Beatriz Juarez Image by: Beatriz Juarez
A friend—a highbrow-makeup fiend—scans my dressing table. She’s clearly not amused by the array of half-used makeup containers tossed among a pile of magazines, that morning’s coffee mug and bills. She recoils from the disarray and casually mentions her own Zen powder room, with its bonsai tree, Smythson pen pot for her toothbrush and single La Mer lip balm. Shuddering, she says that she can just smell the bacteria breeding and pulls an anti-oxidant-infused wipe from her purse to clean her hands. Then she asks me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but have you thought about writing about when it’s time to clean out your makeup bag?”
I don’t take it the wrong way. I think it’s okay to be messy—and I like to keep “stuff,” including makeup: the lipstick I wore to my friend Rosie’s wedding in 2006 (No7’s Gay Geranium); the L’Oreal blusher bought in 1999, now sadly discontinued. Yes, my friends have used them; yes, I’ve stuck my fingers in them; and, yes, they’ve cruised between my handbags. But, no, I’m not throwing them away. Would you?
A recent study conducted in Britain found that 68 percent of women only replace makeup in their makeup bag when it runs out. In practice, this means that the Chanel lipstick you save for interviews could remain in your possession for 10 years. Put like that, it doesn’t sound good. Especially when you discover that some experts recommend that lipstick be tossed after two years.
There are some best-before guidelines, but in Canada—unlike Europe—companies aren’t required to display expiry dates on their cosmetics. François L’Ecuyer, from the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, suggests that you contact manu-facturers to find out their products’ shelf life, while Health Canada recommends that you throw out your cosmetics one year after you’ve opened them. Across the pond, if a product has a limited shelf life (less than two and a half years), European Union guidelines require that its label indicate a best-before date. For beauty products with a shelf life of more than two and a half years, the label has a drawing of a jar with a number on it. This is the life expectancy, in months, from the moment you crack the seal. In Canada, products imported from Europe have this symbol. For mascara, it’s six months; for pencils, around 18 months; and for powder-based beauty products, it’s 24 months. Of course, this can vary depending upon how you store your products and how you use them. For example, leaving the lid off your foundation compromises the suggested lifespan, but so does exposure to air, dirt and skin—all of which are pretty difficult to avoid.
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More deets on what beauty products to toss on the next page … Even if cosmetics companies conform to these labelling rules and formulate products diligently with preservatives and test them before they go on sale, who’s to say that you and I are going to follow the guidelines? I’m quite relaxed about best-before dates when pouring milk into my coffee, so I’m more likely to “ad lib” when it comes to my foundation. There’s also a part of me that is suspicious that a company might have a vested interest in me tossing out their products so I can make room for new ones. I need proof, which is why I agree to send my makeup off to the lab.
Two weeks later, I receive the results: Photographed petri dishes show incubated swipes of mascara and blush blooming with mould. Yes, mould! I tally up the totals: 8,545 bacteria, 180 colonies of mould and yeast organisms. I look for patterns: Do the cheaper products have more germs? Not at all. Does the mascara come out worst, as I expected? No—in fact, it has one of the lowest bacterial counts. Apparently, those grubby bacteria, itching to reproduce, prefer to hang out on my kohl pencil instead. Here, they exist in a population of 185 per gram. Jay, the microbiologist who had the privilege of delving into my bag, gives them tongue-twisting names—micrococci and staphylococci—adding, “Some species are pathogenic and harmful to humans, which can produce the toxins responsible for food poisoning.” Pathogenic? Good grief! I ask Jay how many pathogenic bacteria are present in unopened products. “None,” he replies. Gulp. Some of my products get good marks: My brush-on liner and my foundation have bacterial counts of less than 10 per gram because they’re not as exposed to air, dirt and skin. So what are the worst bug bearers? Shamefully, it’s the brushes—the washable brushes that come into contact with my skin every day. My beloved foundation brush is harbouring 5,475 aerobic bacteria and 150 aerobic moulds. There is also a species of yeast: Cryptococcus albidus, which is the harmless cousin of Candida albicans, which causes athlete’s foot, diaper rash and thrush.
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Is your dirty makeup bag doing harm to your skin? Find out on the next page ... There are more statistics, if you’re not already repulsed enough. A tiny eyeshadow brush (from a palette) has been hosting 2,300 little bacteria. “All bacteria isolated from the brushes have the ability to infect the skin,” continues the report. Jay suggests that I steam my brushes after each use to kill bacteria. While I’m nauseated, I’m still unmoved to change—after all, what real harm can this be doing? Isn’t this just health and safety gone mad?
The next morning I am examining my pores in the mirror when the proverbial penny drops. My skin is looking radiant and I credit expensive supplements with the change, but then I realize: Without my foundation brush and base, without my old creamy blusher, I simply haven’t been wearing any makeup. All that bacteria has been left behind in the petri dish rather than on my face.
So, I am forced to revisit my gospel of lackadaisical hygiene and laissez-faire storage. Only a discernible difference in my appearance would encourage me to buy a professional-standard brush cleaner, which now sits smartly in my bathroom. While I’m still not convinced that mascara a few days past its shelf life is going to give me conjunctivitis, I’m pretty sure it won’t go on as smoothly. True, makeup in Muji boxes sitting next to sharpened pencils and freshly disinfected sponges have none of the bohemian appeal of my paint-spattered old makeup bag (which I tossed), but healthier-looking skin convinces me that it’s worth sticking to this new routine—a routine that, admittedly, flows nicely with another favourite pastime of mine: buying new things.
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