Bacteria showed up when students tested at department stores.
The siren songs of the spring makeup collections are hard to resist. But think twice before sticking your finger into the lip gloss or eye shadow at the cosmetics counter. There could be more lurking there than the latest shade of plum.
Bacteria, including staph and E. coli, were uncovered in a two-year study of makeup-counter samples conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Brooks, a biological sciences professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.
"Every single time, we found E. coli. That was the one that was most repulsive to all of us," says Brooks, pointing out that this likely means the makeup was tried by someone who didn't wash her hands after using the restroom.
The study, completed last spring, was a class project for Brooks' students, who sampled and cultured cosmetic testers in 20 department stores and pharmacies. Bacterial contamination was found in every sampling, and at a higher rate on weekends, when the stores are busier.
But ... ick!
"There isn't a whole lot of health risk here. The only one I can really think of, and it's a real possibility, is bacterial conjunctivitis. Also, any of these bacteria can cause acne," Brooks says. "It's just kind of the ick factor. I don't want this on my skin."
Dr. Stuart Bender, chief of dermatology at Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Conn., and assistant clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine, agrees that the risk of contracting an infection from contaminated makeup testers is low. "The most dangerous thing at the cosmetics counter is the sticker shock of what it costs," he says.
Bender says he typically sees patients with irritations or allergic reactions to cosmetics, but can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he's treated a patient for an infection caused by makeup in his 40 years of practicing.
Prevention magazine, which wrote about Brooks' study in its April edition, found a makeup sales associate who contracted a nasty case of conjunctivitis, she believed, from using a makeup sample.
"Theoretically, almost anything that a tester had before you [sampled the makeup] can contaminate the makeup," says Amy O'Connor, deputy editor at Prevention. "Retailers who put these testers out are not to blame. They make every effort to keep these clean."
Brooks agrees. "We as the consumer need to be a little more vigilant, because the stores are doing what they can. The general population needs to educate itself," she says.
So how can you safely try cosmetics? Use common sense.
Wash your hands with soap and water before and after using a makeup tester, or use a hand sanitizer. Try products on your hand, not your face, then hold your hand up to your face to see how the color looks.
"Avoid the eyes and mouth at all costs," Brooks says.
Says O'Connor: "Makeup is really expensive. It's very tempting to use the testers, but don't assume they are safe. Ask the salespeople for help."