Germs lurking in old makeup: It isn't pretty

Get Stuff We Love

Subscribe to our newsletter.
By Melissa DahlMelissaDahlHealth

Tracy Turnure's cosmetics collection doesn't quite qualify her for a spot on A&E's "Hoarders," but it's close.

Her various makeup bags, combined with her mom's and her sister's stashes, once filled a mid-sized closet in the family's Seattle home. Hidden among her cosmetic cache is a black Wet 'N' Wild eyeliner pencil she bought for 99 cents in middle school and a Garden Botanika bronzer from the early 1990s. She swears she never uses the stuff, but somehow can't part with the palettes, powders and creams of her past.

"I sat down with the trash can last week and I still couldn’t throw even half of it away," says 24-year-old Turnure, better known as Miss Washington USA 2010. "I'm just hanging on to this idea of, 'Maybe I’ll need that eye shadow, or that perfect red color!'"

Turnure knows the shelf life of a bronzer compact is probably a bit shorter than two decades. But, for Turnure and many women who cling to their makeup, it's hard to toss it before reaching the bottom of the container. When high-end products such as mascara or foundation can cost $50 or more — or that shimmery shade of blue shadow is used only a few times a month — we keep it, sometimes much longer than recommended.

That's where it can get pretty ugly. The longer you use a product, the easier it is for bacteria or fungi to get into your makeup, potentially causing eye or skin infections, health experts warn.

"If a person holds onto something for too long a time, or adds water to something, or if it's a product that's continuously touched, then you're adding germs," explains Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist in Cincinnati.

Dr. Andrea Thau, a New York optometrist and a spokesperson for the American Optometric Association, says she treats one or two women each month for cosmetic-related infections. Last year, 169 infections and other adverse events tied to cosmetics were reported to the Food and Drug Administration. But most makeup infections may go unreported, or undiagnosed.

The most common reactions reported are skin hypersensitivity, burning sensation, skin redness and irritation (including blistering, erythema, pruritis, swelling and hives) and hair loss. Those reactions can happen regardless of a product's age, and may be caused by, for instance, a skin allergy.

The FDA doesn't require cosmetic manufacturers to include expiration dates on beauty product labels. But eye makeup — specifically, mascara and any creams or liquids that are around your eyes — has a shorter shelf life than other cosmetics, the FDA notes. Many experts recommend replacing eye makeup, especially liquids and creams, after three months.

"The things that are most likely to give you an infection are creams, or things that are wet or dark or damp," says Thau. 

Paige Bowers of Elkhart, Ind., knows how nasty a makeup-related infection can be. The 20-year-old didn't think anything about using an Avon mascara for twice the recommended amount of time. That is, until this January, when her right upper eyelid started to itch.

"The whole eyelid was very, very red and it was swollen," says Bowers. The condition continued on and off for two months until she was diagnosed last week with blepharitis, an inflammation of the eyelid that can be caused by an overgrowth of bacteria. She's getting it under control with antibiotics — and a brand new mascara.

In addition to scaly, itchy lids, contaminated cosmetics can cause bacterial conjunctivitis or a stye, an inflamed oil gland on the edge of the eyelid (ew). "Those styes start out as relatively simple problems that can be easily resolved," Thau says, "but if you don't address them, you could be left with a permanent lump."

Apart from eye makeup, most dermatologists and optometrists say that powders, pencils and lipstick or gloss lasts about 18 months; creams, liquids and moisturizers last about six to 12 months, depending on whether they're in jars or pump bottles, which are harder to contaminate because you're not constantly dipping your fingers into the product.

It's not always easy to remember a purchase date. So when you buy new makeup, try attaching to it a sticker that notes the date of purchase, experts suggest. Companies like Beauty Alert even supply attractive, brightly colored labels, reminding you which products go south after three, six, 12 or 18 months.

Beauty Alert founder Stacya Silverman, a Seattle esthetician who developed the labeling system, has experienced her own beauty product gross-out,involving an old tub of oatmeal bath soap, a nice warm bath and mealworms. Not the soothing experience she needed.

Once a cosmetic package is opened, the potential for contamination begins. Makeup applicators can easily become a breeding ground for bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis, which lives on our skin; that bacteria can then be transferred to the makeup container, and onto your skin, eyelids or lashes.

What's more, the place you're keeping your makeup bag could be hampering your best efforts at guarding against bacteria.

"The bathroom is where people tend to store cosmetics, and, unfortunately, it’s probably the perfect place for bacteria to grow — it’s warm, and it’s moist," says Dobos, the Cincinnati cosmetic chemist.

Even if your makeup is far from the bathroom, there are certain rules that should never be broken.

  • Don't apply eyeliner inside your lashline, no matter how many times the girls do this on "America's Next Top Model." That messes with your Meibomian glands, tiny oil glands at the rim of your eyelids which help in the production of tears. If they can't secrete properly, you could get dry eye, optometrist Thau explains. She adds, "It makes your eyes look smaller, anyway!"
  • While it may be tempting to share a fabulous shade of lipstick or lip gloss with your bestie, don't. You're just asking for a cold sore, explains Dr. Carolyn Jacob, a Chicago dermatologist and an American Academy of Dermatology representative.
  • And do we really have to remind you to avoid the "testers" at department store cosmetic counters? "If you feel you must test a cosmetic before purchasing it, apply it with a new, unused applicator, such as a fresh cotton swab," according to the FDA's cosmetic information web page

More stories of makeup disasters from No More Dirty Looks

Like Turnure, even though we know better than to keep decades-old makeup, it still doesn't get thrown away. Sometimes, makeup carries memories - like the rite of passage of buying your first "grown-up" cosmetics. "That Garden Botanika bronzer — I remember the day and how excited my sister and I were," she says. "I guess some things haven't changed."

Follow Melissa Dahl on Twitter @melissadahl.