"Nothing will go back to normal." At this point in history, that statement could (and should) apply to anything (and everything). But in this particular instance, Cassandra M. Pierre, a physician specializing in infectious diseases and the medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center, is referring to the future of beauty product testing. Swatching, swiping, and slathering simply do not exist in a post-COVID-19 world.
Well, perhaps "post-COVID-19 world" is an ambitious turn of phrase. The disease caused by the novel coronavirus — you know, the one that incited a worldwide pandemic at the top of 2020 and has claimed nearly a half a million lives globally at the time of writing — shows no signs of stopping. In spite of this, states are beginning to loosen lockdown restrictions and stores are starting to reopen; including traditionally high-touch, high-risk retail environments like Sephora and Ulta Beauty.
"Even pre-COVID-19, there's always been some risk with [in-store product sampling]," Pierre says. "There are people who have claimed that they had a new herpes infection after they used samples of lipstick, or that they've had other types of bacterial or viral infections from using those shared samples."
Bacteria and viruses (like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) can be spread through both person-to-person contact and surface contact, which is what makes it particularly dangerous to practice communal cosmetic sampling while the coronavirus persists. "Primary transmission for COVID-19 is through respiratory droplets, but they are very susceptible to gravity," the expert explains. "You're talking and droplets are emitted and they fall ... on something that you're sampling. That can carry that infection particle to the next person who uses it."
"In general, [beauty testers] tend to hold a lot of bacteria and in this COVID-19 era, where we know this disease can spread through direct contact or airborne exposure, it would be very risky to expose oneself to something other people are using," agrees Nada Elbuluk, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical associate professor of dermatology at the USC Keck School of Medicine. She notes that although data on the virus is still developing and much remains unknown, "we do know that it can live for hours and up to days on certain surfaces."
That longevity translates to increased risk for exposure, contamination, and spread — especially since makeup testers tend to be applied near the eye and mouth areas, which are considered mucosal sites. "Mucosal surfaces can more easily absorb what we’re exposed to," Elbuluk tells ishonest. "They can be entry points for different viruses, bacteria, and infections."
Given all of the above, it's not surprising that beauty retailers are saying goodbye to traditional sampling — and hello to extreme sanitization, "no-touch" testing, single-use samples, subscription boxes, and artificial intelligence.
To ensure all employees are healthy, all surfaces are properly sanitized, and all customers are safe, Sephora has announced new "Health & Hygiene Guidelines" and Ulta Beauty has launched its "Shop Safe Standards," incorporating guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (and common sense). Think: mandatory face coverings for sales associates, increased store cleanings, optional contactless payment methods.
"When we reopen, there [will be] a temperature check every morning for employees," Romain Gaillard, the founder of The Detox Market, tells ishonest. (Most Detox Market locations currently only offer curbside pickup, with select locations offering one-on-one, by-appointment shopping.) "Everyone will be wearing masks. We will have disposable masks for people entering the stores and hand sanitizers everywhere." He adds that upon reopening, stores will be limiting the amount of people allowed in at any given time in order to encourage social distancing.
Gaillard notes that cosmetic testers — typically left on display for customers to swatch at their convenience — are effectively canceled. Instead, shoppers will "have to ask someone to try something, and the Detox Market ambassador will help," he says. "If it's a color cosmetic, the ambassador will put it on a palette and hand it to the customer to see if they want to apply it on their hand."
Similarly, Sephora has adopted a no-touch policy. "Customers will no longer be able to pick up and touch testers or apply product to themselves," Annie Lawless, the founder and CEO of Lawless Beauty, tells ishonest. (Sephora is the brand's exclusive retailer.) "Sephora Beauty Advisors and our brand field team will also not be touching clients. Instead, they will demo the product shade, texture, and application on their own skin and verbally educate on the product."
Lawless adds that Sephora and Lawless Beauty will be incorporating blank face charts into demos in states where local ordinances allow for display testers. "Beauty Advisors may apply product to the charts to show application techniques that the client may take home to replicate," she says.
The founder feels comfortable with these changes to the sampling process — "I do think with the safety measures and precautions Sephora is implementing, beauty sampling will feel safe because there will be no contact with product or tools, which mitigates the risk of contamination," she says — but for infectious disease expert Pierre, the risk is still there.
