The internet is all agog over news of a Los Angeles lawsuit: according to court documents, an individual is suing the beauty store Sephora for strict liability, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress after allegedly catching oral herpes from a lipstick sample.
You can’t put “herpes” in a headline without people losing their damn minds, so we’re here to unpack this for you.
What’s the lawsuit actually about?
According to court documents filed October 26 in LA County, the plaintiff got a positive diagnosis for HSV-1—commonly known as oral herpes—in “exact alignment” with a 2015 visit to Sephora in which she tried on lipstick from the “common use” lipstick sampler. The “incurable lifelong affliction” is causing her severe emotional distress, so she’s suing for damages.
The filing also includes an argument that Sephora is culpable for any infections that arise in their store, because they put makeup samples on display and encourage using them. The prosecution notes that the company “even provides pads and fluid to wipe the lipstick and other make-up off potential customers’ lips and faces so that they can try on other lipstick and makeup.” Of course, most of those pads and fluids and wands are very clearly intended to keep customers from directly applying the samples from tube to face, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say their presence encourages dangerous use.
The suit argues that Sephora employees should explicitly tell customers not to directly apply makeup instead of using the readily available disposable applicators, because many users are “very young females and uneducated and unsophisticated females.” Which is kind of an offensive generalization to make about folks who wear makeup? But hey, that’s not science. So what do we know.
Long story short: you could potentially catch a virus if you use shared makeup samples straight from the tube, and this lawsuit argues that Sephora needs to make that more clear. It also argues that the store is responsible for the emotional distress caused by the plaintiff’s HSV. Sephora released the following statement: “While it is our policy not to comment on litigation, the health and safety of our clients is our foremost priority. We take product hygiene very seriously and we are dedicated to following best practices in our stores.”
Note: We are in no way suggesting that the plaintiff in this case did or did not get herpes from a Sephora lipstick. We’re just here to tell you, a reader who is presumably now convinced they will get herpes from a lipstick, that you probably will not ever get herpes from a lipstick. But it’s totally possible!
Wait, can you get herpes from lipstick?
Herpes is a really, really cool virus. HSV creeps in through any break in the skin or stretch of mucus membrane and lives dormant in your nerve cells, rarely making itself known. More on that in a minute.
Herpes is primarily spread via skin-to-skin contact or saliva. People with HSV often aren’t contagious, but sometimes—especially if they’re presenting with symptoms like cold sores—they can experience “viral shedding,” which is just what it sounds like. Herpes can’t survive long outside of the body, but it’s technically possible that it could hold on just long enough to infect a new host if two people used the same lipstick in very quick succession, especially if the second user had open wounds on their lips. When a similar case came up against MAC in 2013, a physician told Cosmopolitan that it could happen.
But this is a rare enough form of transmission that Planned Parenthood, to name just one example, says you can’t catch herpes from sharing a drinking glass or food. Many other physicians and researchers say that this transmission may technically be possible, but is highly unlikely. One particularly fear mongering article from Teen Vogue that calls herpes “horrifying” cites a cosmetic dentist as its source. Please do not ask a dentist to treat your herpes.
On that note: Yeah, you probably have herpes. Like, really. You almost certainly have herpes.
“There are really three challenges to concluding whether or not the plaintiff is correct,” Dr. Hunter Handsfield, Professor Emeritus of Medicine, University of Washington Center for AIDS and STD, and a former board member of the American Sexual Health Association told Popular Science. First, you have to assume the diagnosis is correct; lipstick might cause an allergic reaction that physicians might mistake for a herpes outbreak. Such an irritation could even trigger a herpes outbreak—they’re more likely to happen on damaged skin—if the plaintiff was already infected. Which leads to the second challenge: how do you know this was a new infection?
“The fact that someone has never had cold sores means nothing,” Handsfield said. “You would have to do a blood test showing there were no HSV-1 antibodies at the time of the outbreak, and then show several weeks later that there were now antibodies. Without that, there’s no way to know it’s a new infection.”
