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Keeping it Clean - The Makeup Counter

I'm not a professional makeup artist and I've reached the age where my beauty routine is heavy on skincare and light on makeup. Mascara, you'll always be my bff! But, I LOVE to watch makeup tutorials. Instagram, Youtube, wherever, I will watch anyone put on makeup because I find it sort of zen. Each to their own, right? Recently I found myself having to wait around the local mall so naturally I drifted over to the makeup counters in one of the high end department stores. That day was especially busy with more than half a dozen makeovers in progress so of course I stopped to watch. What I saw was a carnival of cross contamination.

Laws vary from state to state but here in New York, someone working in a fixed location as a makeup artist needs an esthetician or cosmetology license. Both those licenses require sanitation education as well as clinical hours performing makeup services and demonstration of proper hygiene at the practical exam. Makeup counter personnel are exempt from any licensing requirements and there doesn't seem to be any retail specific legal guidelines for sanitation so it seems to be left up to employers to determine those practices. According to postings on message boards for retail makeup artists, not only do standards vary from pretty good to non-existent from company to company but from store to store within those companies.

I'm not suggesting that retailers and their employees are to blame for all cross contamination. Far from it. After watching for the better part of an hour, it was clear that even when sales associates are doing everything right, customers are so busy happily infecting products, that it would be next to impossible to keep up.

The good news - according to the FDA, serious injury from exposure to pathogens at the makeup counter are rare. However Elizabeth Brooks, DPM, a biological sciences professor at Rowan University spent 2 years analyzing the surfaces of hundreds of makeup testers in stores ranging from drugstores to high-end department stores. Her findings: 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.

Brooks, quoted in an article in Prevention magazine, agrees that the primary cause is poor hygiene by customers. "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.

Most infectious diseases are caused by transfer of pathogens to mucus membranes so in theory, you could pick up herpes from a lipstick previously used by someone with a cold sore or conjunctivitis from a mascara wand. One of the most egregious examples of cross contamination during my mall visit was a display of about 40 lipsticks on a counter for anyone to try directly on their lips without supervision. Despite their worn condition, they were still being sampled frequently.

In another study in the Journal of Industrial Microbiology a total of 3027 shared-use cosmetic product samples were collected from 171 retail establishments throughout the United States. 50% of the samples showed significant contamination, with average densities of "2288, 1685 and 1088 Colony Forming Units [per gram] for face and lip products, respectively." Legal limits in the US are 1000 CFUs per gram and a lower 500 CFUs for eye products. 60% of the isolates were microflora from human skin, meaning contamination from direct contact, while the remainder were environmental microbes, meaning contamination just from being exposed. The takeaway from this study is "preservation systems of some of the cosmetics failed under excessive use (abuse), and indicated a potential for microbiological safety problems with shared-use cosmetics."

To completely eliminate risk of infection, find a store with a liberal return policy and avoid sampling altogether. Admittedly makeup counters are very seductive so if that's not something you want to give up completely, here's some suggestions to safely enjoy the experience:

Avoid testing makeup on eyes or mouth. Mucus membranes, remember?

If you must try the hottest new shades, use testers at a counter manned by staff who follow safety protocols and provide single use testers. Stay far away from unmanned testers. What should sanitation procedures look like?

Mascara - the wand that comes in the product should be broken off and disposable wands provided. However, if associate applies mascara to one set of lashes and then dips in back in the container, all bets are off. As with waxing, double dipping means it's time to go. Mascara is a risk for contamination even when it's your own so you don't want to mess around with this particular product.

Lipsticks and pencils - should be dipped in alcohol. Alternatively, pencils can be sharpened before use with a sanitized sharpener. Lipsticks can also be scraped onto a pallet with a spatula and applied with a clean brush or swab. Lip glosses with wands just shouldn't be sampled.

Cosmetics in powdered form such as eyeshadows and blush - should be wiped off with tissue to reveal a new layer of product. Some retailers allow pallets to be sprayed with alcohol. Brushes should be, at minimum, sprayed with anti-bacterial spray. Also note the condition of brushes as some makeup associates complain that there is no opportunity to thoroughly wash brushes on a regular basis.

Liquid products - should be dispensed from pumps, squeeze tubes, etc. Any product in a jar should be dispensed with a spatula, not fingers. Again, watch for the double dip!

And of course, make sure anyone touching your skin or handling your cosmetics has sanitized their hands. Look to see that they are visibly clean as well. Have you ever seen any running water behind the makeup counter?

And lastly, don't be afraid to walk away if you're not happy with the hygiene at a particular location. Your health is what's most important and if everyone cut short a makeup application because of lax sanitation issues, it would certainly increase adherence to them.

Happy shopping and be careful out there!