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Make-up and bacteria: Ranking the dirtiest product testers at the cosmetics counter

Oral herpes, skin infections and acne are not the gifts with purchase you want to bring home with your new lipstick.

You walk into a make-up store and there’s that gorgeous shade of lipstick you’ve been wanting to try. So, you pick up the tester and pull off the cap.

But uh-oh, not only is the lipstick smooshed into the cover like Play Doh, whatever’s left of the lipstick in the tube doesn’t look like something you’d want to touch with a 10-foot pole, never mind a tiny spatula.

Those are obvious signs of “don’t go there”. But what about make-up testers that look pretty and intact? Are they... clean?

As it turns out, make-up testers can contain a myriad of disease-causing bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus that leads to skin infections, and the acne-causing Propionibacterium, said Richard Khaw, the deputy director of the School of Chemical & Life Sciences at Nanyang Polytechnic.

The more serious bugs include Enterobacter, which can lead to lower respiratory infections, as well as Enterococcus faecalis that causes urinary tract infections.

There’s also Aeromonas, which can result in gastroenteritis and wound infections – not the gifts with purchase you have in mind.

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“Sometimes, fungi such as Candida and Aspergillus, and viruses like the Herpes simplex virus (that causes cold sore) can also be found in contaminated make-up,” said Khaw.

These microorganisms that find their way onto the testers are courtesy of the shoppers – yourself included.

That’s because our skin is naturally colonised by bacteria, including the good, the bad and the really bad ones that can jeopardise your health.

Cross-contamination takes place when multiple people use the products, said Khaw.


Some microorganisms such as Staphylococcus, Enterococcus, Aeromonas and Propionibacterium only require 48 to 72 hours to proliferate, said Khaw.

If the make-up’s composition, nutrient content and moisture level are in the bacteria’s favour, “these microorganisms can multiply enough to cause adverse medical conditions,” he said.

This also explains why “products that are high in moisture and nutrient contents have a shorter shelf life and need to be replaced more frequently”, added Khaw.

Although most cosmetic products contain preservatives, they may not stand up well to Singapore’s weather.

Bacteria growth is accelerated by a high humidity (which can hit 90 per cent in the morning) and room temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius.

“However, we can slow down the growth of microorganisms in the products by keeping them in a cool and dry environment, said Khaw, who recommended an air-conditioned room temperature of 18 to 23 degrees Celsius, and maintaining the humidity at 60 to 65 per cent.


Moisture-based make-up may be what your dry complexion needs but their testers are also likely to contain the highest levels of bacteria, said Khaw. 

“Products that are high in nutrients, such as moisturisers, liquid foundations and vitamin-infused face masks, provide a favourable environment for microorganisms to grow.

Under such situations, consumers may experience symptoms such as skin inflammation, respiratory tract infections, cold sores, and blisters.”

Eyebrow pencils, eye shadows, eyeliners and foundation powders have lower moisture contents, so they are comparatively safer to try.

“They do not provide a conducive environment for the bacteria count to proliferate to a number that is high enough to cause any adverse effects,” said Khaw.

Moisture levels aside, how much contact the product has with users is another factor. With that in mind, Khaw ranked the following common make-up items from the dirtiest to the least dirty:

  • Loose powder foundation
  • Lipstick
  • Lip gloss
  • Liquid foundation
  • Cushion foundation
  • Blush
  • Mascara
  • Eyeliner
  • Eye shadow
  • Eyebrow pencil

SAFE WAYS TO TRY MAKE-UP TESTERSKhaw recommended only trying testers that are covered or capped when not in use. Also, make good use of those cotton buds, and disposable applicators and spatulas provided to prevent cross-contamination, he said.

Just like you shouldn’t double dip with taco chips and salsa, the same rule applies to double-dipping testers.

Unfortunately, you can’t be sure if the person before you double-dipped, so that’s a loophole even when you’re counting on disposable applicators and cotton buds to stay safe.

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In fact, University of Guelph microbiologist Keith Warriner said that trying on used makeup is a big risk on sensitive areas like the eyes and lips.

Your counter move for that is to never apply tester on your lips, eyelids or any part of your face in case the product is already contaminated.

And definitely do not apply any tester on skin that has an open wound. “It may lead to the inflammation of the wound or even cause blood contamination, which may lead to sepsis for consumers who have weak immune systems,” said Khaw.

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  • Liquids, gels or creams

If the liquid foundation or BB cream is contained in a tube or bottle, squeeze or pour out the amount you need without touching the container to your skin to prevent cross-contamination.

If it’s a lip gloss, dip a new disposable wand into the product. Then, apply it to the back of your hand or wrist.

  • Sprays

Some forms of testers are safer to use than others and unfortunately, sprays belong to the latter.

Whether it’s a facial mist or make-up setting spray, if it is contaminated, spritzing it disperses tiny droplets of bacteria-loaded liquid that can be breathed in by the person testing it, said Khaw.

It is also prudent to give mascaras a miss as you may just be a few swipes of the wand away from conjunctivitis. 

  • Stick make-up

For concealers, highlighters, bronzers and blushers in stick form, use a piece of clean tissue to wipe off the top surface of the tester first, said Khaw.

Then, scrape off the amount you need with a spatula or cotton bud and apply it on the back of your hand.

  • Pencils

Stick that eyeliner or lipliner into a sanitised sharpener (spritz it with alcohol first) and give it a few turns to take the outermost layer off.

  • Compact powders

Before testing an eyeshadow, blusher or compact powder, wipe off the surface of the powder with a tissue and use a clean brush to apply it on the back of your hand.

If you want to be extra safe, spray a mist of alcohol over the palette and wipe off the top layer with a tissue before going in with a new applicator.

Source: CNA/bk