How to clean makeup brushes

This is how to give your brushes a deep, pro-level clean (and why it’s so important)

When was the last time you washed your makeup brushes? Yeah, us too. Somehow, even though we know dirty makeup brushes can cause breakouts and are all round a bit grim, there’s very few (if any) of us who can say hand-on-heart that we wash our face tools as regularly as we should. It’s hardly surprising; it’s a boring bit of beauty admin that is all too easily pushed the the wayside. Plus, it means leaving your brushes to dry for 12 hours, during which time they are out of action.

However, if your brushes currently caked in makeup and you can’t see the original colour of the bristles anymore… the time has probably come to face up to the fact they need a good clean.

“Layers of oil from your skin, mixed with makeup pigments and dead skin cells, make brushes a breeding ground for bacteria,” reveals makeup artist, Caroline Barnes, which you can probably guess isn’t exactly good news for your skin…

What using dirty brushes does to your skin

“If you are one of those people that does all the right things and yet can’t understand why you have rashes and spots, take a look at the tools you use to apply your products with,” says Lynne Sanders, cosmetic scientist and founder of Cosmetics a La Carte.

Daily grime from our makeup brushes can cause breakouts, congestion and skin irritation. The same goes for your beauty blender, too. That bouncy sponge can harbour just as much filth (if not more) than a brush and should be cleaned regularly, as well as replaced every three months. “Sponges are a no-go for the makeup pro, says Caroline. “I avoid using sponges as pigments and grease wedge themselves deep inside so they never look or feel totally clean.”

Sharing unclean makeup applicators is the ultimate sin, and virus-spreader – it can lead to cold sores and conjunctivitis – which is why the pros clean their brushes after every use.

Alongside rendering your brush limp and less effective, dirt has been said to accelerate ageing. “There are no clinical studies to confirm this, but in theory, dirty makeup brushes may contribute to collagen and elastin breakdown and oxidative skin stress from free radicals – all of which are factors in premature skin ageing,’ reveals dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams. Gulp.


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What’s on our brushes?

Word or warning: you might want to skip this bit unless you’ve got a strong stomach, because it’s pretty gross.

“Under the microscope, you may see the remains of mites on your brushes,” reveals Lynne. “Most of us have these tiny creatures, about a third of a millimetre long, residing at the base of our eyelashes and nose hairs, living off old skin cells and sebum. They’re generally considered harmless, but they may be implicated in acne.”

Also, invisible to the naked eye, is “bacteria such as staphylococcus, streptococcus and e-coli, as well as fungi,” says Stefanie. It sounds scary but, “the majority of these are not harmful if you have balanced skin with its natural protective acid mantle intact,” reassures Lynne. Still, best no to risk it, eh?

Does it make a difference which brush it is?

“Bacteria and fungi prefer wet to dry conditions, so foundation brushes may accumulate micro-organisms quicker than dry powder brushes,” explains Stefanie. Treat brushes you use to apply liquid textures to an extra wash or wipe. “At least two to three times a week, versus once a week for powder brushes,” suggests Lynne. And store brushes in a cool, dry place, preferably in their own bag. Avoid warm, damp bathrooms, where bacteria will have a party.

Synthetic brushes are the low maintenance choice – easy to clean and longer-lasting. Good quality ones should last 5-10 years. Many also offer anti-bacterial protection, like Look Good Feel Better’s Anti-bacterial Brush Set, £35. Natural bristles are porous so can be more high maintenance. “They become limp and useless if not washed. As the grease builds up, the bristles are unable to blend so makeup looks patchy,” says Caroline

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How to clean your makeup brushes step-by-step

Our experts have shared their top advice for getting a pro-level clean, which not only will ensure beautifully hygienic brushes, it’ll also improve the application.

1. Wash
“Hand wash brushes with an anti-bacterial soap or silicone-free baby shampoo in lukewarm water. Washing up liquid is acceptable only as a last resort. It strips the brushes of all grease, but it can be harsh on the natural hair long term,” says Caroline. “Dip each brush individually under the running water, and then into a bowl of gentle shampoo or soap and rub gently with fingers to get a good lather for a few minutes,” says makeup pro Christabel Draffin.

2. Swirl
“Hold brushes under running water, checking until there’s no lather left on it. Hold for a further 2-3 seconds, ensuring they are sparkling clean,” says Christabel. “If I’m in a rush, I use the Express Brush Washing Mat (£29) from Sigma. It has saved me hours of brush washing time as you swirl brushes over the tiny plastic teeth on the mat and it cleans them in at least half the time.” Another clever tool? Stylpro’s Brush Cleanser (£34.99). Swirl your brush in the bowl to clean, then watch it spin dry in seconds. “It’s a brush cleaner’s dream,” says Caroline.

3. Repeat
“If there is still residue on the brush, I repeat the process. If not, I squeeze the water out of the brush and lay it flat on a towel next to the sink to dry,” says Christabel. This ensures the water doesn’t drain into the handle and rot the wood or remove the glue. “I also like to spray them with lavender so they smell fabulous,” adds Caroline.

4. Dry
After all of the brushes are washed, I lay them in a neat row underneath the radiator (if you stack them on top of each other, they don’t dry properly and smell strange – not good!)

Can’t I just throw my makeup brushes in the washing machine?

Sadly, the washing machine is not an acceptable shortcut. “The heat of the machine will break down the glue that holds the brush to the handle,” explains Caroline. So best to stick to the method above.

Cleaning your brushes may be one more chore to add to the weekly cleaning rota, but hey there’s a winning payoff. Clean your brushes regularly, and your skin will improve.

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