Is Your Makeup Contaminated With Superbugs?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

cosmetic contamination

Story at-a-glance -

  • An analysis of 467 donated, used makeup products showed that up to 90% were contaminated with bacteria, some of which were associated with fecal contamination
  • The worst offenders were contoured blending sponges; researchers found 93% had never been cleaned and two-thirds had been dropped on the floor
  • Personal care and cosmetic products may also be manufactured with toxic chemicals the European Union regulates, but the U.S. does not
  • You may reduce your potential contamination by routinely cleaning applicators, ensuring they are dry before storage, throwing out mascara and eyeliner after three months and storing your cosmetics outside the bathroom

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published their first Antibiotic Resistance Threats Report in 2013 with the intention of sounding the alarm to the dangers of antibiotic resistance. Experts have been warning about the advent of superbugs for decades, which is the term coined by the media for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The resistance happens when bacteria begin to adapt to the chemicals and drugs in the environment making treatment less effective. When bacteria become resistant, treatment is ineffective. In the first CDC report it was estimated 2 million antibiotic-resistant infections in 2013 were responsible for 23,000 deaths.

However, the 2019 report calculates this data missed nearly half the cases and deaths. New estimates find 3 million each year are infected and 35,000 die. Still other researchers believe this number is too low and a true number is likely much higher. The 2019 report identified the secondary infection linked to the use of antibiotics, Clostridioides difficile (C. diff).

This infection triggers deadly diarrhea after antibiotics have upset the natural balance of bacteria in the digestive system. If the number of deaths attributed to C. diff are added to the 2019 totals, 48,000 deaths may be attributed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The CDC has linked misuse of antibiotics to the impressive rise in resistant infections.

Superbugs may be found in the hospital and community where they increase your risk of a potentially deadly infection. Anyone with a compromised immune system is at greater risk of infection, including children, those who are ill and the elderly.

How Contaminated Are Your Cosmetics?

Research published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology1 addresses the extent of contamination in cosmetics, including lip and eye products as well as beauty blenders. The goal was to identify the risks consumers in the U.K. may experience using these cosmetic products.

The study team tested donated, used products and found that 79% to 90% of all the products were contaminated. They found Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Citrobacter freundii, as well as fungi and Enterobacteriaceae in the makeup.

These types of bacteria may trigger illness and infections when they come in contact with your eyes, mouth or near breaks in the skin. The researchers believe consumers are unwittingly putting themselves at risk for infection and illness by using products that are past their expiration date.2

The EU guidelines adhere to strict standards to prevent the contamination of new cosmetics, in particular concentrations of E. coli, but there is limited protection for consumers after the products have been opened and are in use. The shelf life or expiration of a product is the amount of time you may expect the product to act as expected and be safe to use.

When a product expires may vary depending on several factors, including how it's stored, the type of product and how it's used. The researchers expressed concern U.K. consumers may be at a greater risk after Brexit as they will no longer have the protection of EU regulations and may be purchasing more products from the U.S. where regulations are lax.

For instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,3 responsible for regulating the industry, does not require cosmetics to have a specific shelf life or have printed expiration dates on products. The FDA considers "determining a product's shelf life to be part of the manufacturer's responsibility."

The law doesn't require manufacturers to share their testing or tracking information. In other words, the FDA has made manufacturers responsible for the safety of the products they sell, which allows them to regulate themselves.

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Beauty Blenders Worst Offenders

The researchers evaluated 467 individual items,4 including beauty blenders — contoured blending sponges used to apply makeup foundation. The data revealed the highest level of harmful bacteria on these sponges, which may be the result of the products being put away damp after use, creating a perfect area for bacteria to multiply.

Additionally, the researchers found two-thirds of the users reported dropping the sponges on the floor at some time during use, but 93% of the beauty blenders had never been cleaned. Amreen Bashir, Ph.D., from Aston University was lead researcher and commented on the results:5

"Consumers' poor hygiene practices when it comes to using make-up, especially beauty blenders, is very worrying when you consider that we found bacteria such as E.coli - which is linked with fecal contamination - breeding on the products we tested.

More needs to be done to help educate consumers and the make-up industry as a whole about the need to wash beauty blenders regularly and dry them thoroughly, as well as the risks of using make-up beyond its expiry date."

The researchers wrote this study is the first in which scientists have looked at the relatively new beauty blender products, which are often endorsed by celebrities. The researchers concluded:6 "Significant levels of microbial contamination occur during use of cosmetic products and presence of pathogenic organisms pose a potential risk to health."

Your Makeup May Also Contain Poisons

Personal care and cosmetic products are notorious for the number of chemicals used in their creation and manufacture. You might be surprised to learn the average American woman uses 12 distinct personal care products each day, which combined contain nearly 168 different chemicals.

