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The dirty truth about the bugs in your make-up bag
Poor hygiene and ancient containers could put you at serious risk, finds Sharon Walker

Poor hygiene and ancient containers could put you at serious risk, finds Sharon Walker

There are so many things to love about the Christmas, not least the opportunity it affords to put on a full party face.

On a day-to-day basis my look is pared back: a swipe of mascara and lip balm and that’s it, but if ever there was a reason to break out the glitter eyeliner, or that Hollywood starlet lipstick, the party season is it.

Never mind that it might not have seen the light of day in months, or that it was a gift from an old flame, who I haven’t seen in close to a decade, I’ve never thought of replacing it.

That was until I had the call from the Telegraph, asking if I wouldn’t mind handing over my make-up, for analysis, oh and I probably wouldn’t be getting it back. It seemed cruel to me, but they had their reasons.

A recent study of almost 500 lipsticks, eyeliners, mascaras and beauty blenders, by scientists at Aston University, had turned up enough superbugs to wipe out a whole army, with nine in ten used make-up products harbouring potentially lethal pathogens. The scientists suggested that poor bathroom habits and using products past their expiry dates, were likely to blame.

The thorny issue of expiry dates doesn’t bode well with the envelope of treasures I’ve unearthed for Dr Amreen Bashir, the lead microbiologist on the study, who will be testing my make-up.

The packet contains the following items: one Tom Ford lipstick in Cherry Lush, a Christmas gift from a boyfriend circa 2014, never mind that its glossy black and gold packaging is now as battered as an old dustbin, the vampy pout it imparts still elicits a nostalgic flashback to that romance.

Exhibit number two is a liquid liner bought with my daughter, at Space NK, for the first of the sixteenth parties. It was so eye-wateringly expensive we decided to share it. I don’t use it that often because, how often does life call for a cat flick?

Then there’s the pretty pink Chanel eyeshadow, bought in Paris for my daughter Edie, 19, on our first girly trip, eight years back. It should probably be in quarantine, but just I can’t bear to part with it.

Then there’s the Mac InstaCurl Lash, a present from my son. It has lost its eye-catching yellow cap and almost dried to a crisp but the thought of a fifteen-year old boy buying make-up for his mum, and not just any make-up, the it mascara of the moment, who could possibly chuck that?

Just as hard to part with, for purely practical reasons, is my Urban Decay’s Heavy Metal Glitter Eyeliner, a tip-off from my genius beauty editor friend, which is my party go to and never fails to elicit a compliment.

And finally, I’ve thrown in a make-up brush and one of my daughter’s beauty blenders. Beauty blenders are the toilet brushes of the beauty world apparently, 92% were found to be carrying some kind of germ in Dr Bashir’s study. I’m a little terrified of offering up my make-up up for analysis, but also intrigued to see what will turn up.

Sharon Walker (right) and her daughter Eddie submitted their make-up for bacterial testing

When we speak on the phone a week later Dr Bashir is sympathetic to my plight. “These things are very expensive, often £30 or £40 for a small pot. So you’re unlikely to throw it away if you’ve hardly used it, but once something is open the preservatives will only work for a limited amount of time, you can’t keep anything indefinitely,” she warns.

“It’s like the sell-by date on food. Once you are past the expiry date bacteria will grow.”

The symbol to look for is a small pot with an open lid and a number on it followed by an M, which stands for months. This indicates how long the product will last after it’s open. Until now, I’ve never noticed any problems.

Does it really matter if our make-up is crawling with bugs? “These pathogens are OK if you are hardy, but if your immune system is compromised in any way, if they enter your body, they could grow and proliferate and could lead to blood borne poisoning and sepsis (a life-threatening infection),” says Dr Bashir.

“The other thing to remember is that these bacteria are in our natural environment, but in low numbers that will not cause you harm, but given the opportunity to feed on nutrients, such as those in make-up, the number can grow to a level that can harm us.”

Lesser infections caused by staphylococcus (staph) bacteria include impetigo, a contagious rash that can envelop the face and body and conjunctivitis. Serious infections are more likely, when there is a small break in the skin, as when someone has acne or eczema.

“The default position for a lot of people with these skin conditions is to the layer on foundation to cover it, but if there’s a break in the skin this will allow infections deep into the body which can be life threatening,” says Dr Bashir, adding, “some forms of the staph bacteria, like MRSA, don’t respond to antibiotics.”

The fact that Edie and I occasionally share make-up is a cause for concern. “Even though you are related bacteria are unique to each person,” warns Dr Bashir. “You’re effectively transferring one person’s flora to another person, which can potentially cause harm.” She cites the young Australian mother, Jo Gilchrist, who was left partially paralysed, after borrowing a make-up brush from a friend, when she contracted an antibiotic-resistant staph infection.

So how did my party slap fare under the microscope? Extraordinarily, given its age, it gets a near clean bill of health, with little or no bacteria to speak of, apart from on the shared liquid liner. The fact that I use my party make-up infrequently has likely saved it from the bugs.

As mother and daughter, Sharon and Eddie happily share some of their favourite make-up products / CREDIT: GEOFF PUGH

My daughter’s make-up brush and beauty blender have fared less well, and while there are no superbugs, they are teaming with a huge number of bacteria. “More than you’d expect on a toilet seat.”

This isn’t a problem unless she shares her make-up with friends. “We found a lot of staph on there, but nothing pathogenic,” says Dr Bashir. “We didn’t find E. coli, which is great. It means you’re both good safe make-up users.”

In contrast, Dr Bashir found E. coli on 27% of the beauty blenders in her study. “It is an indicator organism of faecal matter, which tells us someone hasn’t washed their hands, or has dropped it on the floor,” says Dr Bashir, adding that make-up can also be contaminated through the air. “When you flush the toilet, whatever was in loo can go around the room in particles, through aerosolisation.” Eugh. Neither Edie or I do our make-up in the bathroom, but just to be sure I run through safe practices with Dr Bashir.

The five second rule does not apply to make-up. If you do drop a blender, wash it. Dr Bashir suggests washing blenders and all brushes weekly in hot soapy water or with a mild shampoo. “Press it against the soap until all the gunk comes out.” And ensure it is thoroughly dry before you reuse it, to limit the bacteria.

And, if I ever use Edie’s lipstick – not that I would dare to now – or she borrows mine, Dr Bashir suggests taking a knife to it and slicing off the end. In fact, any lipstick used regularly could benefit from a trim every two weeks, says Dr Bashir. “Or clean it with isopropanol or rubbing alcohol.”

It’s no surprise that the liquid liner is harbouring bacteria, one known as bacillus cereus, which is linked to food poisoning. All that double dipping causes bacteria to run rife.

Mascara presents similar issues. “We are effectively combing bacteria off our lashes, which are there to protect our eyes and putting them into the product, which is the perfect breeding ground,” says Dr Bashir. Hence mascara has one of the shortest shelf lives, usually just three to six months after opening.

The lesson here? “Keep an eye on the expiry date. Mascara only lasts three months after opening,” says Dr Bashir. But can we really be blamed for using old products, when the use-by are so small, you practically need a microscope to read them and they almost instantly rub off?

Dr Bashir agrees that cosmetic companies could be doing more to raise awareness with clearer expiry dates.

As for me, I have conducted a brutal cull of all of my out-of-date products. My party make-up stood up to the test this time, but I don’t want to take any chances.

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