"Theoretically, even if you're within six feet of someone, like a makeup artist or a sales associate, you are at a lower risk for transmission," Pierre says. "Even if you wear a mask, your eyes are exposed. Getting really up close and personal with someone else remains a risk."
Customers aren't exactly sold on new sampling procedures, either. "I will definitely be more apprehensive to try anything in the store," Megan DiGuilio, a makeup and skin-care enthusiast based in New Jersey, tells ishonest. "I feel like the days of leaving the store with eye shadow swatches up my arm are over."
"I believe that for a long time — until there's a vaccine — consumers will only feel comfortable with some sort packette samples or mini samples that are for individual use and are safety-sealed," says Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and the founder of BeautyStat Cosmetics.
Gaillard agrees. He's had conversations with many of the beauty brands carried by The Detox Market and tells ishonest that "a lot of them are aware they need to ramp up their production of samples." However, he notes, "they need to do it in an eco-friendly way."
While individual, pre-packaged samples may be a win for safety, they're a loss for sustainability. The large majority of plastic packaging used for beauty products goes unrecycled, either due to improper sorting or size (plastics less than three inches in height are typically too small to be processed in recycling facilities). These plastics eventually end up in landfills or bodies of water, where they continue to break up into smaller — and more dangerous — microplastic particles until the end of time. These particles then infiltrate the air and the soil, and are consumed by both marine life and humans. (Not-so-fun fact: according to Greenpeace, plastic never fully decomposes, so every piece of plastic ever created still exists!)
Considering the fact that the twin crises of the coronavirus and climate change continue to unfold side-by-side, "there is no way you cannot raise the question of sustainability" in coronavirus safety protocols, Gaillard muses. "We've seen a lot of brands using glass samples, and that's great" — glass is infinitely recyclable, whereas the same piece of plastic can only be recycled once or twice — "but there's always going to be a cap or something that's plastic, because you can't do a glass cap. But it's getting better."
Still, as detrimental to the environment as individually-packaged samples may be, they could help curb another eco-unfriendly beauty behavior: returns. "People in the United States return a lot," Gaillard says; and in the swatchless wake of COVID-19, consumers may be even more inclined to purchase full-size products and simply return those that don't live up to expectations. The problem: Many retailers resort to "damaging out" or destroying returned items due to contamination concerns, effectively sending thousands upon thousands of new and slightly-used products straight to the landfill.
In this sense, the mindful and calculated creation of as-sustainable-as possible samples could divert some of that waste, according to Gaillard. "We never push clients to buy something, we push them to try something," he says. "When you sample, you're less likely to return products."
There is one option that's equal parts safe and sustainable: Artificial Intelligence (AI). "I think one thing that the pandemic has done has been to force different sectors of society to think creatively about how they can still reach their consumers, and we're seeing a lot of sectors of society using virtual ways of communication with their clientele," Elbuluk observes.
Ulta Beauty is taking the opportunity to push GLAMlab, "our interactive virtual try-on experience in the Ulta Beauty app," it explains on its site, as "a convenient, safe alternative" to physical shade swatching. Sephora is encouraging the use of its Virtual Artist AR, which can be downloaded as an app on your phone and facilitates at-home "testing," shade matching, and product education.
The L'Oréal Paris Makeup Genius app offers similar features for those looking to digitally sample more affordable, accessible options; and the YouCam Makeup app is seeing "record-high activity" during stay-at-home orders.
"I'm probably going to get the majority of my beauty samples from the packets that come in the mail from Nordstrom," jokes Pierre — but it's fair to assume others are on the same page. Those not willing to risk in-store sampling or commit to full-size products sight-unseen may start to consider subscription boxes that deliver sample-sized beauty products to your door.
With so many no-touch or low-touch alternatives available, will shoppers ever go back to swatching, swiping, and slathering with abandon? "No, I don't see it returning to popularity in the near future, nor do I feel it would be safe to do so," Ebuluk states. "It's really hard to predict how our society will evolve, but we're not at the point where we’re in the clear from the pandemic. My recommendation at this time would be not to sample."
For our Future of Beauty issue, we’re giving you a front-row seat to see the technologies of tomorrow while exploring the impact these innovations will have on our lives.
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