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The best way to clean makeup brushes

Learn how to clean and condition your makeup brushes with these expert tips.
Professional makeup brushes
“Dirt, oil and bacteria can transfer to your makeup brushes from your skin, causing acne breakouts, skin irritation or even spread infections,” Joshua Zeichner told TODAY.Alamy stock
/ Source: TODAY

Let's be honest: Can you remember the last time you washed your makeup brushes? Still thinking? Don’t feel bad because you’re definitely not alone.

Besides the obvious ick factor, there are some important reasons why you should break this sloppy beauty habit ASAP. Product buildup and residue shortens a brush’s life span — not to mention, it sabotages your ability to apply makeup with precision, which is the whole point of using a brush in the first place.

“We end up throwing brushes away because it’s too late to salvage them by the time we get to them. Neglect that $20 brush and it will quickly end up looking like a stack of mottled hay,” Francesca Roman, a makeup artist at Butterfly Studio Salon in New York City, told TODAY Style.

Messy tools can also harm your complexion. “Dirt, oil and bacteria can transfer to your makeup brushes from your skin, causing acne breakouts, skin irritation or even spread infections,” said Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. More specifically, your bad brush hygiene can trigger a distinct type of breakout called “pomade acne."

“It’s traditionally found along the hairline in people who use pomade. All the pimples look the same, as if they all popped up at once,” Zeichner said.

So, how often do you really need to wash your brushes to keep them — and your complexion — in great shape? We asked the pros for advice on how they keep their tools tidy, and which new products will make the beauty chore a little less tedious. Happy cleaning!

How often should you clean your makeup brushes?

Most professionals agree that you should wash your brushes at least once a month. “I usually shoot for the first of the month because it’s easy to remember that way,” said Fiona Stiles, a Los Angeles-based celebrity makeup artist. So set a calendar date on your phone, and stick with it!

How to clean makeup brushes

Option 1: Use a special brush cleanser.

While you can certainly DIY with other detergents, the experts we spoke to agree that a brush-specific formula is still the most efficient way to clean your tools without risking any long-term damage. Check out these two great makeup brush cleaner options to try at home.

General Pencil The Masters Brush Cleaner & Preserver

Stiles entrusts her more delicate brushes to Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver. “I’ve been using it for over a decade and I’ve had many of my brushes for longer than that, thanks to this effective but gentle product,” she said.

Japonesque Solid Brush Cleanser

Another one of the best makeup brush cleaners is the Japonesque Solid Brush Cleanser, a travel-friendly, solid balm that makes washing your brushes a cinch. Swirl a wet brush head over the surface, and the coconut formula transforms into foamy lather that dissolves makeup while keeping bristles soft and conditioned.

Option 2: Clean your makeup brushes with shampoo.

For a makeup brush cleaner DIY, simply fill a glass or your sink about a quarter of the way up with warm water and add a tablespoon of of mild baby shampoo or a high-quality clarifying shampoo. “Submerge half of the brush head into the water without getting the base wet, and swish away for a few minutes before rinsing,” said Roman.

Option 3: Clean your synthetic makeup brushes with dish soap.

Ever notice how hard it is to clean your concealer, foundation or lipstick brushes? Creamy, emollient-based makeup is very stubborn and difficult to remove, notes Stiles. She suggests Dawn or Palmolive to get those synthetic brushes squeaky clean. “Regular dish-washing detergent is great at breaking down oils and removing all of the makeup and bacteria.”

Lay your makeup brushes flat to dry

No matter which method you use, always remember lay your makeup brushes flat to dry. Put a towel on the counter and arrange your brushes with the bristles hanging over the edge so they air dry faster. “If you dry them with the bristles upright in a cup, the water will eventually dissolve the glue and the brush head will separate from the handle,” said Stiles.

How to condition your natural makeup brushes

Would you ever shampoo your hair and skip the conditioner? Never.

So why leave your natural (aka, non-synthetic) brushes high and dry? They're more similar in texture to your hair than anything else.

Plus, when natural bristles become brittle and dry, it can effect how makeup adheres to the skin. So, along with regular cleaning for hygiene, don't forget to condition them.

What you'll need:

What you'll do:

  1. Slice a lemon and squeeze it into a bowl.
  2. Add in 4-5 drops of coconut oil.
  3. Give each brush a swirl!
  4. Rinse brushes under warm water until you remove all residue. If you overdid it with the oil, swish brushes in a bowl filled with only lemon juice to remove any excess oiliness.
  5. Lay brushes flat to dry.

You don't need to do this every single time you wash them; once every 2-3 washes is plenty.

How to keep makeup brushes fresh in between washes

Think of a disposable cleansing wipe as a light dusting for your brushes. It’s no substitute for a real cleanse, but it keeps the tips in decent shape between washes. The regular variety intended for your face may be too wet or have ingredients you don’t necessarily need, so TODAY editors like the EcoTools Makeup Brush Cleansing Cloths.

EcoTools Makeup Brush Cleansing Cloths

These are specifically designed to mop up makeup without oversaturating the bristles.

How to get colored pigment off makeup brushes

If you just need to remove pigment from a brush before you can finish doing your makeup, then a solvent spray is your best bet. Look for a waterless formula that’s also alcohol-free, like Sephora Collection Instant Dry Brush Cleaner Spray.

Sephora Collection Dry Clean Instant Dry Brush Cleaner Spray

It’s like dry shampoo for your brushes!

How to clean tweezers

Your brow game has never been better, but your trusty tweezers may be telling a different story. “People assume that tweezers dull over time, but it’s actually the residue that makes them less effective,” said Sania Vucetaj, brow expert and owner of Sania’s Brow Bar in New York City. Vucetaj recommends cleaning them with an alcohol swab on a monthly basis.

How to apply makeup without brushes

When you find yourself in a situation where your brushes are grimy and there’s absolutely no time to clean them, it’s best to err on the side of hygiene. A clean cotton swab is an easy hack for applying eye shadow or eyeliner in a pinch. You can also use a cotton ball to blend powder or blush.

This article was originally published on April 4, 2016.