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How to use and when to toss makeup, from the experts

Ronda Cornelius / Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT)

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 ("pink eye").

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 below).

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 Mission, Kan.

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 says.

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 says.

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 says.

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 Crowder says.

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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