A confession to make
I’m a young woman with a bunch of flaws, one of them is my love for makeup. On the other hand, I’m also a science student, the combination seems rare but it really isn’t. Lately there has been a lot of ‘rumble in the beauty jungle’ about germs, while the germaphobia has been around for a while now in modern society (I especially noticed this during the time I have spent in the USA, hand sanitiser everywhere) there has never been much talk about cosmetics and the possible bacterial growth occurring in them. Because of the stir this caused lately, I’ve decided to look into the matter myself. SO, keep on reading even if you are somebody who never touches makeup, since this is about cosmetics in general and don’t lie, you use them as well.
The production of cosmetics
In most cosmetics preservatives can be found, this makes their shelf life longer, thus longer useable. This prevents the growth of bacteria or fungi, but a simple oil-based product can also count on its oils as a preservative. The concentration and amount of the preservative which is added depends upon the product. Well known preservatives are parabens, benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, formaldehyde and tetra sodium EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). Most products will contain some of the preservatives mentioned above, if you buy preservative free products be aware that they expire quicker, and you have to watch out for signs of expiration.
Parabens have caused a stir for a while now, I did some research and there is still no proof that they are actually harmful, the FDA keeps investigating under the ‘better safe than sorry’ motto, which is logical. Parabens are derived from PHBA an acid found in many fruits and vegetables. They do a good job at keeping your products fresh!
So why the uproar?
It all started in the nillies, 2OO4 to be exact, A doctor in England reported that 18 out of 20 breast cancer tissue samples contained parabens. Parabens can mimic the actions of oestrogen, and oestrogen can enhance tumour growth, this was *of course* picked up the mainstream media, drawing the conclusion that parabens cause breast cancer.
So where did they go wrong in their thinking?
No evidence was found that the parabens had caused the tumour or made it grow, a tumour has a lot of blood passing through (they demand a big blood supply) so everything that is in your blood can be found there in higher concentrations, this is quite logical. So, whatever is in your blood can be found in your tumour and maybe even at a higher concentration. The doctor even had to make a statement that these conclusions were false and that it was not proven that they were harmful.
It did trigger a lot of research, but the consensus is still that parabens get metabolised and leave your body, no harm done.
So why the paraben free products?
They are not made for the very small minority of people with a possible allergy to parabens. There is nothing smarter for a business than to jump on the band wagon of mass hysteria. It sells so they make it.
This is an organic compound, it occurs naturally in some foods, they slightly alter it for its use as a preservative to formalin. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen for people (causing cancer) but don’t start to freak out just yet. Chemistry is all about the concentration of things, apple pits are toxic, but not if you only swallow two. The same principle counts for formaldehyde. The allowed concentration is regulated and no more than 5% formaldehyde can be used in cosmetics, this concentration is safe.
What factors can affect the shelf life and bacterial growth?
- A product gets older, so do the preservatives that are contained in it, the preservatives can break down, causing the product to be more susceptible to fungi and bacteria.
- Your fingers are a bacterial fiesta, do not dip your fingers in your cosmetics before you have washed them, it would be even better to avoid any finger dipping.
- Mixtures of water and oil can start to sperate, making them unusable.
- Exposure to moisture makes your cosmetics more susceptible too, the same with temperature changes and sunlight.
Can a product be contaminated right from the start?
Yes, but in most ‘first world countries’ this is quite rare, a few reasons this may occur:
- Contaminated raw materials, water or other ingredients.
- Poor manufacturing conditions.
- Ingredients that encourage growth of microorganisms, without an effective preservative system. this is something we might be seeing again soon with the rising trend in products without preservatives.
- Packaging that doesn’t protect a product adequately.
- Poor shipping or storage conditions.
There are no real laws around the expiration of cosmetics so use your common sense, a 10 year old opened cream might not be the best plan. If the texture, smell or looks are different from the original product, it’s a sign that the product has gone off. Some products will stay good more than a year after the expected expiration, others might have gone off before the date.
What does science say?
Let’s start with a small test by Dr Paul Matewele, Senior Lecturer in the School of Human Sciences and expert in microbiology and immunology, the test was ordered by online cosmetics retailer escentual.
5 beauty products were send in by women (a very small sample, I know).
4 of them were expired if you follow some thumb rules (more about that later).
All five contained unsafe levels of possibly harmful bacteria.
4 of them tested positive for Enterococcus faecalis. this can cause multiple infections to humans including meningitis, especially dangerous for new born babies.
Other bacteria found, and possible infections possibly caused by it: Eubacterium (can cause vaginosis), Aeromonas (can cause gastroenteritis and infected wounds) Staphylococcus epidermidis (antibiotic resistant bug, can be harmful for people with implants etc.) Propionibacterium (can cause acne) and Enterobacter (can cause respiratory and urinary tract infections).
