How to use and when to
toss makeup, from the experts
Ronda Cornelius / Knight Ridder
When makeup goes bad, things can get ugly.
It's rare, but possible, that contaminated cosmetics can
cause irritation and infection and even – in extremely
rare cases of untreated eye infections – blindness.
But you knew that. And you probably know, too, when to throw
cosmetics out, and why, and what you need to do to keep your
daily routine safe – right?
Well, maybe we could all use a little refresher course.
The Kansas City Star called and asked for insight from area
dermatologists, ophthalmologists, skin-care specialists in
salons and at cosmetic counters as well as the Food and Drug
Administration, which regulates cosmetics after they have
been released to the marketplace, and the Cosmetic, Toiletry
and Fragrance Association, a trade organization. Here are the
answers to some questions you might have:
Q. How do I know if my makeup is still good?
A. Cosmetics aren't required by law to have expiration
dates, so you can't just look at the label to know when a
product is iffy at best. Experts vary in their keep-it,
toss-it guidelines, but they all agree that mascara lasts the
shortest amount of time and is the likeliest to cause
problems, including eye infections such as conjunctivitis
Hardly anything can be done to lessen the contamination of
mascara once you use the wand on your lashes and shove it
back into its dark, moist, bacteria-breeding container.
"Mascara is definitely the main offender," says
Melissa Cable, who works as an ophthalmologist in the Kansas
City area with Discover Vision Centers.
She recommends tossing mascara after as little as three
months. Others say toss it after two.
(How do you know whether you might have an eye infection,
from eye makeup or another source? If you have any change in
vision, especially blurred vision, pain or a discharge in the
eye, call your eye doctor immediately, Cable says.)
Other general guidelines: Dump eyeliner, eye creams and face
creams after six months or so. Toss liquid cosmetics, such as
foundations, every year (some advise after four to six
months). Lipsticks and pencils? One to two years. Powdered
products, such as eye shadow, blush and face powder can last
longer – up to three or more years. But those
guidelines depend on how sloppily you use the products (see
If you don't know when you bought a product, you can
gauge its safety with a critical sniff `n' look.
"If it smells, that's a huge tip-off that you should
not be using that product," says Babette Crowder, owner
of Babette beauty boutique in Lawrence, Kan.
Likewise, if the product has changed color or consistency, is
cakey or has separated, then it's time to toss it.
Note however that some products, such as makeup base, darken
a little naturally as you use them because of oxidation, says
Doug Sheward, co-manager of Terry Binn Skincare Inc. in
Q. How and why does makeup go bad?
A. Makeup preservatives should kill common-use bacteria. But,
as FDA studies show, a little bacteria is usually present in
makeup before you buy it. And then, as soon as you open your
new product, airborne bacteria rushes in. Then you usually
add bacteria yourself by touching the product with unclean
hands or with an unclean applicator or brush. But as gross as
that may sound, it's usually not a health risk.
"For a normal, healthy person, a small amount of
bacteria is not a problem," says Thelda Kestenbaum,
associate professor of medicine and full-time dermatologist
at University of Kansas Medical Center. That's especially
true if you have a healthy immune system and intact skin, she
There is a higher risk for infection from contaminated
products if you have a non-intact skin condition, such as
active eczema. And, if you already have some sort of
infection, such as herpes simplex on the lips, using
contaminated applicators could spread it. If you think you
might have contaminated your cosmetics from non-intact skin
conditions or infections, you should toss them, or cut off
the top layer of your lip balm, for example.
If you have an eye infection, throw out the particular eye
makeup you were using when you discovered the infection and
stay away from eye makeup altogether for a week or two, Cable
At some point, aging cosmetics lose their effectiveness to
fight bacteria no matter how careful you are when using it.
When makeup's active ingredients and stabilizers break
down because of age, makeup's risk of carrying an
infection is much greater, says Mark McCune, dermatologist
and cosmetic dermatologic surgeon with Kansas City
Dermatology in Overland Park, Kan.
Q. How can I lessen the contamination of my makeup (and
extend its use)?
A. Use common sense – don't share your makeup with
others (you don't want to share their bacteria) and
(yuck!) don't spit in your makeup. Also, don't add
water to liquid cosmetics such as foundation for two reasons:
The water has bacteria in it, and adding water can upset the
chemical formula of the makeup. A changed consistency can
lead to unpredictable results, McCune says.
Basic hygiene is key: Before applying makeup, wash your face
and hands with soap.
"It's simple, and nothing beats it," Kestenbaum
Also, instead of directly touching your makeup, as in
sticking your fingers into the product, pour a little out
into your palm or scoop a little out with a disposable spoon
or use a disposable applicator or something similar.
If you use brushes, wash them regularly. "They can
certainly be a store for infection," Cable says.
Shelley Palubicki, who works with the Smashbox cosmetic line
at the Halls Plaza cosmetic counters in Kansas City, Mo.,
recommends washing brushes once or twice a month (synthetic
brushes more often) with a gentle shampoo, then laying them
flat to dry so that the bristles don't break.
Or, you can do as salons do, in between customers: Use
sanitizing sprays. Stylists at Terry Binn Skincare Inc., for
example, use an aptly named product called "Quick Dry
Cosmetic Brush Cleanser," which costs about $10 for 2
ounces, that lasts for months, says co-manager Sheward.
If you want to be especially thorough, Sheward says, you
usually can wash your reusable sponges and face shammies in a
"lingerie bag" in the washing machine. (Don't
put them in the dryer.)
Another simple tip: If you use a powder compact, store the
puff with the used side away from the pressed powder, Babette
Refrigerating cosmetics is not necessary, says Irene Malbin,
vice president of public affairs for the Cosmetic, Toiletry
and Fragrance Association. To prolong the life of your
cosmetics, however, you should avoid exposing them to extreme
temperatures, she says.
"Cosmetics are formulated to stay in good shape,"
she says. "If you keep them under reasonable conditions,
they'll do just fine."
The bottom line?
Yes, makeup costs a lot and maybe you will never find that
shade again. But at least toss that mascara regularly, and if
you have a drawer of 10-year-old makeup, maybe it's time
for a fresh look anyway. You could always try something new,
and if you don't like it, you can toss it, too.
As Babette Crowder says: "The good thing about makeup is
that it washes off."
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