How Healthy Is Your Makeup?

Editor’s note: This article originally ran July 7, 2020 and was updated Nov. 1, 2022.

If you wear makeup, whether it’s every day or just once in a while, it’s good to know how to keep your skin and eyes healthy.

Makeup products and tools can harbor fungus, viruses, and bacteria such as staph and E. coli, which can infect your skin and eyes. In extreme cases, these infections could spread to the blood and cause a life-threatening infection. More commonly, lingering bacteria can cause acne or irritation.

Here’s what you need to know to keep your beauty routine healthy.

How to Clean and Moisturize Skin

“Good makeup habits start with good skin,” says UNC Health dermatologist Heather Holahan, MD.

When applying makeup, it’s easier to work with clear, healthy skin, similar to a painter starting with a blank canvas. The first step to healthy skin is washing your face with a gentle skin cleanser. It’s best to avoid harsh exfoliants and scrubbing brushes, which can make tiny tears in the skin that allow bacteria, viruses and fungus to enter the skin, grow and cause infection.

After washing your face, use a gentle, oil-free moisturizer with SPF 30 or more that is labeled non-comedogenic (that means it won’t cause acne). Dr. Holahan recommends applying a retinoid cream at night after washing and removing makeup.

“You can get a prescription for a retinoid cream, such as Retin-A, or try one of the over-the-counter versions, sold as Differin. Just use a pea-size amount for the whole face. This can help with gentle exfoliation, and it also has anti-aging properties,” Dr. Holahan says.

Avoiding Infection While Wearing Makeup

Touching your face, especially your eyes, mouth and nose, is a way to potentially introduce infectious agents into your body. That simple action can cause conjunctivitis, the infection known as pinkeye; blepharitis, which manifests as red, dry eyelids; herpes infections of the eyes, skin or mouth; and bacterial furunculosis, which causes large, painful nodules.

That’s why it’s important to wash your hands before applying makeup and not to share products or tools with others.

Pay special attention to your eyes.

“Do not put eyeliner in the inner rim of the lower eyelid. You are introducing not only product but also bacteria into the eye in the process, which may result in both inflammation and infection,” Dr. Holahan says.

And because the eyelid skin is the thinnest on the face, it’s best to avoid products that contain additives such as botanicals, oils or fragrances. These ingredients could lead to an irritation or an allergy. Always look for any harsh ingredients on the back of the product to be safe. Dr. Holahan says some red flags include:

  • MCI (methylchloroisothiazolinone) and MI (methylisothiazolinone), preservatives found in shampoos, makeup and many other products, which can cause significant skin allergies
  • Metals such as cobalt, aluminum and chromium, found in eye shadows, eyeliners and lipsticks, which can be irritating and cause allergies
  • Hyaluronic acid, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, and salicylic acid, found in anti-aging, exfoliant and anti-acne products, which can be very effective but can cause irritation for some

“Some products will say they’re natural or clean. Those words are marketing terms, and they are not governed by the FDA. So natural and clean doesn’t always mean safe,” Dr. Holahan says.

And if your lipstick tube or blush case is covered in dust under your vanity, rethink applying that product.

When to Discard Your Makeup

Makeup isn’t cheap, so it can be tempting to keep it for months or even years. But old makeup is more likely to harbor the germs that can hurt your skin and eyes.

Here’s when to discard some basic products:

  • Mascara and eyeliner: after three months
  • Eye shadow and blush: after six months
  • Foundation and lipstick: after a year

“Some of the warning signs that your makeup is getting old are chunky texture, it no longer applies well, change of color and smell. Some compare it to a gasoline smell or just a stale smell,” Dr. Holahan says.

Tools used to apply makeup can be the culprit for infections, too. Dr. Holahan recommends washing makeup brushes weekly. Mixing a couple of drops of baby shampoo or dishwashing soap with hot water is a simple way to do this. Scrub each brush to get rid of the old product that has collected throughout the week.

“If you don’t wash the brushes, staph bacteria and other types of bacteria will stay on them. If you have acne-prone skin and you’re using the same brush over and over on your face, you can spread that bacteria and worsen your acne,” Dr. Holahan says.

When to See a Dermatologist

If you deal with persistent irritation, itching or acne, a dermatologist can help you figure out what’s causing the problem. Patients can be evaluated in person or through a video virtual visit.

“If you’re getting painful irritation on one part of your face and it’s recurrent or itchy, contact your dermatologist because you might have developed an allergy,” Dr. Holahan says.

“We could help narrow down what you could be allergic to. Also, with those types of conditions, you’re scratching, itching and breaking the skin, so you are prone to infection and we want to get to the bottom of it.”

If you are experiencing any type of skin irritation, contact your dermatologist. If you don’t have one, you can find one here.