Update: We have received a response from Glambot's founder, Karen Horiuchi, and have updated the story to include her comments.
This story was originally published on August 21, 2015.
When a story about the startup Glambot— a company that sells used makeup — popped up yesterday, the reactions from our team were a mix of disbelief and disgust, ranging from "EW. NO." to "How is that even legal?"
To give you some background, Glambot is a service that will take your used makeup — be it a half-full eyeshadow you got sick of or an untouched foundation that was the wrong shade and you were just too lazy to take back to Sephora — sanitize it, repackage it in a cute, vaguely tech-inspired container, and then sell it at a discount. The donor gets a small sum for no-longer-loved cosmetics, and the consumer gets a name-brand makeup item at a sometimes steep discount.
It all sounds very sustainable, with its no-unloved-makeup-left-behind ideology. You get rid of your old makeup, make some extra cash, and it finds a new home with someone who will love and cherish it. It's enough to make you feel all warm and fuzzy — except for that whole "used makeup" bit. Isn't that both unhygienic and just kind of gross? It goes against everything we've ever been told about health and skin safety by derms and makeup artists.
So we decided to check in with some experts to see if it's even possible to totally sanitize makeup, and whether there's any risk to using someone's old cosmetics. Multiple interviews with makeup artists and derms uncovered one thing: There is a lot of contention and no consensus on this topic.
"Depending on the exact composition of the product, we use a combination of different sanitization techniques, which include the application of heat, the use of various alcohol solutions, detailed layered product removal, and the use of natural emollients,” Glambot’s founder, Karen Horiuchi, told us.
Although this is an effective way of cleaning makeup, we were skeptical. Most makeup artists use many of the same techniques that Glambot does to sanitize their kits, but when asked about a company claiming to do the same and then selling the product, all of the makeup artists we reached out to declined to comment.
While they were keeping mum, dermatologists had a lot to say. "No matter what method Glambot is using, even if effective 90% of the time, you cannot know for sure what bacteria, infection, or fungus has been left behind on the remaining 10%," says Howard Sobel, MD. He also reveals that the only way to completely sterilize a product would be to "put it in an autoclave for 15 to 20 minutes at a temperature of 249 degrees Fahrenheit."
Expiration dates are also a major concern when it comes to sanitizing and reselling used makeup. Glambot takes this into account by specifying that “all items sent in must be non-expired,” says Horiuchi. “We meticulously check all items for dates that are explicitly specified on labels and other packaging.”
But cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson of BeautyStat.com is still suspicious. "I question its overall safety," he says. "It's [very difficult] for Glambot to know how old the products are that they receive. So even if they sanitize the product, the consistency or performance might be compromised."
Many products do have expiration dates, much like food, that tell you for how long they're considered "good." For many, that can be anywhere from one to three years. The fewer preservatives the product has, the shorter the shelf life — so natural and organic products, which tend to be preservative-free, usually have much shorter shelf lives. Products also have something called a PAO — period after opening. This is usually signified by a little jar icon with a number and an M on it. This tells you how many months the product is good for after it's been opened. So something that has a 12 on it means that product is good for one year after the date you open it. Once a product is opened, it is exposed to moisture, bacteria, and other environmental factors, which will speed up its degradation. So even if it hasn't passed its expiration date, if you've opened it then it can still go bad.
The FDA does not require cosmetics brands to print expiration dates or PAOs. Most brands do, but there is no real way for Glambot to know for sure when items were opened and if they have passed their PAO safety dates.
Not all derms agree that those expiration and PAO dates should be the be-all and end-all of determining if something is still safe to use. Neal Schultz, MD, an NYC dermatologist and creator of BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz, points out that almost all products on the market today have some type of preservatives in their formulations that act as "built-in safety nets." "I'm not advocating that 12 women in the same office use the same makeup product," he says, "but I don't think it's dangerous or bad [to use a product past its best-used by date]." Dr. Schultz also points out that applying used makeup to your face isn't all that different from kissing a cutie at the bar. "In terms of using somebody else's [makeup], the likelihood of getting an infection from something like this is little to none," he says.
But it's still important to be aware of the risks that come with purchasing used makeup. If the idea of applying someone else's eyeshadow (even if it was sanitized) gives you the creeps, then Glambot probably isn't the service for you. But if you're on a budget and want to try a new brand or shade — and aren't a big believer in the whole expiration-date thing — then it could be a good option to explore.
Just be alert and attentive to the state of the makeup when you get it. If it's separated or has a distinctly funky smell, that's definitely an indication that it's gone bad. Glambot does sell unused (but previously owned) makeup at a slightly discounted price if that's more up your alley, but from what we saw it's not so much of a bargain that it's worth purchasing over going to the store and buying it brand-new.
Many will argue that selling used makeup is not unlike passing down an unwanted eyeshadow palette to a younger sister — but we're not of that school. As beauty editors for whom the dangers of using expired makeup or sharing products have been drilled in multiple times, we like to know where our makeup has been and whose fingers have been in it before we even consider putting it anywhere near our eyes or lips.