Bacteria at the Beauty Counter

Have you ever gotten your makeup done at the beauty counter at the department store or a makeup store? Or even swatched a shadow or blush on to your hand? Well, you might not want to anymore!

I read a recent article how a news team swabbed shadows, lipsticks and mascara at a local beauty store in North Carolina and they found E. coli and MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus). As an eye surgeon, and someone who loves getting my makeup done at those counters, I wanted to do my own experiment to see what type of bacteria was growing at our local makeup store.

I went with my trusty sidekick, my 6 year old daughter, who LOVES makeup!

Arya and I at the mall about to play makeup PI

I had agar plates, the kind used to grow bacteria in our office because we often have patients with eye infections and we want to figure out what type of bacteria is present and the susceptibilities to antibiotics.

I took 2 blood agar and 2 chocolate agar plates. The chocolate agar plates is a medium for respiratory type infections. I used clean applicators and swabbed 3 different eye shadows, gel eyeliners and various mascaras. I made sure to include a control section (a quadrant where I didn’t apply any product) just to ensure that I wasn’t just growing bacteria from the air in my plates.

I’ll be honest, I felt very silly, walking around with a vlogging camera and trying not so subtly to take samples at the store. We even ran into someone I knew – I think she knew I was doing something a little weird!

Typically, the plates need to be incubated in a dark warm environment 70-80 degrees (that’s Hawaii weather!). So, I put them in a shoe box into my dark closet and waited 5 days.

Incubating my plates in my fancy shoe box

I was SO surprised at the results. First, there was a TON of bacteria. But, I really had thought the most bacteria would grow from the mascara and eyeliners. But, guess what? It was the eye shadows that grew the most. And, now I think I know why.

Bacteria growing from eye shadows

A lot of people tend to use their fingers to swatch out the eye shadow palettes, instead of the clean applicators just 5 feet away (or sometimes 5 inches away). Most people aren’t using their fingers to dip into mascara, however. So, that contamination from people’s fingers is likely what grew all that bacteria.

And, my control zones were totally clear, so I know that the bacteria that grew were from the beauty products and not just from my closet! lol!

The eyeliners and mascara surprisingly had the least amount of bacteria.

And, I’m sure the beauty counter managers are cleaning those palettes continuously, but if you’re in a busy store, quite honestly, I just don’t think it’s humanly possible to clean as frequently as necessary (which might be every 10 minutes!)

So, yes, lots of bacteria – but so what? There’s bacteria everywhere. True. On counters and public toilet seats. But the difference is we all tend to use hand sanitizer and wash our hands frequently (I hope). I only wash my face in the morning and at night. So, if you’re applying makeup from a beauty counter, it stays on your face for a while..

Maybe think twice from now on before getting your makeup done. Sure, they clean the brushes, but do you see them clean the palettes with alcohol in front of you? If not, just watch out!

And if you want a 1 page freebie on when to throw out your makeup, then check it out here.

And, if you want to see our shenanigans, then check out our full video here.

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Dr. Rupa Wong


Hi! I'm Dr. Rupa Wong. Physician. Private Practice Owner. Mama to 3 kids. Managing Partner. Educator. Textbook Author. Conference Co-Founder. Mentor. I am more than just one thing, even as a doctor and I bet you are too. I would love to help you envision the life you want, and then get after it. What are you waiting for?

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