A Germaphobe's Guide To Testing Makeup Samples

Unless it was a solid (and preferably, pre-taxed) $1 million, no amount of money would be enough to convince me to test an opened tube of sample mascara from a makeup counter. The thought alone elicits the same skeeved-out feeling I get when I think about soaking in my grimy New York City bathtub, where thousands of butts have sat before mine.

It's not that I'm a complete germaphobe, but I do have super sensitive skin that freaks out any time I even consider letting my roommate borrow an eyeshadow palette — so mindlessly swiping on communal lipstick used by 138 other people before me is not my idea of a fun time. The thing is, you shouldn't have to avoid makeup testers like the plague from some apocalyptic zombie nightmare. Samples are important in making sure a product works with your skin tone and type, which is why employees at stores like Sephora, Ulta, and MAC are trained on hygienic practices to keep them clean.

Still, that doesn't stop a few bad apples from not following the rules, and that's where this guide comes in. Ahead, the no-B.S. rules to putting this shit on your face — because you know you want to anyway — so you can get a smoky eye, and not a stye.

Illustration by Louisa Cannell
Leave Double-Dipping For The Salsa

Wands are for fairy godmothers, not makeup testers — which is precisely why you should avoid testing mascara, lip gloss, liquid concealers, or anything else that comes with a stick applicator. "Each time you pull the wand out and dip it back in to lube up the brush head, you're pushing air into the bottle's base, feeding the aerobic bacteria that can survive in an oxygenated area," says dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. "Mascara is the biggest cause of an eye infection; liquid eyeliner is a close second."

Instead, make like an Instagram influencer and swatch those formulas on the inside of your wrist to avoid cross-contamination. Or better yet: Ask for a sample. Like clothing stores, sometimes beauty retailers keep secondary testers hidden in drawers, so just ask a sales associate to open a new tester for you. ("This one is empty" is a pretty clutch pick-up line when it comes to makeup.)
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
Go Bottoms Up

In an ideal world, every lipstick you love online would look perfect on your skin tone and in every lighting. But the truth is, you're probably going to have to swipe on a few different shades of red before you find the right one — and when you do, don't do it straight from the tube. Scrape (or tissue) off the top and apply it to your wrist with a clean brush. Or use this genius hack from our beauty director: Twist the bullet all the way to the very top, and use a Q-Tip to swab from the very bottom of the bullet.

If you feel like you absolutely must try it on your lips, Engelman suggests you keep some alcohol-based wipes (she likes Dickinson’s Witch Hazel Towelettes) in your bag to sanitize it first.
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
Keep Your Hands Out Of The Pot

When you're shopping for makeup, always follow this cardinal rule: Don't plunge your hand into cream formulas. The moist environment makes the pot a breeding ground for bacteria — especially if it's been exposed to a room full of sticky fingers. Instead, reach for squeezable tubes (which you can easily find in lip balms, primers, BB creams, and more), or use a powder that you can apply with a clean applicator.
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
Have A One-Use Stand

This one is painfully obvious, but it bears repeating. You know those disposable wands, Q-tips, cotton swabs, and doe-foot applicators hanging out near every makeup mirror at every beauty retailer? Those are there for your own good, just waiting to save you from an unfortunate case of conjunctivitis. That is all.
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
When In Doubt, Pump It Out

Not only is it a helluva lot easier to dispense out your liquids, it's also way more hygienic. Since you're not actually touching the product directly, you're 99.9% less likely to contaminate it in the process. But if the foundation or skin-care product you really want only comes in a jar, ask a sales associate for a sample. Employees from some stores, like Sephora, are allowed to give customers up to three each.
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
When All Else Fails, Fake It

With all the digital integrations sweeping makeup counters these days, the extreme germaphobe can take advantage of some stores' facial recognition scanners that let you virtually try on different products. At Sephora, they call this feature the "Tap and Try" station — a place where you can test out any lip or lash item at the store in real time. Starting today at all MAC stores, you can use its brand-new Augmented Reality try-on mirrors to see what 29 different eye looks would look like on you. And at Ulta Beauty, you can use the iMatch Digital Shade Finder in store to find the right Estée Lauder foundation.

For the especially lazy folks (raises hand), you can also download a mobile app — Makeup Genius is a good one — and try some on from your couch before heading into the store.
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