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Why the bacteria in your dirty make-up brushes is making you ill

TextBrooke McCord

A deep dive into your daily beauty regime. Germophobes look away now

There’s a time and a place for dirt. At a festival, when gardening, when doing DIY, when losing yourself in a sweat-drenched techno haunt in Berlin at 6 am.

There’s a time and place for cleanliness, too. Approximately 85% of the week if you're guilty of entering slob territory on a hangover day, or 100% of the week if you’re considerably more adult than I am. If you have the pleasure of living in a city and getting public transport to work, chances are you carry a travel size bottle of hand sanitiser around in your handbag at all times and you wash your hands an average of 30 times a day because of “the London pollution and the germs on the tube”.

But have you ever thought to consider the germs that might be lurking closer to home? Forget your grimy kitchen surfaces, or that ‘lived in’ sofa you spent months scouring eBay for – we’re talking about the, often unexpected, germs that come in contact with your face on a daily basis. The beauty products that are part of your daily ritual, the brushes and sponges you apply them with, your phone – usually found glued between the nook of the shoulder and left or right cheek – and that lipstick tester you used in the M.A.C store when you fancied a change of colour on your way for after-work drinks last week.

Are you guilty of indulging in an overpriced hour-long facial before going home and applying foundation to your freshly cleansed skin using a brush that hasn’t been washed in months? Have you been using the same mascara for, dare we say it, years? Is your skin crawling at the thought? Let’s dive a little deeper into the depths of the unknown.

“If cosmetics, make-up and applicators are not kept clean they can harbour excess skin oil, dead skin and bacteria and skin pathogens, which result in microbial contamination, putting your skin and health at risk" – Gemma Clare, holistic health and skincare expert

Bad brushes
According to Holistic Health and Skincare Expert Gemma Clarem we should be washing our brushes once a week to avoid the build-up of unwanted germs that can irritate the skin. As Clare explains, it’s essential to maintain hygiene when it comes to your both your make-up and skincare routines. “If cosmetics, make-up and applicators are not kept clean they can harbour excess skin oil, dead skin and bacteria and skin pathogens, which result in microbial contamination, putting your skin and health at risk,” she explains. “Such contamination includes bacteria and skin pathogens, skin parasites, yeast and fungus, which can cause a range of skin infections such as boils, impetigo, pimples and rosacea as well as infections in the body and loss of vision, and even life-threatening illnesses including meningitis and sepsis. Bacteria and viruses can easily spread across the surface of the skin and can make skin conditions worse. For example, acne and herpes where there is an opening of the skin.” Pretty scary right?

Beware of the beauty hall
It’s a known fact that thousands of potential purchasers test out lipsticks in beauty halls worldwide each day, and with that comes a whole new set of problems, proven by a study that found that 95% of products in shared beauty kits are contaminated with bacteria (compared to the still-not-so-appealing statistic of 63% reported from individual cosmetics). In other words, we should all be wary when testing make-up samples in beauty halls, at least according to one woman who sued make-up giant Sephora this time last year after sampling one of the lipsticks at their Hollywood store and later being diagnosed with the herpes virus. The woman claimed that it was caused as a result of using the lipstick sample. Although, when 67% of people under the age of 50 carry the all-too-easy-to-contract HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus type 1), it’s not something that can be accurately confirmed – but that’s not to say it’s impossible.

‘Use by’ means use by
Still using that tangerine-tone blusher, the one that’s gifted you with a ‘summer glow’ every winter since 2014 and is only just hitting pan? According to one study, 97% of us are guilty of using cosmetics that are well past their ‘use by’ date. And do you know what that means? More bacteria. If you didn’t even realise cosmetics had a ‘use by’ date, take a look at the face cream pot shaped icon on the base of the product that advises whether you should use it for ‘3m’, ‘6m’ or ‘12m’. As Clare explains, “If you use products longer than the advised time you’ll experience various product problems and the product’s preservatives will degrade causing the levels of bacteria to rise.”

“Are we risking a new spot every time we answer a call?”

Your phone is as dirty as a toilet seat
Correction: scientists at the University of Arizona found that phones carry 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats. And when many of us check our phones an average of 47 times a day it leaves us wondering, “are we risking a new spot every time we answer a call?” Forget the expensive face cream, perhaps our money would be better spent on a set of wireless headphones to eliminate face to phone contact… That's not to say all bacteria is harmful, our skin has natural flora – thousands of micro-organisms that naturally live on the surface, many of which are natural bacteria that pass over to our phones, along with oils from our hands. However, should a pathogen like staphylococcus be found on your phone – which it commonly is – there’s a chance you can contract a nasty infection.

Mascara Matters
There’s a reason mascara has a three-month lifespan. Whether you’re going for an everyday look, or full on Twiggy lashes – every time we pump a mascara wand in and out of a tube to get more product onto the brush, we’re creating a deep, dark, breeding ground for a number of germs – in particular pathogens and eye-infection causing bacteria, particularly harmful to one of the most sensitive parts of the body. As for an eyelash curler, that should be cleaned weekly, to avoid cross-contamination.

Germ Control
Bacteria is absolutely everywhere – that’s a fact. To help you navigate all the nasties, here are some golden rules to abide by to ensure that your beauty regime is a (relatively) germ-free zone:

  1. Stick to the ‘use by’ dates, labelling your products helps. Yes, that means changing your mascara every three months.
  2. Don’t test mascaras in the beauty hall. If it’s unavoidable, don’t be afraid to request a fresh tube.
  3. Avoid using lipstick testers on your face, test them on the palm of your hand instead.
  4. If Rule 3 can’t be avoided, ensure the lipstick has been cleaned with alcohol spray and a tissue first.
  5. Alternatively, you can test at home, many beauty halls are very accommodating with their returns policy.
  6. Give your make-up brushes a weekly wash with lukewarm water and a specialist brush cleaning solution or a gentle soap.
  7. Change your Beauty Blender or sponge every 3-4 months.
  8. Wash your face cloths or muslins on a 60 degree wash every few days.
  9. Clean the screen of your phone regularly with antibacterial wipes.
  10. Carry a hand sanitiser at all times to keep your hands clean when touching your phone, to avoid screen to face contamination.
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