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Contamination at the cosmetics counter: how to sample makeup safely

By Jenilee Matz, MPH, Staff Writer, myOptumHealth

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There’s an ugly side to beauty products. If you like trying makeup before you buy it, you could be putting your health at risk. Studies show that makeup samples at cosmetic counters can be contaminated with staph, strep and E. coli bacteria.

Lurking germs

The bacteria found in the samples can cause such illnesses as conjunctivitis (pink eye) and skin infections.

It’s easy for these germs to get into makeup. When one customer has dirty hands and samples makeup, she leaves bacteria behind in the cosmetics. An unsuspecting customer who tests the makeup a few minutes later can apply contaminated makeup to her face.

The lowdown on preservatives

When a container of makeup is opened, germs from the air can enter. That is why makeup contains preservatives, to kill and stop the growth of harmful bacteria.

When you use makeup at home, you usually only use it once each day. This gives the preservatives a whole day to kill bacteria that may have entered. But in the store – especially during busy hours – there may be a gap of only minutes between each use. This does not give preservatives enough time to work, so makeup can get contaminated more quickly.

Avoiding infection at the cosmetics counter

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strongly discourages sharing makeup with others. So use makeup samples at your own risk.

Still, your safety is a priority for most makeup companies. Cosmetic counter staff are trained to take special care to keep makeup safe. Some companies:

•Require samples to be cleaned and sanitized often

•Only allow mascara to be sampled with disposable applicators

•Require staff to wipe samples and containers with alcohol and dry them off before offering them to customers

•Only use disposable cotton balls, antibacterial brushes and cotton swabs to apply makeup

•Throw samples away if they see people applying them to skin or lips directly

Sampling safety

If you want to test makeup before you buy, use these tips to make it safer:

1.Always wash your hands first to prevent exposing makeup to bacteria.

2.Use testers during weekdays. Makeup counters are busiest on weekends and holidays. This doesn’t give enough time for preservatives to work because of the continuous exposure.

3.Use makeup counters where samples and containers are wiped with alcohol before being offered to customers. Alcohol may help kill some bacteria.

4.Test makeup on your wrist or the back of your hand instead of applying it directly to your face.

5.Ask for a new, unused applicator before testing any product. Makeup can become infected with bacteria that the brush or applicator picks up from the skin.

6.Wash your skin immediately after trying on makeup.

7.Don’t try on “natural” or “preservative-free” makeup. Bacteria may grow more easily in these products.


  • Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA). Cosmetic counter safety. Accessed: 03/02/2010
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Eye cosmetic safety. Accessed: 03/02/2010
  • Prevent Blindness America. Safe use of eye cosmetics. Accessed: 03/02/2010
  • National Women’s Health Information Center. Cosmetics and your health. Accessed: 03/02/2010

 View the original “Contamination at the cosmetics counter: how to sample makeup safely” article on myOptumHealth.com


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