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How to Clean Your Makeup Brushes Like a Pro and Keep Even Cheap Brushes in Great Shape for Years

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A model prepares backstage ahead of the Johanna Johnston show on day two of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia Spring/Summer 2012/13 at Overseas Passenger Terminal on May 1, 2012 in Sydney, Australia.

It’s not a flashy topic, not one that most people like to think about often, but it is worthy of mention for all artists and beauty enthusiasts that a good brush spray cleaner, and a good brush cleanser for deep-cleaning is an absolute essential in every beauty maven’s bag of tricks. Read on to find out how to make your own perfect brush spray and deep cleanser for brushes, and for tips and tricks on how to perform this essential function so your brushes will last, even the cheap ones. You’ll not only protect your brushes, but your investment in them, and ultimately, your investment in your skin’s health.

Ideally, brushes should be spray cleaned between touching the skin and reloading with color, no matter if it’s the same color or not, in order to preserve the cosmetic items in your kit or personal collection. Skin carries a great deal of bacteria, oils, and dead cells, as well as dirt and debris at times. In fact, researchers are now finding that the 500 million bacterial cells on every square inch of the body vary from body part to body part, and that may have implications on your skin’s health.

I personally spray clean my brushes with either Clinique’s brush spray or a brush cleaning spray I make myself out of equal parts 70% Isopropyl alcohol, olive oil, glycerine, and disinfectant (available at any piercing supply or Claire’s Accessories store as ear piercing cleaner).



Then I spray them again, once clean, with either a mix of 99% isopropyl alcohol mixed with about 15 drops of tea tree oil and 40 of grape seed oil, shaken in a 4 oz. bottle, or simply bactine, and then I swipe the brush back and forth on a clean, dry cloth until dry and free of the final spray. All of these methods will work to sanitize a brush. Note that straight isopropyl should never be used on a brush, as this will dry out the bristles on a natural hair brush and destroy them, and may possibly dissolve the glue at the ferrule on brushes of all materials, depending on saturation. It is very important to spray and not wet the brush using any of these methods. Doing otherwise may destroy your brush investment.

The Isopropyl plus oils option works best, for me, as a brush disinfectant, while I work on the cosmetic application, because the tea tree and grape seed oils both moisturize and disinfect the bristles, and the alcohol evaporates out, leaving behind just the oils, and thereby conditioning the brush while disinfecting it.

It’s really important to note that these methods aren’t going to leave your brushes free of product. They will just protect your skin and your cosmetic products from cross-contamination. You need to clean your brushes weekly if you want them to be optimally clean for skin health and good brush texture, but note that if you do it the wrong way, the life of your brush will be cut drastically. Read the tips below for making sure that your brushes last a long time, and aren’t contributing to skin problems.

If you stroll through the vast majority of beauty blogs, artists and beauty enthusiasts alike will tell you to use baby shampoo on your brushes, but I find this a poor solution for brush cleaning. Two things especially make this a less-than-stellar idea. One, baby shampoo is usually fragranced, and you don’t need fragrance deposited in your brushes. Two, baby shampoo contains lidocaine in order to achieve its tear-free claims, and you don’t need that in your brushes either. A Prescriptives Cosmetics Education Executive once gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten for washing brushes: “if you wouldn’t use it to clean your face, don’t use it to shampoo your brushes”. Rarely would any of use baby shampoo as a face cleanser, so don’t use it to clean your brushes. You might think soap washes away completely, but it leaves behind deposits of most of the ingredients contained in it, and that goes straight onto your face. A better idea is to make your own brush cleanser. Whole foods 365 brand unscented shower gel is perfect for this, and note that I would use this as a face wash after having reviewed the ingredients, because it is that gentle.

Here’s how you make it: Empty out about 1/4 cup off the top of the bottle of soap, then add 30 drops of tea tree oil, and a tablespoon and a half of grape seed or olive oil to the bottle of shampoo and shake it. This provides a nice and seriously inexpensive brush cleaner.

