From the time we’re children, we’re innately resistant to the dreaded task of cleaning up. No matter how tidy and organized your parents are, it’s almost a universal given that if your parents ask you to clean your room and you probably had a good long whine about it internally.
Even as we get older and realize that keeping our living space clean is actually a good thing we should do more often and more thoroughly, and even if you appreciate a tidy space… very few people are excited to clean (and if you are one of those people, well. We’re both jealous and slightly fearful of you).
There’s also this frustrating thing that happens as we get older where we realize there are so many more things that need to be cleaned than we ever truly realized growing up (someone has to clean the baseboards? Surely not).
Among those tasks that seem to multiply as we get older and our lives get more complicated is cleaning things like your makeup brushes. We know, we know—and you thought your makeup cleaning routine began and ended with how to remove your long-wearing Micro Precision Pen before bed.
If you didn’t wear much makeup growing up, or never really had consistent makeup brushes you used, how to clean your makeup brushes may not be a step-by-step process that comes intuitively to you—not to mention the fact that you may not know how often to clean your makeup brushes in the first place!
If your hygiene routine needs a bit of a facelift when it comes to caring for all of your cosmetic accouterments, don’t worry—you’re not alone, and we’ve totally got your back.
Why Do Your Makeup Brushes Need To Be Cleaned?
If you somehow made it all through your teen years of cheap drugstore makeup and passing your cosmetics around between friends without cleaning your brushes and avoided breakouts or bacteria, congratulations! You seriously dodged a bullet.
You may be the neatest person in the entire world with an unbelievable skincare routine and never have a speck of dirt on your face… and still, your makeup brushes are likely to get dirty. All those bristles end up built up with product buildup, residue from concealers, powders, and more, oil from your skin as well as any dirt or bacteria that may be hanging around, just waiting to set up shop in your pores. All the face cleansing in the world can’t save your skin from the grime of your brush heads!
It’s even possible that using dirty makeup brushes can lead to infections like staph, E. coli, or even a fungal infection. So while you may have been able to get by without a plan for how to clean your makeup brushes, you’re definitely putting yourself and your skin at unnecessary risk!
How Often Do Your Makeup Brushes Need To Be Cleaned?
It may seem like overkill, but we promise it’s not. You should ideally be cleaning your makeup brushes completely at least once a week with warm water and leaving them to air-dry. It’s also important to sanitize or use a quick cleanser in between every use if you want to make sure you’re keeping all of the nasties that can accumulate on your brushes at bay.
If you tend to break out or notice your skin gets irritated when you wear a lot of makeup, you might have assumed it’s a reaction to heavy cosmetics. But in fact, it could be due to less-than-pristine brushes! If your skin is acne-prone or sensitive, it’s worth getting into the habit of washing your brushes completely twice a week to keep things as gentle and clean as possible.
This cleaning schedule should be amped up if you ever share your makeup brushes. You should definitely give them a thorough clean any time a friend borrows your brushes, or you use them to do somebody else’s makeup (like the makeup artist you are).
You probably have noticed if you’ve ever gotten your makeup done that technicians tend to use disposable brushes, or keep some sort of sanitizer formula close at hand. This is to make sure everything is hygienic and that nothing potentially harmful or irritating comes into contact with your skin. You should do the same!
Another exception to the once (or twice!) a week rule is cleaning makeup sponges. While these little guys are game-changers when it comes to even application and ease of use, their porous nature combined with the fact that you have to get them damp when you use them actually makes them a breeding ground for things like bacteria and mold.
You should wash a makeup sponge every single time you use it without fail, and allow it to sit out so it can dry completely before you use it again.
What Are Your Options?
Although the step-by-step guide for cleaning your makeup brushes effectively remains the same (more on that in a sec!) there are actually three main options for how you approach the job.
1. Keep It Simple
Rather than shelling out for a specialized cleaner, you can keep your brush cleaning routine simple. You will, however, want to be careful about the ingredients. Baby shampoo with simple ingredients can work well (you can also use vinegar or castile soap for this) because it’s designed to get rid of grime from natural hair already. A brush isn’t really that different!
You can also make your own cleanser by mixing olive oil and your favorite dish soap. Dish soap is great for disinfecting and getting rid of any bacteria that may have taken up residence in your brush, and as you know if you’re a devotee of oil-based cleansers, oil is great for removing makeup clinging to the bristles.
While you can effectively choose whichever products you’d like on this front, it’s important to remember that the brushes will, once they’re washed and dried, make close contact with your face. So if you tend to be reactive to scented products, for instance, you’re going to want to find an unscented dish soap or shampoo to use to wash your brushes. You’ll also probably want to avoid any product made out of things that you wouldn’t otherwise put on your face.
