It was November 2009 and the public was on high alert for the H1N1 virus, or, as it was more popularly known, swine flu. With holiday season in full swing and a festive party to attend, I went to the beauty counter at a big department store to get my makeup done and buy a few new products.
I'm a fairly OCD person when it comes to germs, and always cringe a little when a makeup artist applies lipstick from a used tube on my lips, even after it’s been sanitised. “Imagine the mouths it’s been on!” my neurosis would scream internally. Still, I never want to seem uptight, so that day in November I sat back and let the makeup artist do her work. I watched as she spritzed the items in alcohol, tissued them off, and applied products that had been on many other lips and eyes. After all how else was I going to know how the product looked on me? *
Five days after that fateful application, I came down with H1N1, sick as a dog for a full two weeks. No one I knew in my extended circle of friends, family, coworkers, and neighbours had gotten or would get swine flu that year, and the incubation period lined up perfectly. The doctor confirmed that trying on makeup, including lipstick and mascara, in a public store was likely where I had contracted the virus, due to a product directly coming into contact with an affected person’s mouth or hands (from coughing or sneezing). Because of where makeup products are applied, the germs have multiple clear points of entry—like the nose, mouth, and eyes—to infect the next person.
Scarred from that moment forward, I have since refused to allow makeup artists to test shades of lipstick on me, and I don’t even try them on my hand. The linkage to a stranger’s saliva is just too much for me.
In light of my experience, and with flu season and other worries (Ebola) on the public brain, here are some facts to know about the risks involve with trying on makeup at counters, and tips to follow for optimal health at the beauty counter this season.
Click through for the best practices for keeping yourself safe and sick-free at makeup stores! Trust us, they’re worth reading.
*For the record, I did love the makeup she tried on me that day.
The dirty truth is that products at makeup counters may contain strains of mold, yeast, fecal matter, staph, strep, E. coli, and other bacteria. An undercover Good Morning America study found that as many as 20% of counters showed growth of these substances. Eek!
One way to avoid or minimize the need to try samples is to do ample research before you hit the counter. Read your favorite beauty websites (hi there!), read user reviews on product websites, and ask friends or family members if they've used the shade or product you're considering. Having a sense of what you're looking for and reading up on the information out there, for example what shades of lipstick work with what skintones, will prevent you from having to mindlessly try a bunch of products.
If you're going to try a product in a store, don't just assume the salesperson will sanitize everything properly. Lipsticks should be sprayed with or dipped in alcohol, and the top layer shaved off. They should only be applied with a brand new applicator or a sanitized brush—never fingers—swiping from the sanitized color. Liners and pencils should be sharpened with a sanitized sharpener only, to reveal fresh new layers for application. Ask the person helping you if they can take these steps.
Bring your own q-tips—and alcohol wipes, and sanitized sharpeners—if you really want to control the environment. Q-tips especially are often left in a open canister for people to grab themselves, increasing the likelihood of contamination from germs on hands. If you've ever reached into a jar to grab a q-tip, you know you pretty much touch all of them in the pursuit of one.
Open pots and jars of product (think: lip gloss, gels, creams, and lotions) are your worst enemy in the cleanliness department. People stick their fingers into these pots and the moisture-rich environment serves as a great host for bacteria. If you think about it, creamy products are like water: once bacteria and germs are in the pool, they're in it. There's no spraying and scraping the germs away, like with lipstick and liners.
In addition, bacteria in products can not only get you sick, but can cause acne and irritation on your skin.
Never, we repeat, never, try on used mascara, even with a clean wand. Bacteria may have already accumulated in the cramped bottle, and your eyes are extremely susceptible to the entray of bacteria. Plus, aside from getting sick, no one wants an eye infection from a public beauty product.
The easy thing about mascara is that it's not as person-specific as lipstick colors and foundation. Sure, we all have different eyelashes and needs, but it's much easier to buy a mascara product with confidence based on the description of what it does than it is to envision what a particular lipstick color will actually look like on.
With mascara, the wand does matter, but you can identify what you're looking for (length, fullness, or separation, for instance) and a product consultant can help you pick a match.
Of course the easiest tip for avoiding germs while still needing to test a color is to shop at a retailer like Sephora, where any product can be returned after use. If you hate the hassle of returning things, and prefer to test and know for certain you'll like a product before purchasing, do your research and take the necessary precautions. But if you want to be super safe, just buy from a place with a no-fuss return policy. Nordstrom is another multi-brand reatiler with an open door return policy on beauty products.
We all have different immune systems and stats aside, it's up to you how comfortable you feel with trying on beauty products at a makeup counter. For the slighly more germaphobic among us, there are the tips just outlined, and remember to use common sense. On weekends and holidays, for instance, shopping traffic is much higher which means all the more hands grabbing at those displayed products.
For this Swine Flu veteran, I'm just fine with never again trying a public beauty product, thankyouverymuch.
Do you worry about germs at makeup counters? Have you ever gotten sick this way?