Product Sampling in a COVID-19 World

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered our daily lives. Earlier this year, we experienced a complete lockdown/stay at home order as public health officials struggled with how to control this public health crisis. Over time, however, as the trend of new infections has begun to stabilize, many states have loosened lockdown restrictions and stores are starting to cautiously reopen. Many have instituted new health and hygiene practices based upon guidance from health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mandatory protective face masks instore, keeping a safe social distance between clients and employees, etc. How have such practices impacted traditionally high-touch retail beauty and personal care retail environments where product testing and sampling (e.g., swatching, swiping and slathering on samples) had been a common practice?

Cosmetics and personal care products companies have long recommended consumers follow certain practices (i.e., DO’s and DON’T’s) to keep themselves and their beauty products safe, including a recommendation against sampling cosmetics in stores unless clean applicators are used each time. This is particularly important during the ongoing pandemic. We know 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 cosmetics sampling while the virus persists. Primary transmission for COVID-19 is through respiratory droplets; once emitted, however, droplets spread and can fall on those samples, potentially carrying infectious particles to the next person who uses them – and vice versa.

Although data on COVID-19 is still developing, it has been demonstrated 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 are often applied near the eye and mouth areas, which are high risk entry points for viruses, bacteria and infections.

Given all the above, it’s not surprising that beauty retailers like Sephora and Ulta Beauty are saying goodbye to traditional sampling — and hello to safer protocols including extreme store sanitization, “no-touch” testing, single-use samples, subscription boxes that deliver sample-sized beauty products to your door and online virtual sampling. Beauty advisors and brand field teams are also not touching clients. Instead, they demo the product shade, texture and application on their own skin and verbally educate clients on the product. Retailers hope that all these new measures to make the beauty counter safe will make you feel comfortable trying new products again, because there will be no direct contact with products or tools.

With so many no-touch or low-touch alternatives available, will shoppers ever go back to swatching, swiping and slathering with abandon? It’s hard to predict how our society will evolve, but we’re not at the point where we’re in the clear from the pandemic. Our recommendation is consistent with our pre-COVID advice – you can feel confident in the safety of the products you trust and enjoy every day, so long as you follow the simple steps outlined here, and proceed with particular caution when sampling.