It’s a familiar story. You grow out of your once-loved T-shirt or pair of sneakers. You list it on Grailed, StockX, eBay or depop, hoping to clear some closet space and earn extra cash. If you’re lucky, you might even make a premium by reselling it for more than what you paid. Then you do it all over again.
This dance of buying and selling isn’t exclusive to fashion: It also happens in the unlikely – but nonetheless thriving – realm of beauty. Makeup, skincare, and fragrance (even samples) are traded online, and hyped, limited releases of special edition products – coveted for their rarity, collectability, and social media buzz – are resold at prices higher than retail.
Last July, when rumors of Kylie Jenner using the Dior Backstage “001 Pink” Rosy Glow blush went viral on TikTok, it instantly sold out at Sephora, the LVMH-owned cosmetics chain. Even though Jenner cleared up the rumor a few weeks later and said that she’s “never used it or owned it,” the blush remains sold out to this day. If you’re dying to get your hands on that hot pink blush (like I once was), chances are you can’t. Unless of course, you know where else to look.
The Dior blush is listed for sale on platforms like Poshmark and Mercari, user-run marketplaces comparable to Grailed, Vestiaire Collective, and depop. In multiple postings, the $39 blush is priced anywhere from $59.99 to $76. Some people “copped” used versions of it for $45 and $55 – and with shipping fees of up to $7.67 in the case of Poshmark – paid almost $63 plus tax for the blush that had already been used by someone else.
There’s abundant dialogue surrounding the much-needed secondhand marketplace for clothing, shoes, and other accessories. But the topic as it relates to beauty is less broached, because, well, using secondhand makeup and skincare is simply unhygienic — or so you’d think (more on this later).
The global beauty market is projected to reach $545 billion this year and $738 billion by 2027. Waste is just as big an issue in beauty as it is in fashion, with consumers increasingly looking to support eco-conscious brands. “Woke” brands in the beauty space boast their use of biodegradable or recyclable packaging over plastic, and the non-use of toxic chemical ingredients harmful to the environment. Fenty Beauty, Humanrace, Grown Alchemist, Khiel’s, and even diptyque have introduced refillable packaging to combat waste, and major industry players like L’Oreal, Estee Lauder, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever vowed to reduce water use, decrease deforestation, and generate alternative sources of energy.
But rather than exclusively buying from sustainably-minded brands – which is admirable, of course – what if consumers could do more? What if buyers could share the burden with manufacturers and brands and actively participate in creating a more circular economy in beauty?
In April 2020, a video of an ULTA employee revealing how the beauty chain disposes of its returned items went viral, sparking discussions on impulse buys and irresponsible shopping habits. Arnaud Plas, co-founder of haircare brand Prose, estimates that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of products made in the beauty industry end up as waste, either from individual disuse or companies’ bulk liquidation of items at the end of their shelf life.
Venturing beyond skincare and into discretionary beauty categories like makeup and fragrance, the issue of waste becomes even more pronounced. Makeup for the face, eyes, and lips come in a wide range of formulas and finishes, and an endless array of color variations. For many beauty lovers, a meaningful makeup collection equates to choice: owning different options to change up their look, which for many, can result in piles of product that eventually end up in the trash.
All of us are beauty consumers in one way or another. The vast majority of us regularly use cleansers, skincare, perfumes — even shampoos and toothpaste fall into the beauty category. Studies show that 56 percent of men also use makeup like foundation and concealers.
When was the last time you actually emptied a bottle of facial cream or cleanser? When you discard an expired skincare item, do you toss the whole vial in the trash, or wash and recycle applicable components? Do you feel guilty about throwing away unused product?
While secondhand beauty sales can be met with skepticism, they illustrate the potential of beauty’s circular economy.
Kylie Jenner’s rumored Dior blush is just one example of the many beauty items circulating at resale value. While hyped items like Supreme’s $38 Pat McGrath lipstick are listed at prices of up to $200, a scroll through re-commerce apps shows that the bulk of secondhand beauty transactions are of discounted, run-of-the-mill items. And in many cases, used products sell without issue.
Technically, most platforms prohibit the listing and selling of used beauty products. “Makeup and personal care products must be new. Any liquid products must be new and in their original sealed packaging,” Poshmark's policy states. Depop’s list of restricted items includes “used perfumes and cosmetics” and “unsealed product samples,” but the platform does allow “unused and genuine perfumes and cosmetics,” “samples, as long as they come in the original container,” and “homemade perfumes and cosmetics, as long as they comply with the applicable regulations.” Mercari doesn’t explicitly prohibit used beauty, but it does ban “items that are soiled with human materials such as used underwear.”
