If I Wear Thrifted Makeup, Will I Get a Disease?

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Fast-fashion is on its way out; thrifting and peer-to-peer digital resale marketplaces like Depop, Poshmark or Mercari are the future. More and more young people are opting to engage in secondhand shopping because it is a.) fun, b.) affordable, c.) sustainable, d.) cooler and less offensive than going to a Forever 21 for your weekend thot attire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that behavior has migrated over to the beauty industry. According to the Business of Fashion, there’s a trend in Japan of millennials purchasing secondhand makeup. Their rationale doesn’t differ much from the reasons young people have picked up Goodwill habits: it’s cheaper, avoids waste, if they love the product they can and often do commit to paying full price in the future, and some of the luxury goods are only available in their country via a site like Mercari.

Still, the process strikes me as super unhygienic. In April, a woman sued Sephora for allegedly contracting a herpes-related lip cold sore from a lipstick sample at once of the cosmetic conglomerate’s Hollywood stores. They settled, but if she was able to contract a disease simply from a sample, imagine the dangers of using a pre-loved product, potentially one with an unknowable expiration date?

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I contacted a few skin care experts to find out what, if any, dangers could come from this trend.

JEZEBEL: What are the dangers in applying previously used makeup? Do certain used makeups run more risks than others?

Dr. Susan Massick, dermatologist with The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: Contamination with bacteria and fungi is always of concern with old and used makeup, especially those used around the eyes and mouth. Make up that is open to the air or applied with fingers or brushes are more likely to get contaminated over pump bottles or closed jars.

Jordana Mattioli, celebrity esthetician in New York: Used makeup can contain fungus or bacteria that can cause infections. This is especially an issue for makeup that comes in direct contact with the skin like applicators that touch the skin, or anything that you dip your finger into (like an open jar).

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Pencils that can be sharpened, or makeup that is in an airless dispenser would be the better options if you absolutely need to share or buy used makeup.

Dr. Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York: The skin is a natural host to many types of bacteria, and also may contain yeast, fungal and viral infections. Sharing makeup that was in direct contact with someone else’s skin puts you at risk for exposure to these sources of infection. Those used on mucosal membranes, such as the lips, or around the eyes, (lipstick and lipgloss for example) have a higher likelihood of infection because these areas are vulnerable to invasion by viruses and bacteria.

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Products that directly touch skin and are in open containers are certainly also more concerning than those that are in spray containers or pump bottles- because the portion remaining in the container isn’t contaminated each time it’s used. These would be appropriate to purchase as “used” or “resale” with much less risk.

Could you contract a disease from applying previously used makeup?

Dr. Susan Massick: The main disease of concern would be infections of the skin and eyes, with staph infections of particular concern. Also keep in mind, make up is often applied in the bathroom next to a toilet or a hot shower, which heightens risk for contamination.

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Jordana Mattioli: Conjunctivitis, staph, strep and E. coli all can live on makeup. Cold and flu germs can survive for a few hours on surfaces, where herpes simplex and other pathogens can survive for several days, especially in a moist environment. There was a case a few years ago where a woman contracted a MRSA infection that attacked her spine. She used a brush to apply makeup that belonged to a friend who had a Staphylococcus infection on her face. Scary stuff, not worth it!

Dr. Rachel Nazarian: Absolutely. Viruses such as herpes, bacteria such as staph and bacterial infections including impetigo can be transferred from person to person by sharing contaminated makeup.

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Is it possible for used makeup to be sanitized?

Dr. Susan Massick: Theoretically, certain make up could be cleaned by spraying on or dipping in rubbing alcohol. Is it ever fully sanitized once opened? The answer is no, but trying to keep clean can minimize your risks.

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Jordana Mattioli: You can sterilize applicators and possibly makeup products in an autoclave but the temperature is so high I think most makeup items would simply melt. Alcohol can kill some bacteria but not hydrophilic viruses. I think it’s close to impossible to fully sanitize most makeup. An applicator wand someone else had used can be cleaned but the formula inside cannot, so unless there was a guarantee that the person had used a disposable applicator each time they used the product, then the product will contain someone else’s germs and bacteria.

Dr. Rachel Nazarian: Lipglosses or products like powders where the applicator and brushes are placed in the container can not be sanitized. Some lipstick can be “cleaned” but wiping with alcohol or physically removing the top portion.

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Is it enough to simply replace the power puff and applicator in each product?

Dr. Susan Massick: No, the product itself can be contaminated especially if open to the air, used by multiple people (avoid testers at the makeup counters!), used for extended periods of time and beyond expiration dates.

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Jordana Mattioli: No, because the previous puff still came into contact with the skin and therefore the formula.

Dr. Rachel Nazarian: Unfortunately no. Once it’s been used, it’s considered contaminated and cannot be sterilized for 100% no risk of infection.

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Are you surprised to hear about this trend? What would you say to a patient who uses secondhand cosmetics?

Dr. Susan Massick: Just don’t do it. Buy new, keep products clean and tidy, try to disinfect, and replace often.

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Jordana Mattioli: I’m a little surprised to hear there are places that sell used makeup, as even eBay doesn’t allow it. I wouldn’t recommend using a friends makeup, let alone purchasing used makeup online.

Dr. Rachel Nazarian: I’m not surprised about this trend. In some ways a classic makeup counter at the department store or the large box retailers is no different—it allows people to try and use all the products, sharing between the customers before they purchase. The risks are similar when these products aren’t sanitized properly, or when products that can’t be sanitized are used (like a reused lipgloss where the customer “double-dips” and puts an applicator in the tube after use).

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I think that brand names will always have a lure and be in demand and fashionable. Certainly pricing can deter people from purchasing these items full-price brand new, but as appealing as saving money is, the risk of infection is far too concerning to support this trend—and a skin infection is never in fashion!

I recommend purchasing [the used make up] if you want to be seen with the container—but flash the brand name box... don’t use what’s inside.

There you have it. No matter how cheap used makeup is, um, don’t buy it? Save up or purchase an affordable dupe. You have been warned.

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About the author

Maria Sherman

this is my day job: senior writer at jezebel