Would You Pay $2 for Someone Else’s Half-Finished Lipstick?

Why beauty fans around the world are shelling out money for used makeup products.

By Susannah Cohen

Looking to buy a specific sold-out Kylie Cosmetics lip kit? You might have to purchase one secondhand. (Art:  Jessica Palermi )

Looking to buy a specific sold-out Kylie Cosmetics lip kit? You might have to purchase one secondhand. (Art: Jessica Palermi)

Germaphobes might want to look away now, because used makeup, it seems, is a thing. Beauty junkies around the world are scouring the internet for partially-used lipsticks and neglected highlighter palettes. Sold at a mere fraction of the cost you’d pay if you popped into a Sephora to buy them new, the products vary wildly in terms of use. Some are unopened; others have been “swatched” — tested briefly on the back of the hand — and many are half-used.

Beauty addicts find them on DIY selling apps like Mercari, which had more than 1,900 used Kylie Cosmetics products listed for sale at the time of writing. Dedicated makeup resale sites like MUABS and Glambot also peddle thousands of partially tested products. There’s even a subreddit called the Makeup Exchange, which has 44,000 subscribers willing to buy or ship bundles of secondhand Tarte, Becca, and Smashbox cosmetics to each other around the world.

Once you get over the squirminess of using a hand-me-down product, the trend makes sense — at least from the seller’s standpoint.

“If you are obsessed with beauty, it’s easy to accumulate lipsticks, mascaras, eyeshadow palettes, and fragrances which you may only use a few times before moving onto the next big thing,” Janet Milner Walker, the beauty director at the U.K. consulting agency Bespoke Advantage, said. “I can understand why people would want to sell on their pre-owned or used cosmetics to others rather than just leaving them lying about at the bottom of their cosmetics bag.”

The buyer’s enthusiasm is initially harder to understand. Because when you’re purchasing used makeup, isn’t there an element of risk involved? As Milner-Walker pointed out, the sellers are probably not professional makeup artists, meaning they don’t know how to properly sanitize, wipe-down, or sterilize their products. You’re essentially buying something with no clue as to what its previous owner did with it.

On Poshmark, you can buy limited edition lipsticks from 2016 that have been half-used by a stranger for only $13. (Photo:  Poshmark )

On Poshmark, you can buy limited edition lipsticks from 2016 that have been half-used by a stranger for only $13. (Photo: Poshmark)

But the trend might not be as icky as it sounds.

Karen Horiuchi, the founder of the makeup resale website Glambot, pointed out that if you’re OK with sampling makeup testers in stores, buying second-time-around products shouldn’t be that hard to do. In fact, if anything, they’re more palatable because they’re generally only used by one person compared to potentially hundreds of strangers in a store.

Even so, if your first thought is “Ew!” you’re not alone.  A lot of platforms don’t condone the selling of used cosmetics, because, well, it’s just gross. Poshmark and eBay, for instance, only allow listings for new cosmetics. The same goes for the shopping app, Depop.

“Depop has clear rules when it comes to selling makeup,” a spokesperson told OK Whatever via email, citing health and safety reasons. “Any used makeup should be reported and will be removed by our team in less than 24 hours.”

Still, there are plenty of people out there willing to buy someone else’s unfinished pressed powder.

Once you get past the gross-factor, this odd beauty phenomenon can actually start to make sense.  First, there’s the price: The resale market brings luxury branded products down to an accessible price for customers who might not be able to afford them otherwise. As one blogger wrote in her review of shopping for used-makeup: “It’s really fun to be surfing high-end and designer cosmetic and seeing itty-bitty price tags attached to them.”

Then there’s availability: You can’t always get the hottest brands at your local mall, particularly outside the U.S. (which explains why the international resale market is ballooning so quickly). Finally, there’s the growing trend of releasing limited-edition products. Brands such as Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, Tom Ford, and Kylie Cosmetics regularly put out one-time-only collections that light up social media and then sell out quickly, never to be manufactured again.   

Are you brave enough to try used makeup? (Photo:  Juliana Malta )

Are you brave enough to try used makeup? (Photo: Juliana Malta)

“Makeup now is like clothes,” Horiuchi, who founded Glambot in 2013, said. “There’s fads and there’s new lines coming out every quarter or every two months from all these different brands. There’s more talk and buzz about these products. It’s just snowballed into this huge industry.”

Horiuchi came up with the idea of Glambot when she was getting ready for work one day and opened up her makeup drawer to find five MAC eyeshadows in pretty much the same shade. At $18-$20 apiece, “that was a lot of unused money in my drawer,” she said. She could see that there were online communities for swapping used makeup, but they were not the most efficient solution. “Swaplifting” — taking someone’s money and failing to deliver — was a problem, as were counterfeit products.

Horiuchi knew there had to be a better way to exchange makeup, so she started making it a reality. She stockpiled volumes of cosmetics from makeup artists and influencers to sell on Glambot and the first order came in before she had even finished building the website. (It was for a MAC eyeshadow in Carbon Black.)

Whereas marketplaces like Mercari or Reddit’s Makeup Exchange provide platforms for beauty aficionados to sell or swap makeup with each other, Glambot functions differently. It’s more like a cosmetics version of the luxury fashion resale site The Real Real: Glambot buys your old cosmetics (in quantities of 20 products or more), authenticates them, and then sanitizes them before listing them for sale on their site.

For many shoppers, it’s the sanitization aspect of Glambot’s products that makes buying from them most appealing. With a background in laboratory science, Horiuchi is proud of her company’s sanitization process, which involves “precise layered removal” of a tube of lipstick or pressed powder, followed by re-sanitization with a proprietary solution. Unlike online marketplaces and exchanges, Glambot does not sell anything with a submerged applicator, such as mascara or some lip glosses, because you can’t sanitize them.

This “Naked” eyeshadow palette by Urban Decay might be partially used, but it’s also only a quarter of the price of a new palette.  (Photo:  Poshmark )

This “Naked” eyeshadow palette by Urban Decay might be partially used, but it’s also only a quarter of the price of a new palette.
(Photo: Poshmark)

Intrigued, I decided to try the trend for myself and headed to the Glambot website. It was July 29th, National Lipstick Day, so rather than stand in line for hours at the local MAC store — which was giving away lipstick in honor of the event — I splashed out $2 on a tube of MAC’s Shanghai Spice lipstick. The product description said it was in “fair” condition and 50-percent filled. Postage brought the total to $6.78.

The lipstick, when it arrived, was nicely packaged, and the sticker on the wrapper bore the signature of the team member who had cleaned and processed it. The actual lipstick was smooth at the top, and you could see where it had been sliced off. It was half-used but perfectly clean at the edges. It looked fine.

Still, ew.

The lipstick has been sitting on a shelf with the rest of my mail for a number of weeks now and I just can’t bring myself to put it anywhere near my lips.

“It’s definitely not for everyone,” Horiuchi said.

And she’s right in my case.

The thing is, you’re either on board with used makeup or you’re not. And Glambot knows this. In fact, it currently doesn’t allocate any of its marketing budget to trying to convince people that used makeup is safe. Why? Because it doesn’t need to. There are plenty of people out there who will happily buy the hot new brands and colors they’ve been craving — even if they’re already been swatched.


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