Just what exactly are you picking up at the makeup counter?

One of my clients, a department store sales associate, needed to reschedule her appointment because of pinkeye. She couldn’t figure out where or how she contracted this whopping case of pinkeye, and then a very interesting fact came up as I spoke with her. She revealed that she would often touch up her makeup during her lunch hour with the tester makeup at the beauty counter. As a result of this discovery, I decided to research the subject of how risky tester makeup may be. I discovered a recent study performed by Dr. Elizabeth Brooks, DPM, professor of biological sciences at Rowan University that shows how makeup testers could host some potentially dangerous forms of bacteria.

“Germs on makeup testers aren’t a cause for public panic, but it is unhygienic and worth avoiding if you can,” states Dr. Brooks.  She should know – Brooks has spent the past 2 years analyzing the surfaces of hundreds of makeup testers in stores ranging from drugstores to high-end department stores. Her findings are as follows: testers and makeup counters were contaminated with a variety of germs from the type of Staph bacteria found on doorknobs to E.coli, a fecal bacteria transmitted via contaminated hands.

This information comes as no surprise to Phillip M. Tierno Jr., PhD, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at New York University Medical Center and the author of, The Secret Life of Germs. “Most infectious diseases are transferred person to person via germy hands,” states Dr. Tierno. “Touching contaminated fingertips to your mucous membranes allows germs to enter your body, where they can cause colds, infections, and life-threatening illnesses such as hepatitis A and salmonella.”  Germ-tainted makeup can theoretically do the same, notes Brooks.

Contaminated makeup testers could also lead to problems on the skin’s surface. “You can pick up herpes from a tube of lipstick if a previous user had a cold sore, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye) can be transferred via eye pencils or mascara,” cautions Karen Burke, MD, a dermatologist in private practice in New York City.

Suprisingly, Brooks’ findings, while disturbing, suggest that retailers are not to blame. “At all the stores we visited, we routinely observed employees disinfecting cosmetic counters and the surface of makeup testers,” explains Dr. Brooks. “The main culprit turns out to be the customers’ poor hygiene. As the day goes on, the samples become increasingly contaminated from dirty hands, sneezing, and coughing.” How germy they ultimately get directly correlates with store traffic. “On weekends, when stores have the heaviest traffic, up to 100% of the testers showed contamination, while on Thursdays, levels dropped to 43%,” she explains.

Should we boycott makeup testers altogether, or simply limit their use to Thursdays, when counters are cleaner? It’s up to you, but here are some tips:

  1. Ask a sales person to use antimicrobial wipes for the samples you’re going to try
  2. Ask to dip lipstick in alcohol
  3. Ask to scrape powders
  4. Ask to scoop out the top layer of creams
  5. Ask to sharpen pencils to a fresh point

Now that you are armed with more information, I’m sure you will think more carefully about what exactly you may be picking up at the makeup counter.  Hopefully it’s no more than a tube of lipstick.

Good luck!

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Click here to hear Nataliya on the Wake Up to the Real You Radio Show, hosted by Karey Williams, Stephanie Birrer, and Johnna Tuttle.  Nataliya discusses the secrets to beautiful skin during the program "The Skin You are In," recorded on July 10, 2007.

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