2. Use Specialized Brush Cleaner
If you’re more of the DIY type, you’ll want to purchase a cleaner specifically formulated for cleaning and disinfecting your brushes. Much like the DIY option, however, you’ll want to take a good look at the ingredients that go into your chosen cleanser, and make sure there isn’t anything you know you’re sensitive to.
Dedicated brush cleansers are great because they’re made to remove every bit of dirt and bacteria from your brushes, so you can trust that you’re getting a full-on clean when you use them.
3. Get a Cleaning Tool
Whatever you choose for your brush cleaner, you also have the option of purchasing a tool that’s specifically made to help you get every last bit of grossness out of your makeup brushes. There’s a wide variety of tools for this purpose, although a lot of them tend to look like bristled gloves—the kind of thing you’d otherwise imagine using to do the dishes or give your body a good exfoliation.
These tools can be useful when it comes to really getting between the bristles and making sure that your cleanser is being used to its fullest potential, and not missing any nooks and crannies. You can of course get your brushes clean as a whistle without the help of a dedicated tool—but it certainly helps.
How To Clean Makeup Brushes
Choosing which technique to use can feel a bit high stakes, especially once you’ve processed the havoc dirty makeup brushes can wreak on your skin. But much like choosing a hair color (or an eyebrow color!) it really just comes down to personal preference. But once you’ve made a decision as far as products and technique goes, it’s time to think about the actual process of how to clean makeup brushes.
Step One: Lather
This step should be pretty intuitive! You’ll want to get some lukewarm water to start. While it seems intuitive to just hold your brush under the faucet, we actually wouldn’t recommend that—you want to avoid getting your brushes wet while held upside down.
This can allow water to get into the metal bit that holds the bristles together. Not only can it potentially dissolve the glue that holds your brush together over time, but depending on how your brush is put together, it can get stuck in little crevices and create mold or other issues.
So you have your lukewarm water in a container, or in your (clean!) sink. Next, you’ll want to add a dime-sized portion of your chosen cleanser into your hand. Swirl the wet bristles of your brush around the soapy palm of your hand. This step can be really satisfying if you start to see residual makeup coming out in the suds.
Step Two: Rinse and Repeat
As with your hair, you’ll want to rinse your brush again in lukewarm water, and then repeat the first step over again. When you rinse your brush, you’ll be able to see all the dirt and makeup that’s running off of it. If you haven’t cleaned your brushes in a while—no judgment—you’ll want to continue to repeat these steps until the water runs clear. That way, you can be sure you got out everything that shouldn't be there.
Step Three: Get Rid of Excess Water
Now you’ve solved one problem: your brush is clean of any dirt, makeup, or bacteria that might have been aggravating your skin. Hooray! But you have another problem. Especially if you’ve repeated the first steps multiple times, your brush is likely supersaturated with water. Since it’s important to wait for your brush to dry out completely before you use it again, you might be worried about it drying by morning.
The best way to treat your brushes after washing them is much like the initial process, sort of how you’d handle your hair, depending on your hair type. You’ll want to squeeze the bristles out with your hand until there aren’t any drips left. Then pat the bristles dry with a towel. Make sure you don’t push the bristles out of their intended alignment or push backward on them—this can break them or bend them out of shape. Be gentle!
Step Four: Dry
No, we’re not about to tell you to whip out your hairdryer. It’s important that your brushes dry completely and no water gets trapped anywhere in the brush. After squeezing out any excess liquid, you’ll want to lay your brushes flat to dry by resting them on a paper towel or clean hand towel.
It’s ideal if you do your brush washing in the morning after using them so that they have all day and all night to dry completely before you put them to use again. Even better if you wash them the night before a day where you’re planning on going makeup-free! There unfortunately isn’t any safe way to speed up the drying process, so just be patient.
While how to wash makeup brushes isn’t exactly a topic covered in home ec, it’s a crucial part of wearing makeup. Dirty brushes can have a hugely negative impact on your skin—and we don’t just mean bristled brushes.
You also need to wash makeup sponges, any makeup spoolie even if it inserts into the original package, and even those tiny brushes you use for eyeshadow! Anything that touches your face, really, should be kept as clean as possible, so that you can be sure your complexion remains as bright as you are inside.
Shop the Look
It’s important to wash any makeup applicators you own on a regular basis! Some of the products we’ve mentioned in this article include…
How to Clean Your Makeup Brushes | American Academy of Dermatology Association
Prevention of Recurrent Staphylococcal Skin Infections | US National Library of Medicine
Guide to Cleaning and Disinfecting Equipment for the Body Art, Beauty and Nail Industries | Government of Western Australia Department of Health