,” she says. While sites like eBay and Amazon may be trusted by the buyer, any websites that allow third-party sales should be avoided, according to Kasey. Instead, sticking to purchasing from the brand directly or a beauty store like Sephora is the safest option. 

However, the truly shocking aspect of make-up contamination is that the products don’t have to be fakes or recalls in order for contamination to occur. In fact, a new study of make-up in the UK found that up to 90 per cent of used products could be crawling with potentially deadly microbes such as Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, and Citrobacter freundii. “Cosmetic regulations clearly state that products should not contain pathogenic organisms,” the researchers wrote in their paper. Yet “70 to 90 per cent of all used products were contaminated with bacteria.” 

The study found that our make-up cleaning habits are subpar at best, with 93 per cent of beauty blenders not being cleaned and 64 per cent dropped on the floor before continuing to be used. This led to the highest rate of Enterobacteriaceae (a family of bacteria that includes Salmonella) and fungal contamination being detected in beauty blenders, with potentially life-threatening superbugs also found in items like mascara and lip gloss. This bacterium that can cause illnesses ranging from skin infections to blood poisoning (if in eyes or on an open wound) and the risk is higher for those with compromised immune systems. The study used multiple types of agar to test bacteria growth from various beauty items. For those interested in testing their beauty products at home for bacteria, there are microbial test kits that you can purchase online

“Cosmetic regulations clearly state that products should not contain pathogenic organisms (but) 70 to 90 per cent of all used products were contaminated with bacteria” – A Bashir & P Lambert, journal of applied microbiology 

According to make-up artist and beauty vlogger Nicole Guerriero, the best way to disinfect make-up brushes is to swirl them in a mixture of antibacterial hand soap and olive oil, then swirl them in the palm of your hand. After that, she recommends rinsing them in lukewarm water (with the option of using a brush cleaning glove), squeezing out the excess water, and drying them off with a clean paper towel. Other make-up artists often use dish soap or face washes and Allan Avendaño considers beauty blenders disposable, throwing them out after 10 uses. Beautyblender recommends washing its products with blendercleanser formula and soaking them in a bowl of water, then squeezing out access water and drying them in “a clean, well-ventilated area.”

Dr Robb Akridge, a scientist with a PhD in Microbiology, says that while most authentic products are checked for microbes, the real challenge happens once the consumer opens the container. “Every time the container is opened, airborne microbes have a chance to enter, and every time you touch the formulation or even put a spatula into the formula, microbes are introduced. Typically, your skin is a very good barrier to foreign microbes,” he explains. 

Akridge says he came across someone who thought they had bad acne on their face when actually it was a staph infection and says that products with a higher water content have more chance of microbes. “Microbes love to grow in water,” he says. “So, one way to not have microbes bloom in your cosmetic products is to use anhydrous products (products with no water). Anhydrous products are already available and more exciting ones are being developed every day.” The report from trend forecasting agency WGSN entitled “Spotting the Beauty Trends and Markets in 2020” suggests an interest in waterless products was on the horizon due to our global clean water crisis. Theresa Yee, senior beauty editor at WGSN says, “Beauty brands are starting to look at processes and ingredients that ensure products limit their dependence on water.” Already, major skincare brand The Ordinary offers some “water-free” products and smaller brands such as Ethically Organic and Pinch of Colour offer entirely anhydrous product ranges.

For other ways to keep your products safe, Akridge recommends avoiding beauty products that you have to dip your fingers into and use airless pumps instead. If you have to use an open jar, he insists on using a clean spatula or brush. “The ideal beauty product would be one that is packaged as single-use,” he says. “However, most beauty products are packaged so you can get three months of use out of the container. Do not try to make the product last for more than three months.” Akridge says to toss any product after three months or after noticing a shift in colour, odor, or feel on your skin. Anything that came into contact with the container, like a spatula, should also be discarded.

With relaxed regulations for United States products, and potential changes coming for UK regulations after Brexit, each of us has to advocate for our own health in the beauty industry. The most obvious thing you can do for the safety of beauty products seems to be never purchasing from a third-party, but it’s also important to also stay vigilant after the product is opened. Actively reporting anything that’s off (like the hairs found in Jeffree Star’s eyeshadow palette) to the company itself is one way, so is opting for more hygienic containers. While those most frightened (or eco-conscious) may look into waterless products, the least we can all do is to thoroughly clean or steer clear of what seems to be the epicentre of beauty germs: the make-up sponge.