A dirty makeup brush isn’t just gross—it’s bad for your health, too.

By Colleen Sullivan and Wendy Rose Gould
Updated May 22, 2019
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When was the last time you washed your makeup brushes? Unfortunately, this often neglected task is vital not just to the integrity of your brushes but also your skin and general health.

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to clean your makeup brushes,” says Jillian Dempsey, a celebrity and editorial makeup artist who’s worked with Emilia Clarke, Kristen Stewart, and Julia Roberts, among others. “They accumulate bacteria, oil, and dead skin cells, which will clog your pores and also cause breakouts. Not to mention, leaving your brushes in bad form means they’re unable to perform as well as they would if cleaned and fresh.”

Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, an associate clinical professor at the department of dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center, agrees. In addition to poor brush performance and acne breakouts, Tanzi says you’re also putting yourself at risk for gnarly infections. “Bacteria, including staph and E. coli, along with viruses like the cold sore virus, can live on bristles for a long time,” she says. Read on for the best ways to keep your makeup brushes clean.

“The reality is, some people never wash their makeup brushes,” says Tanzi, who recommends cleaning makeup brushes at least once a month, ideally once a week. “Pick one night a week—mine is Sundays, a good day for doing chores before the week gets started—and take five minutes to clean your brushes,” says Los Angeles-based celebrity makeup artist Jo Baker.

Dempsey typically cleans her makeup brushes after two to three uses but says it’s fine to push it to once a week. She keeps a little makeup brush cleaner with her brushes to make it easier to create a brush-cleaning habit.

Dempsey’s recommended strategy for cleaning brushes is to use a spray brush cleaner, such as Sonia Kashuk Makeup Brush Cleaning Spray ($6, target.com). Alternatively, you can use warm water or a touch of bar or liquid soap.

“I gently massage the tips of the bristles in the palm of my hand or on a silicone brush cleansing mat, and then rinse the bristles, making sure the soap and product is 100 percent out,” she says. “Next, I gently squeeze out any remaining moisture with a towel. It’s important to then shape the brushes to their desired shape so that when they’re dry, they’re in their original form for a better performance.”

To clean makeup brushes fast, the Sigma Spa Express Brush Cleaning Mat ($25; nordstrom.com) expedites the process via patented textures that help pull product off each brush more efficiently. For a similar but smaller version, try the MelodySusie Brushegg ($5 for two; amazon.com).

You might have heard about the shampoo cleaning hack for makeup brushes, which is another option. You can use baby shampoo or a gentle shampoo, such as Neutrogena Anti-Residue Shampoo ($5, amazon.com). Or you can use shampoo made specifically for makeup brushes, such as EcoTools Makeup Brush Shampoo ($8, ulta.com). You can even condition your brushes with a touch of hair conditioner.

Always point your brushes downward when washing and never allow a wet brush to dry standing up, as the water will run into the ferrule—the metal band that attaches the brushes to the handle—and loosen the glue that holds the brush and bristles together. Instead, lay your makeup brushes down flat on a clean towel or hang them upside down with a product like the JackCube Design Bamboo Brush Makeup Cosmetic Air-Drying Rack ($18, amazon.com).

If you use a brush to apply liquid foundation, blush, concealer, or other wet products, you’ll want to clean it after every use. You can use the regular washing technique outlined above, but there are also a few quickie solutions for in between proper cleanings. To help dissolve pigments, oil buildup, and dead skin cells, you can wipe makeup brushes down with a makeup removing towelette, such as EcoTools Makeup Brush Cleansing Cloths ($8, ulta.com), or spritz them with a rinse-free spray cleanser, like Cinema Secrets Makeup Brush Cleaner Spray ($9; amazon.com).

Use the same process to clean your Beautyblender and reusable makeup sponges. (When thoroughly washing with water, you’ll want to squeeze them throughout the cleansing process to ensure all liquid product has been removed.)

When creating a multi-color eye look, it doesn’t really make sense to clean your eyeshadow brush between every single color. Fortunately, there’s a tool for that. Alison Raffaele Tatem, a makeup artist based in New York City, says you can swipe your brush against a textured sponge to remove powder between shades. “The rough consistency of the sponge will remove pigment from your bristles so you can switch palettes without having to switch brushes,” she says. Try Sephora Collection Color Switch By Vera Mona Brush Cleaner ($18, sephora.com).

If you’re looking for a shortcut, you do have a few automated options (and no, you can’t clean your makeup brushes in the washing machine). The E-Senior Makeup Brush Cleaner and Dryer Automatic Spinner ($21.99, amazon.com) takes out most of the muscle work for you, and the Lilumia 2 Makeup Brush Cleaner Device ($119, amazon.com) only requires you to push a single button to clean your makeup brushes.

Your makeup brushes will last longer if you store them correctly when not in use. “Store your brushes in a closed container to prevent pollutants like dust and dirt from landing on the bristles and eventually onto your skin,” Tanzi says. You can keep them in a clean makeup bag or pencil case with other clean brushes, or in an acrylic makeup organizer, like the MUJI Acrylic Stackable Drawer ($52.50, amazon.com).

Well-made makeup brushes that are washed consistently and dried properly can last for many years. Signs that they’re ready to be tossed include bristles that keep falling out, foul odors, frayed bristles, bristles that can’t be reshaped, or gunkiness that won’t come out with cleaning.

“A set of high-quality makeup brushes should be considered an investment,” says Michiko Boorberg, a New York City-based makeup artist. “Treat your tools with respect by cleaning and caring for them properly and they will last a very long time.”