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Most in-use makeup products contaminated with awful bacteria

Researchers ‘astonished' to find potentially deadly bacteria, including E.coli and Staphylococci, in 9 out of 10 products they tested.

When one thinks of the places where harmful bacteria lurk, maybe hospitals, public restrooms, and dirty cutting boards come to mind. But since bacteria are smart (in their own tiny way) and sneaky and everywhere, it's good to know the places where the harmful ones thrive. And as it turns out, one of those places is in makeup – yes, makeup that we put on our skin and lips and eyes, giving bacteria a wonderful place to settle in for some fun.

Such are the findings of new research from Aston University, where scientists tested 467 in-use makeup products collected from women in the UK. The vast majority of the make-up was contaminated with potentially life threatening superbugs, according to the University.

“As part of a recent project, we tested 467 makeup products, these included lipstick, lip gloss, eyeliner, mascara, and beauty blenders and the results were astonishing,” says Dr Amreen Bashir in a video about the research. “We found that 70 to 90 percent of all products were contaminated with bacteria. And our worst culprit seemed to be our beauty blenders, 26 percent of these had fecal matter present on them.”

Yes, fecal matter.

Beauty blenders, the ultrasoft often-teardrop-shaped sponges used to blend makeup, are relatively new to the beauty world, but seem to have become indispensable to many a beauty devotee. Since their introduction, some 6.5 million of them have been sold worldwide. The researchers say these products are particularly vulnerable to contamination because they are moistened before using and then left damp and unwashed, which creates the perfect breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

“Presence of Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli and Citrobacter freundii was detected. Enterobacteriaceae and fungi were detected in all product types, and were prevalent in beauty blenders (26·58 and 56·96% respectively). Ninety‐three per cent of beauty blenders had not been cleaned and 64% had been dropped on the floor and continued to be used,” notes the study.

The University says that the bacteria found in nine out of ten of the products can cause illnesses ranging from skin infections to blood poisoning if used near eyes, mouth, or cuts or grazes.

European Union regulations hold makeup brands to strict hygiene standards and states that E.coli in particular should not be found in any concentration in new cosmetic products. However, as the University points out, there is currently limited consumer protection around the risks of contaminating products while in use. In the United States, there are less stringent regulations, for example, there are no requirements to put expiration dates on makeup packaging at all. (Which probably means we should buy fewer products and use them up more quickly.)

“Consumers' poor hygiene practices when it comes to using make-up, especially beauty blenders, is very worrying when you consider that we found bacteria such as E.coli – which is linked with faecal contamination – breeding on the products we tested,” says Bashir. “More needs to be done to help educate consumers and the make-up industry as a whole about the need to wash beauty blenders regularly and dry them thoroughly, as well as the risks of using make-up beyond its expiry date.”

Aside from all the packaging waste and harmful ingredients of many makeup products, could the surprise bonus of harmful bacteria urge more people to simplify their makeup regimen? You can read about Katherine's account of doing just that, here: I used to be a beauty routine maximalist.

You can watch Bashir discuss the research in the video below; she also offers tips on how to minimize the problem in your own makeup.

The study, Microbiological study of used cosmetic products: highlighting possible impact on consumer health, was published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

Researchers ‘astonished' to find potentially deadly bacteria, including E.coli and Staphylococci, in 9 out of 10 products they tested.