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Hoping Their Makeup Takes a Powder

Trading 'gently used' cosmetics might not be sanitary, but it's a booming hobby

June 23, 2002|LISA LEFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By late morning on a weekday, 368 messages have been posted since midnight on the swap board at MakeupAlley.com. Each represents a beauty product that one of the site's members has tried and grown tired of and is ready to trade for someone else's castoff cosmetics. Chirpy sales pitches and brand-specific wish lists echo with longing, disappointment and regret.

"Sixty percent left. Perfect for someone who wants to try out the color before purchasing," a new entry writes of the MAC lipstick she has just listed in hopes of getting her hands on "anything!!!" by La Mer or a Nars blush in Orgasm or Sin. From Australia comes a report of an Urban Decay eye shadow: "Great condition, no dips."

A board veteran based in Florida, meanwhile, has spent 1 1/2 hours painstakingly putting 37 lotions, powders, glosses and lacquers up for grabs. Her unwanted booty includes a Bobbi Brown eyeliner ("I just couldn't get this to work for me"), and a Lorac blush powder she estimates she has used four times. "I purchased this about three months ago and realized I have another blush that looks identical," she confesses. Within hours, she is flooded with offers.

Welcome to the world of cosmetics swappers. Despite the well-advertised health hazards--such as pinkeye or herpes--associated with sharing makeup, at least a half-dozen Web sites are set up for anyone to exchange--"recycle" is the preferred term in swap-speak--their "gently used" (read: secondhand) toiletries. At Makeup Alley alone, more than 80,000 items are available for barter at any given time--each a separate listing--and hundreds of swap-related messages are exchanged every day.

"These women are die-hard beauty aficionados. They always want to try something new. Swapping makes it economical," said Makeup Alley founder Hara Glick, 33, who lives in Manhattan. Along with a product review page and beauty chat boards, the swap board is one of Glick's 3-year-old site's most popular features. "It's a really nice, one-on-one interaction with another person who also has a love of makeup and beauty," she said.

Melissa Kinder, 27, of Anaheim, admits she was initially hesitant to try swapping when she stumbled across one of the first sites devoted to the practice, Mikki's Swap Page, seven years ago. "I was like, 'Hmmm, is it sanitary? How do you know you aren't going to get ripped off? Why won't you just buy it yourself?' " Kinder said.

After befriending several women on the site and finding they knew as much about makeup as she did, Kinder decided to take the plunge with some trendy nail polish she had been coveting. "At some point, you've got to trust that the people you are swapping with are careful with their stuff too," she said. Several successful swaps later, she was a convert, preferring to trade away her unwanted items rather than "deal with the hassles of returning them." Inspired by Mikki's Swap site, which Kinder has since taken over, she has now founded her own beauty site, BeautyBuzz.com.

Nevertheless, to minimize the ick factor inherent in their hobby, experienced swappers engage in elaborate pre- and post-swap decontamination rituals. They slice lipstick tips with razor blades and swab them with alcohol. They scrape off the top layers of eye shadows and blushes. Puffs, brushes and sponges that come with compacts are either hand-washed or replaced. Many swappers also save the original packaging from their products so if they wind up in turnaround, they can be advertised as "SIB" (Still in Box).

"Let's face it, how many people pay $50 for a foundation, use it twice, get fickle and then decide they want to try something else? With swapping, you are able to take that $50 and trade it for $50 worth of something else you haven't tried," said Teri Castell, 41, a Makeup Alley regular who also operates a site called Goo4Swap.com, which includes an online "journal" chronicling the best and worst of her swapping experiences.

The cosmetics industry, however, takes a dim view of swapping. "It's not hygienic, and it has the potential to be quite dangerous," said Irene Malbin, a spokeswoman for the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Assn., a trade group based in Washington, D.C. "When you are sharing cosmetics, you have no idea how many people have used this product that you are now going to put on your skin or, if you are talking about lipstick, ingest. You don't know if they had clean hands when they were using it. You don't know when it was opened. You don't know where it's been."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, frequently warns consumers against makeup sharing under any conditions, despite the fact that preservatives in the products are said to destroy bacteria introduced through normal use.

But Glick believes opponents of swapping overstate the dangers. Swapping, she said, is "much more sanitary than going into a department store and using one of those testers that's been tried by 100 women during the day."

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