Of course, This test had a very small sample group, but I’ll show you more.
If I have freaked you out by now, no worries actual illness because of makeup is not too common, we all have lovely immune systems and for most of us that will do the trick, sadly, I’m not one of them, jeej me.
I’ll describe the abstract from another study
Another test used 91 cosmetics with all kinds of different textures (emulsions, pastes etc.).
They examined the products before during and after use to test the preservatives used.
An excerpt from the study’s abstract:
AIM: To evaluate the microbial contamination of 91 cosmetics (23 o/w emulsions, 47 tensiolytes, 21 aqueous pastes) in three different states of use (intact, in-use, ending product) and the protection efficacy of the preservative systems most frequently used in the analysed cosmetic formulations.
METHODS AND RESULTS: Total bacterial count, isolation and identification of pathogenic isolates were performed on the collected cosmetics. About 10.6% of tensiolytes (13.5% bath foam, 6.7% shampoo, 10% liquid soaps) were contaminated by Staphylococcus warneri, Staphylococcus epidermidis and Pseudomonas putida. The efficacy of the preservative systems of two cosmetic products, tested against standard micro-organisms (Staphylococcus aureus ATCC 4338 and Pseudomonas aeruginosa ATCC 9027) and two isolates from cosmetics in this study (S. epidermidis and P. putida), satisfied the Cosmetics, Toiletries, and Fragrance Association and Official Italian Pharmacopeia criteria, while only one tested cosmetic respected the Rapid Challenge Test criterion.
CONCLUSIONS: Contaminated cosmetic products are relatively uncommon, but some products, unable to suppress the growth of several micro-organisms, represent a potential health hazard.
SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPACT OF THE STUDY: The challenge test may be performed not only during the preparation of the preservative system in the intact cosmetics, but also be used to evaluate the protection efficacy during their use.
There are thousands of different thumb rules on the internet surrounding the expiration date of cosmetics, and most of them are put on the internet by… beauty companies or makeup sites, what a shocker. While some of these thumb rules simply follow common sense other are ridiculous, please don’t throw away a product just because you dipped your finger into that powder once. I’ll give you some tips along with some FDA approved tips
- eye-area products expire quickly, if an eye area product like mascara becomes dry, throw it away do not add water or saliva to it, it’s better to buy a new mascara than to buy yourself a pretty eye infection. throw away your mascara if you had an eye infection after all even high-end mascaras are no more than 50 bucks, your eyes are worth more than that.
- Do not share makeup if possible, unless you clean it and the applicators very well.
- Do not put store testers on your face, best not to use them at all but oh well, we’ve all been there.
- Store your cosmetics in a dry, dark area with the containers closed, make sure the temperature is not to high, a bathroom shelf is not ideal actually…
- wash your hands before using cosmetics: creams, makeup…
- don’t put your dirty fingers in your cosmetics if you can avoid it, wash your hands or use an applicator and a spatula.
- If you use a brush for your makeup every day, clean it at least once a week (I give them a quick wipe down every time after I used them and wash them once a week, your skin will be grateful).
- don’t double dip: finger dip, applying to the lips, another finger dip, applying to the lips, you can see where that goes wrong (guilty).
- if the smell looks colour or texture of a product changes, throw it away.
Extra: how to clean your makeup
Since I’m an immunocompromised person I tend to pay a lot of attention to this, skin infection is not new to me but it’s better since I clean my makeup and brushes often.
After I used my brushes I give them a quick wipe down with brush wipes (makeup remover wipes are also fine I think) but the brush wipes are cheaper over here.
Every week: I clean my brushes with a brush cleaner diluted with water, you can make it yourself quite easily I imagine, but again the ingredients are more expensive than the brush cleaner over here. I have 16 brushes it takes 10 minutes.
I think about which makeup I used this month and pick them out, I spray them (package and product) I use disinfectant alcohol 70% from hansaplast but really any brand is fine, if it has 70% alcohol and is meant for use on the skin (the chemists can sneak some out of the lab, but this advice is for the people that don’t have 5 litres of alcohol in their locker). Spray it on the product with a spray bottle and wipe it clean with a tissue, some product will be lost but it will be cleaner than it was before. This works for all powder products, for creams you have to scoop the top layer off, I’m sorry. You can spray lipsticks and wipe them down, product will be lost, but I’d rather loose product than get an infection.
While some products pose a health risk, most of them are safe, and even if there is a health risk most of us won’t get ill our immune system will protect us. Still a bit of caution may be needed to prevent skin issues like infections, acne… if you don’t have a good immunesystem. Disinfecting your products and brushes is not a bad idea every now and then, no need to be so frantic about it as I am (I’m crazy I know).
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think!