While the EU proactively regulates the number of chemicals their consumers are exposed to, the U.S. does not. Personal care products reach the store shelves without authorization by any federal agency and only after harm has been demonstrated may the FDA take action. Unfortunately, this has led to a large number of dangerous chemicals in cosmetics marketed to the public.

In one study, researchers enrolled 100 young women in a community-based research intervention study to determine if using products with lower levels of chemicals such as parabens, triclosan, phthalates and phenols could result in lower urinary concentrations. Before the start of the study, researchers found 90% of the participants had detectable levels of phthalates, parabens and BP-3.

After using alternative products labeled paraben- and phthalate-free for three days, the concentrations reduced by over 40% for parabens and over 27% for monoethyl phthalates. Unfortunately, there were increases of butyl and ethyl parabens detected in nearly half the participants, suggesting these may have been contaminants in the cosmetics or unlabeled ingredients.

This supports a further study in which researchers evaluated 49 different makeup items and found serious heavy metal contamination in nearly all the products analyzed. Contaminants included lead, beryllium, thallium, cadmium and arsenic.

In 2015, the Personal Care Products Safety Act was first proposed to Congress as an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-California and Susan Collins, R-Maine. The bill included a system requiring manufacturers to register their products and ingredients, requiring the FDA to review five chemicals in personal care products each year for safety.

However, the bill was never approved. It was reintroduced in May 2017 and again in March 2019. Unfortunately, Skopos Labs for GovTrack estimates only a 3% chance the bill will be enacted as a result of the March 2019 introduction.7

Strategies You Can Use to Prevent Contamination

It is important to take precautions to prevent your cosmetics and personal care products from becoming contaminated with bacteria to reduce your potential risk of a skin infection. Keeping your beauty blenders clean and dry between uses is especially important as the data showed these were prone to bacterial growth, including bacteria commonly found in feces.

How you use your cosmetics and the precautions you take are integral to the shelf life of your products.8 Cosmetics can degrade or breakdown over time related to use and storage. Here are some precautions to reduce your risk of infection and extend the life of your cosmetics:9,10

Ensure anything you use to apply your makeup is dry and clean before dipping into the product. Wet fingers or applicators may add bacteria and other pathogens.

Most makeup is manufactured with preservatives that break down over time, increasing the risk of bacterial growth. Look for an expiration date. A better choice is to seek out safe makeup products from the Environmental Working Group (EWG)11 and heed the expiration dates.

Applicators for mascara and eyeliner are exposed to bacteria with each use, which are then reintroduced to the product. Purchase small sized products and use mascara and eyeliner only for three months before disposing of it. Mascara and eyeliner have the shortest shelf life since they are exposed to bacteria with each use and are moist. If it smells strange before three months, it's time to buy new products.

If your mascara dries out, don't add water or saliva as this introduces bacteria.

Store your makeup in a room with low humidity, which means outside the bathroom where a daily hot shower causes consistent temperature changes and rising humidity can affect bacterial growth.

Do not share makeup with anyone, even those in your immediate family. This easily spreads bacteria and increases the bacterial load in your products.

Keep your applicators clean, washing beauty blenders with soap and water and allowing them to dry with each use. Brushes and other applicators should also be routinely washed and dried.

Purchase your products only from trusted vendors. If you are purchasing online buy directly from the manufacturer or licensed distributor to reduce the potential you are sold a fake product that may be past the expiration date, tampered with or diluted.

If you develop an eye infection or skin infection on your face, stop using all your makeup, especially eye makeup. Seek medical attention quickly to reduce the potential of an infection that may lead to loss of eyesight.

Proper Hand-Washing Helps Prevents Spread of Infection

E. coli is one of the bacteria researchers found in contaminated makeup. Some scientists call it the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of bacteria since there's such a wide spectrum ranging from harmless to fatal. Hand-washing is one of the primary strategies you may use to prevent the spread of disease, yet several studies have found many of those who use a public restroom leave without washing their hands.

In a study by the U.S. military, after two years of using proper hand-washing techniques, 45% of the participants had fewer respiratory illnesses. It is important to wash your hands before putting on makeup and to routinely clean your makeup applicators. Using the correct technique helps reduce the number of harmful bacteria. To be truly effective, consider using the following guidelines.

Use warm, running water and a mild soap. You do NOT need antibacterial soap, and this has been scientifically verified. Even those from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration state "There is currently no evidence that [antibacterial soaps] are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.

Further, some data suggest long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products — for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps) — could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects."

Start with wet hands, add soap and work up a good lather, all the way up to your wrists, scrubbing for at least 15 or 20 seconds (most people only wash for about six seconds). A good way to time this is to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.

Make sure you cover all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and around and below your fingernails. Rinse thoroughly under running water.

Thoroughly dry your hands, ideally using a paper towel. In public places, also use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs the handles may harbor.