And even if it is a new infection, he added, you have to factor in any oral sex or kissing (even friendly familial kissing) that occurred during the same time period.
“Any of that contact during the one to two weeks before the first onset of symptoms would be a more plausible source of infection than a lipstick,” he said. “I suppose if someone with oral herpes and an active infection had used it literally in the minute before this woman used it, I’d have to say sure, there’s some theoretical possibility, but it seems a stretch.”
The fact that herpes is so stigmatized and can lay dormant for so long can lead to these sorts of implausible connections, he explained. “They get an outbreak, or they suddenly transmit it to a partner after years together, which can happen and they don’t understand where it came from because the exposure was so long ago,” he said. Handsfield runs a website where he answers questions about sexually transmitted infections, and he still has folks ask him if their herpes could have come from a contaminated toilet seat. “My answer is always, well, what parts of your body actually touch the toilet? If people showed up with a ring of herpes sores around the upper butt, I’d say, sure, maybe. But I don’t think, in general, that penises or labia are ending up on toilet seats.”
“You don’t have to invoke these magical explanations,” he said. “But plenty of people do.”
Other physicians we reached out to expressed the same opinion: it’s very likely the plaintiff had the virus before using the lipstick, because most people have herpes, and most of those people don’t know they have herpes. Your first cold sore often comes months or years after you catch the virus, if you ever get a cold sore at all.
“We can say with confidence that while there’s a theoretical risk here, the reality is there is a very minimal likelihood of contracting herpes through lipstick,” a representative of the American Sexual Health Association told Popular Science. “The virus doesn’t live very long on surfaces and proving that someone contracted herpes this way would be difficult. Most adults in the U.S. have oral herpes and in most cases there’s no practical way to pin down when or just how it was contracted.” The herpes virus is very fragile, and there are currently no documented cases of someone definitely acquiring it from an inanimate object.
Even if this transmission truly occurred, Handsfield said, there’s a reason it’s making such a ruckus—it’s clearly incredibly rare.
Wait, I have herpes?
Yup! Welcome to the least exclusive club in the world.
A 2015 study by the World Health Organization found that 2 out of 3 people under the age of 50 have Herpes Simplex Virus 1 (HSV-1). The CDC’s latest data on HSV-2 (genital herpes, though either virus can live in either place) suggests that over 15 percent of Americans have it, and it’s more common in women, young people, and those who live in urban areas. Plus, some 90 percent of people who are diagnosed with herpes by way of a blood test have never had symptoms and had no idea they had it. So it’s likely that actual infection rates are higher than those surveys suggest.
Once you lump together HSV-1, HSV-2, and the fact that lots of cases of both go totally undetected, if you’re totally herpes free you probably didn’t do enough smooching as a tween. Herpes isn’t a sign of some moral failure or decline. Herpes happens.
How scared should I be about having herpes?
Don’t be scared about having herpes. Everybody has herpes. If you know you have herpes, you can pretty easily keep from giving it to your sexual partners (more on that here). You’re very unlikely to ever have symptoms, let alone painful ones. If you do, there are antivirals you can take to suppress them. Everyone is different, but generally speaking? Do not worry about the herpes that you almost certainly have. That’s why lawsuits like these are kind of a bummer: they perpetuate the myth that herpes is a horrible cross to bear, which makes herpes a horrible cross to bear.
On the off chance I don’t have herpes, how can I avoid getting it from a lipstick?
Please don’t take any of this to mean you should waltz into a busy makeup store and put lipstick on straight from the tube. If you’re trying on makeup from a shared sample, for the love of all that is holy, use one of the disposable applicators. Be a good citizen of the world and do not double dip, lest ye contaminate the communal font of lip gloss with your own viruses and bacteria.
Maybe Sephora should have big signs up reminding its customers to practice good applicator hygiene when trying samples. But you shouldn’t need a big reminder. And if you’re trying cosmetics on straight from a shared vessel, herpes is the least of your problems. Partially because pinkeye is a thing, but mostly because you already have herpes.