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Dirty Sponges and Makeup Brushes Could Make You Sick, Cautions Dermatologist — Here’s the Best Way to Clean Them

What you need to know + makeup artists reveal the best ways to clean every tool in your beauty arsenal

It’s easy to forget to clean our makeup brushes, especially when the tedious task is never at the top of our to do list. But dermatologists caution that sponges and brushes can be a breeding ground for potentially dangerous bacteria that can cause skin rashes — and worse. Makeup artists explain that dirty tools can produce uneven results, and clean tools just last longer. And, if you’re like us, you’ve never really understood just how often and how well you need to clean beauty helpers. Read on for the simple techniques that will leave your makeup tools squeaky clean and in turn you looking extra gorgeous the next time you use them.

Why it’s important to regularly clean makeup tools

1. It keeps skin (and you!) healthy

“The number one reason to clean your sponges and brushes is for the health of your skin,” says makeup artist Ashleigh Ciucci. That’s because makeup sponges and brushes “are a breeding ground for microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and an Associate Professor of Dermatology and the Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. In fact, studies have shown that bacteria like E. coli and staph are present at high levels in used brushes that have not been washed.

And skin that comes into contact with bacteria and fungus from contaminated tools can lead to breakouts, rashes and it “can increase the risk of infections to skin, eyes and lips,” adds Dr. Zeichner. He notes that this is especially true if you have any open or raw skin that comes in contact with unclean sponges or brushes. “In some cases, infections may be mild like impetigo, but they have the potential to spread to become more severe cellulitis.” 

2. It helps makeup apply properly

Dirty sponges and brushes can also effect the way your makeup applies. Applying makeup with clean tools allows makeup to go on more evenly and smoothly. While, unclean brushes and sponges can absorb products, making it difficult to get a flawless finish.

3. It helps the tools last longer

“Another reason is for the health of your tools, says Ciucci. “The better you care for your sponges and brushes, the longer they’ll last and the better they’ll work.” Excess dirt and oil can even break down sponges and the bristles of your brushes over time, causing them to become less effective and shed.

Thankfully, how to clean makeup sponges and brushes is easy — keep scrolling for the how-tos from Ciucci and celebrity makeup artist Jennifer Fleming.

How to clean makeup sponges

“Sponges are more likely to hold onto bacteria, so if you’re not keeping up with cleaning it will literally rot,” warns Ciucci. And when sponges are cleaned often, they “can last three to six months, depending on quality and frequency of use.” Ciucci advises cleaning makeup sponges after every use, but cleaning them once a week (or once every other week if you don’t use a sponge very often) will help prolong the tool’s life.

A variety of makeup sponges that are clean after learning how to clean makeup sponges

To clean makeup sponges, Ciucci recommends using an antibacterial foaming soap, like Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Foaming Hand Soap (Buy from Walmart, $4.88). Ciucci prefers using “antibacterial liquid soap for sponges because they’ll deep clean and sanitize.” Start by dampening the sponge with water, then add two pumps of soap to the palm of one hand. Next, place the damp sponge between hands and work the soap into the sponge using gentle, rolling motions for one minute, then rinse under water while squeezing the sponge. Repeat 1-2 more times until the sponge is visibly clean and the water coming out of the sponge is clear. Finish by squeezing out excess water and set on a paper towel to dry.

Check out the below video from YouTuber Kayleigh Noelle to see how easy it is to clean makeup sponges.

How to clean makeup brushes

Day-to-day, you can clean your brushes with a liquid cleanser or mild antibacterial soap to remove product and disinfect, says Ciucci. “Baby shampoo or fragrance-free liquid soap are my go-tos for cleaning my brushes,” says Fleming. These two household staples gently remove makeup from brushes and sponges without drying out the bristles or making a sponge feel stiff. She advises deep cleaning brushes with a brush cleanser or shampoo “every two weeks or once a month, depending on the weight of the product you use them for and how often you use them within a month.” That’s because “if you care for your brushes properly, they can last a lifetime,” she says. “However, when the bristles start to shed or if the brush starts to smell, it’s time to replace them.” 

Brunette woman holding a variety of makeup brushes

The best way to clean makeup brushes according to Flemming is to add a pea-size amount of a gentle soap or shampoo to the palm of one hand. Next, have warm water running from a sink and dampen the brush bristles. Then, gently swirl the bristles in the soap using circular motions. “You should rinse and repeat this step until the water runs clean,” she says. Then, carefully squeeze any excess water, and lay flat on a paper towel to dry. “A makeup artist tip is placing the brushes on a flat surface, leaving the fibers to slightly ‘hang’ over the surface’s edge,” shares Fleming. “This allows air to circulate the brushes, drying them evenly.”

To see this technique in action, check out the below video from makeup artist and YouTuber Eimear McElheron.

For extra dirty tools, try this pre-soak step

And some of the skin care products you have on hand can also help clean sponges and brushes. Fleming says she likes to “double-cleanse” her brushes by first soaking them in a shallow cup filled with micellar water, or a liquid makeup remover. “This helps break down any stubborn cream products before cleansing with soap,” she says. Tip: Olive oil and coconut oil can be used in place of makeup remover to help dissolve makeup prior to using soap or baby shampoo. And Ciucci is a fan of using face wash to suds up brushes because they also tend to be gentle on sponges and brushes.

The best makeup sponge and brush cleaning products

While household options work great to clean makeup sponges and brushes, makeup artists keep these affordable products in their kits to quickly and deep-clean their tools.

Product image of Cinema Secrets Makeup Brush Cleaner, a product that is used to clean makeup brushes and sponges
Cinema Secrets/Sephora

Cinema Secrets Makeup Brush Cleaner (Buy from Sephora, $24)

Ciucci says this product is “the holy grail of brush cleansers” as it has long been used by makeup artists on movie and TV show sets. “It instantly removes product and the alcohol disinfects and makes the brush dry super quickly,” she says. To use, Ciucci recommends adding small amount of the cleaner to a cup, then dip your brush in liquid and swirl it on a paper towel to clean off makeup.

Product image of beautyblender blendercleanser solid, a product that is used when how to clean makeup sponges

beautyblender blendercleanser solid (Buy from Sephora, $18)

This lavender-scented solid brush and sponge cleanser is Ciucci’s favorite foaming deep cleaner. “I find it’s the only thing that deep cleans sponges and rinses out easily and it is excellent for shampooing brushes,” she explains. “It even removes stains on blonde bristles.”

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