This brush cleaner will work for most uses, but if you use special effects, taking adhesives and the like out of a brush will be mostly impossible using just this method. For these artists, it’s imperative to keep a product called “bond off” or medical adhesive remover in the kit, as well as the 99% isopropyl plus oils in spray bottle. Using this on brushes can sometimes even remove liquid latex, which is known as the product that will absolutely destroy a brush. Same with spirit gum and pros aide and all other adhesives, which will ruin anything they come in contact with. The key for these artists is to use a brush cleaning spray before these products set completely. If the adhesives or latex are still wet, you have a better chance of getting them out of the brush. If set, and the brush is hard to the touch, soaking for just about a minute in a capful of either solution then washing with deep cleaning brush cleaner and repeating as necessary should help, and this is true of all adhesives and alcohol-activated makeups stuck in brushes. Make sure that after the brush is cleaned using these products that they are thoroughly rinsed, maybe twice or three times over, to avoid buildup of these solvents in the brush itself, because they can irritate the skin.

Sidenote: I am not a fan of using any of the products above for getting adhesives off the face, but one of the unfortunate things about using special effects is that the products are often hard to remove, and harsh to the skin, and sometimes it’s necessary to make use of a solvent like bond-off. It is really important to use a good, nourishing facial cleanser and a great, non-irritating moisturizer for dry skin containing no parabens or toxins after putting any of these products on anyone’s face, because irritation and dermatological after effects can be damaging to the delicate facial skin. Using moisturizer made for drier skin, no matter your skin type, is essential, because anything made to combat oil will actually make the skin oilier in this case, as the lipid barrier of the dermis gets compromised when removing adhesives in any fashion, using solvents or not.

Finally, it’s really important to know the method by which to wash your brushes, and how to dry them. You can ruin a brush quickly by either washing it wrongly, or drying it wrongly.

Your best bet is to wash brushes in two flat bottomed, cylindrical glasses (rocks glasses from a bar supply actually work perfectly) and fill one with equal parts warm (not hot) water and brush cleaner, and the other with clean, warm rinse water. Make sure not to get the water into the metal portion of the brush, known as the ferrule. The glues inside the ferrule will break down and disintegrate the more they come in contact with water, so it’s important not to soak a brush or fill the cup you’re using with water. Swirl the brush in the water and soap solution, and then take it out and shampoo by swirling on the palm of your hand with circular motions, making sure not to crush the bristles heavily against your hand. Squeeze the soap out by flattening bristles, and repeat until you don’t see tons of color coming out during the squeeze portion of this process. Then rinse, and squeeze using the same method, until the water you squeeze out comes out clear and without soap bubbles. You may have to refill the rinse glass each time, and it sometimes helps if you keep the water running, or if you have a double sink, plug one side and keep one side full of clean water, and dump the dirty rinse water on the other. Refill by dipping the cup into the clean water side after you lightly rinse it with running water.

Once you have all of your brushes washed, drying them is easy. Lay a towel on a counter. Squeeze the water out of your brushes and into the sink to drain, then shape the bristles to a tapered and flattened point and dry flat. DO NOT dry your brushes standing up, as this will ruin the glue in the ferrule.

I like to dry my brushes overnight, as the brushes usually dry easily this way in the desert climate I live in. The more humid your environment, the more you’ll want to make sure that you get as much water out as possible. This will not only protect the glues used to hold in the bristles at the ferrule, but will keep your brushes from growing any mildew on them. If you have a real problem with mildew where you are, I recommend swirling the brush in a circular motion on a towel after squeezing, without crushing the bristles, and chisel-pointing the brushes after you’re sure they’re nearly dry with the towel-swirl method.

Note that I use an extensive set of brushes, acquiring new ones all the time, but I have brushes that came out of gift with purchase sets when I was working at cosmetic counters as a makeup artist in the late 90s, that I never expected to keep, but which have lasted me over 15 years using this method of washing. I subscribe to this method with a nearly-religious fervor for that very reason.

I hope this brush care tutorial spurs you to adopt new methods for taking care of your brushes, and gives you a couple of options for what to use in order to do it without costing yourself a ton of money doing it, or introducing toxins and parabens to your skin unwittingly.

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