Can you get herpes from sharing makeup, chapstick or lipstick?

Cynthia Bailey, MD|January 3, 2017

The herpes virus that causes cold sores is a germ you can potentially 'catch' when you share personal items such as makeup. Herpes infection is common. 50-80% of adults in the US are infected with the oral herpes virus. Whether they have an active cold sore or not, the virus resides in their facial tissues and can be shed and spread.

The herpes virus is most effectively spread from direct person to person contact with infected skin, such as by kissing. Saliva or oral secretions from an infected person can spread the virus too, even on shared beverages or "utensils". That term "utensils" typically refers to forks and implements used for eating, but any implement placed on the mouth where salivary droplets reside and virus is shed has the potential to transmit herpes.   

You have to put this in perspective, however. The herpes virus is a fragile virus because expert microbiology sources site its ability to survive off the human body as "brief." The plot thickens though because expert sources also note that the herpes virus can survive on the body "slightly longer" when present in a warm and moist environment. It also survives better on surfaces such as plastic as opposed to metal. Other sources report the ability of herpes simplex to survive longer off the body and the herpes simplex virus can remain active for up to a day in distilled water and 4 hours in tap water. All this is to say that passing the troublesome herpes virus around it is NOT as difficult as we would like. It's hard to know your risk when you are sharing items that touch skin and lips. 

What is really important to know is that once infected, herpes virus is shed from skin, even in the absence of a visible cold sore. Most people who have a history of a herpes cold sore on their facial skin harbor the virus around the mouth or nose, making lip products the most likely makeup for transferring herpes. The virus can be present anywhere on the face however. Another reason not to share any other makeup as well. 

What is the realistic risk of getting herpes from sharing makeup, lipstick or chapstick?

It's probably low given the fragile nature of the virus, BUT, it's possible. There is no study to give us a statistic for this specific risk. Since preserving virus activity requires moisture, actively exchanging lipstick or cosmetic brushes would be the biggest risk; theoretically droplets of infected saliva or sweat could pass the virus to a non-infected person. We also know that active herpes simplex virus has been found on the hands of people with active infection. This is one of the main modes by which people spread herpes cold sores to other parts of their own skin. Basically, living in a microbial world is - em, well, interesting and brave. 

Yes, living communally with microbiological knowledge is 'a brave new world' for those of us who consider ourselves germ phobes. There are countless potential infectious misadventures. Some we can do something about, others are impossible to control and we have to let go. In my opinion, sharing makeup, lipstick and chapstick with all, but your most intimate partner should be avoided - so the fewer chances taken the better, when it comes to limiting exposure to a viral infection such as the herpes virus.

Best practices for using our cosmetics include:

  • Keeping our cosmetics and cosmetic brushes to ourselves the way we keep our toothbrushes to ourselves.
  • Maintaining good makeup and brush hygiene:
    • Keep your brushes clean. When they start to wear out, replace them.
    • Don't set brushes or makeup applicators down on soiled surfaces. I recommend using a clean facial tissue or wash cloth as a "placemat" to place your brushes when applying your makeup.
    • Wash and dry your brushes regularily.
  • Wash your hands before applying makeup, especially to your eyes.
  • At makeup counters, or when having makeup applied by professionals, scrutinize things first to ensure care is taken to not cross contaminate people or product:
    • Be certain that single use applicators are used to apply makeup to people's skin.
    • Watch for 'double dipping' meaning placing an applicator that has touched skin back into a product.
    • Watch that products to be applied are cleanly seperated for your application BEFORE product is applied. That seperated product needs to be discarded after use.
    • If those measures are not taken - run!

Special care needs to be taken to ensure one does not contract viruses and contagious things when going about daily life. Washing, and cleaning brushes, and being particular about what you share are some of the best ways to avoid illness. See below for related makeup tools that can help you do just that.

Eco and econimically friendly Makeup Brush Kit

Silk cosmetic bag - a clean, new fresh start 

Mineral Makeup - clean, new, sanitary.....and beautiful and well-priced!

Lip Balm

Lip Sunscreen

For more information, see these related posts:

How to Spring Clean Your Makeup Bag

The Benefits of Mineral Makeup

Makeup Brush Set

 

References:

Fatahzadeh M1, Schwartz RA, Human herpes simplex virus infections: epidemiology, pathogenesis, symptomatology, diagnosis, and management, J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007 Nov;57(5):737-63; 

James, William D., Berger, Timothy G et. al. Andrews Diseases of the Skin, Elsevier, 12th edition, pp 359-365

Mark D. Sobsey, and John Scott Meschke, VIRUS SURVIVAL IN THE ENVIRONMENT WITH SPECIAL ATTENTION TO SURVIVAL IN SEWAGE DROPLETS ANDOTHER ENVIRONMENTAL MEDIA OF FECAL ORRESPIRATORY ORIGIN, University of North Carolina, School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering CB# 7431, McGavran-Greenberg Hall, Room 4114a, Chapel Hill, NC. 27599-7431 USA,University of Washington, School of Public Health & Community Medicine, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, 4225 Roosevelt Way NE, Suite 100, Box 354695, Seattle, WA 98195-6099 USA  Draft – August 21, 2003 

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