Could Germs Be Hiding in Store Makeup Testers?

With sample makeup testers, what you can’t see could hurt you.

— -- When it comes to makeup, there are 50 shades of everything. Should you buy firehouse red or petal pink? Which lipstick looks good is a distinction you can see, but with sample makeup testers, it’s what you can’t see that could make you sick.

While none of the makeup looked particularly grubby, it was definitely used. I did see discoloration and noticed strange smells with some of the facial cream testers we swabbed.

Makeup is notoriously hard to match to your skin tone - you need to try on that bronzer or bright red lipstick to see if it looks good - so I asked a salesperson how I could test a lip gloss color.

The salesperson told me I could just try it on, and then she offered to help. She used a fresh, one-time use applicator but dipped it into the tester that was out on the floor. Then she admitted that many people just use the lipstick with the applicator that's built into the cap, meaning they apply it directly their lips and then put it back into the tube, the same tube another person may dip into to try five minutes later.

The salespeople generally practiced good hygiene. One clearly stated “We don’t double dip,” which means they use a fresh applicator with every dip into the makeup, however another sent us home with face cream she dug out of the half empty tester that was out on the floor. Yuck!

We sent all our swabs to Dr. Susan Whittier, Associate Professor of Clinical Pathology and Cell Biology at the microbiology lab at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. She pointed out that makeup testers all present perfect opportunities for bacteria to grow.

Of the 25 samples she we sent her, nine tested positive for bacteria. It looks gross but it’s mostly bacteria we would find in everyday life. However, it could be harmful to some people who are immunocompromised.

But three other results got Dr. Whittier’s attention.

“We found that three samples were only growing yeast. That was worrisome,” she said. “If you are putting a product on your face that has yeast, that could definitely cause some sort of skin infection."

Those infections include rashes and the dreaded pinkeye.

These three results come from hand cream samples. Imagine that you rub it on in the store and then a few minutes later rub your eye. Yikes!

Dr. Whittier’s advice: leave the testers alone.

“I would never use a free sample in any kind of store whether it is high end or whether it is low end,” she said. “You just don’t know who’s had their finger in there.”

So how are you supposed to figure out what shade of makeup is right?

  • Go to a sales associate. They have their own supplies and are usually trained in hygienic practices.
  • Closed dispensers, such as pumps, are less likely to have germs.
  • Don’t test at all. Some stores have a return policy for makeup that doesn’t work out.
  • If you must try with a tester, ask a clerk to sterilize it with alcohol first.
  • Don’t apply anything to your eyes or lips, where you are most vulnerable to infection.