None of this seems to stop makeup lovers from transacting with used goods. “Lightly swatched in a smoke-free, pet-free home,” reads one seller’s posting of an eyeshadow palette. “New without box,” reads another. While the apps prompt a warning message before posting a beauty or liquid item, all it takes is one tap for sellers to complete their listings. With at least 2 billion listings across these platforms and half a million new posts every day, it’s nearly impossible for administrators to adequately monitor, filter, and delete listings that go against their policies.
Not all consumers who buy and sell used beauty have sustainability or circularity at the top of their minds. Most are simply looking to declutter their vanity and make a few bucks in the process. “Decluttering” unwanted makeup and skincare is a common practice in the beauty community, so much so that it’s spawned an entire genre of YouTube videos.
If decluttering is the motivation for sellers, why would buyers want to purchase used beauty, especially from complete strangers on the internet?
“Colors and products are often discontinued, so I can imagine a lot of people [try] to find whatever is left of their favorite products,” says Devon Abelman, former beauty editor at Allure. “[There’s] also cheaper prices, of course.”
Despite the plus-sides of supporting the beauty resale market, using pre-owned makeup poses health risks. “Unfortunately, makeup and makeup applicators run the risk of becoming contaminated with microorganisms,” explains Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “When it comes to open makeup, you just don't know how the previous owner used the products and whether they were exposed to contaminants.”
Abelman agrees: “Moisturizers, cleansing balms, [and] cream blushes definitely shouldn’t be sold after use,” she says. “Serums with pumps and any skincare product that comes in a tube are pretty much the only secondhand beauty products I feel comfortable sharing. Anything with a dropper is also off-limits because people often touch them to their hands and faces.”
Plenty of online sellers claim to have properly sanitized their pressed powders or bullet lipsticks, and buyers seem to believe them. If you’re set on purchasing a pre-owned product, Zeichner recommends powder as the least likely to become contaminated. “Theoretically, if you could remove the entire section of makeup that came in contact with the skin,” he says. “You also need to clean the packaging since microorganisms can live there as well.”
On Reddit, numerous threads debate the legitimacy of secondhand beauty shopping. “I've purchased a few things secondhand and I don't see the problem with doing it – especially because otherwise most things will end up in the landfill!,” wrote beautybunny505. “Lipstick/mascaras are where I draw the line but powder products that can be sanitized or things in tubes are fair game. Great way to try something out – plus you're likely saving $ and keeping something usable from the garbage.”
“I’m a makeup artist. Used makeup is beyond revolting,” tudie0011 replied.
Abelman views the sale of used makeup as contrary to the widening accessibility of beauty. “Beauty should be accessible and safe to all – straight from its source. There are so many affordable beauty brands these days with effective products, so you can shop them without having to take any major risks. You can get fresh products for an affordable price if saving money is your goal.”
While skepticism of secondhand beauty is valid, the phenomenon is catching on. San Francisco-based e-tailer Glambot specializes in used makeup and skincare with the aim to shift consumer buying habits in the beauty industry. Its homepage features a list of accepted brands and a calculator widget to estimate how much sellers can be paid for turning in their goods. Shoppers can find foundation, eyeshadow, lipstick, body lotion, and more, just as they would at any other beauty store — except most of Glambot’s are used and discounted. According to the site, a lab member “thoroughly cleans each piece of makeup along with its packaging with a variety of methods including heat, light therapy, product removal, alcohol, or a combination of all of these methods.”
There seems to be a blue ocean industry opportunity in refurbishing used beauty for resale, as Glambot is the only well-known shop of its kind.
There is also the option to donate unwanted personal care items and pass them onto those in need. Organizations like Beauty Bus, Share Your Beauty, and Dress for Success accept new, unopened, and unexpired merchandise to give to terminally ill patients and their caregivers, or victims of domestic abuse and addiction. Project Beauty Share, Rise of Broken Women, and Homes for the Homeless also accept gently used, sanitized items to give to women and teens in crisis situations.
Regardless of your stance on secondhand beauty, there is more than ample room for us to reevaluate our consumption habits. That can mean shopping more responsibly and making a conscious effort to return less product to stores, using up what we own before discarding it and moving onto something new, or donating unwanted items to organizations that can professionally clean and distribute them to those who need it more. The resell model as it stands may be far from perfect, but it brings to light an inkling of what a circular beauty economy could look like.
Supporting sustainable brands and holding big names accountable is a necessary first step, but we must go further and consider how else we can protect Mother Earth. After all, makeup is beautiful, but so is our planet.
To find out how you can personally make an impact, visit Highsnobiety's Time for Climate Action resource link provided in partnership with Leaders for Climate Action.