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What is ‘damaging out’ – the wasteful world of unused beauty returns


TextDominic Cadogan

Following the viral TikTok that showed an Ulta Beauty employee destroying brand new make-up, we investigate

Earlier this week, Texas teen Bianca Ann Levinson went viral on TikTok – not for an embarrassing story, or dance challenge, but simply taking viewers behind-the-scenes at her job at Ulta Beauty. 

The video, quite shockingly, shows Bianca scraping out an unused eyeshadow palette into the bin and snapping a brand new lipliner in half, a practice that is less commonly known as ‘damaging out’. “This is what we do at Ulta when someone returns something even if it’s not used,” she explains. “So people can’t dumpster dive and steal it.” 

@biancaann5

How returns are handled at the best beauty store ever💕 (I love my Ulta fam) ##ultabeauty ##workdistractions ##fyp ##checkthisout ##foryoupage

♬ original sound - biancaann5

Unsurprisingly, the video – that has now been viewed over 3.4 million times – stirred up a lot of controversy with many viewers personally attacking Bianca for the waste, despite the practice being store policy nation-wide. In a follow-up she explains that the FDA (America’s Food and Drug Association) doesn’t allow Ulta to donate its returned beauty products, as some commenters suggested. She adds that staff are body searched when leaving the store each day to make sure they’re not taking any products home. 

“Beauty companies enforce ‘damaging out’ for hygiene reasons,” explains beauty industry watchdog Estée Laundry. “It is often done because they don’t want lawsuits on their hands from selling/donating products that could have been tampered with.” The sentiment is echoed by Ulta Beauty, when we reached out for comment. “The health and safety of our guests is a top priority and we want to ensure an exceptional shopping experience for all,” a spokesperson for the retailer tells us. “As part of that, we take protecting the integrity of the products we sell very seriously. Our policies and practices do not allow the resale of returned, used or damaged products to avoid any issues, ensure product integrity and guest safety.” 

While Ulta Beauty has taken the brunt of the blame, they’re not alone when it comes to damaging out. In one of her later videos, Bianca name-checks Sephora, Target, and Walmart as other companies that also practice it. Similarly, when Estée Laundry asked its followers to submit their own experiences, brands like Lush, The Body Shop, Clinique, Benefit, and Mecca Cosmetics were all named. 

To find out more about the regulations in place, we reached out to the FDA. “Although there is no prohibition against the sale of used cosmetic products, cosmetic products must be safe and properly labelled, and not otherwise adulterated or misbranded, under the laws that FDA enforces,” it explains. “Used cosmetic products have a higher risk of microbial contamination because of prior direct handling, making the products potentially adulterated. Thus, if the products are found to be adulterated they may not lawfully be sold (or resold).”

The line is a difficult one to toe, with customers having every right to be worried about products that are opened and potentially tampered with, but there is a grey area with products that are unopened. Among the Estée Laundry submissions, beauty employees shared stories of customers returning allegedly unused products that were definitely used, or products being replaced with something else entirely. In the UK, while it is possible to return beauty products – read more here – the laws are much stricter than the US and often deter customers from even trying. 

“Watching the video was deeply upsetting, as someone who makes sure she hits the pan with all of her beauty products a small part of my heart broke at the sheer waste,” muses make-up artist Salwa Rahman, AKA @urgalsal_, who practices sustainability as much as she can. “The beauty industry does a good job of propelling positive messages to it’s consumer demographic, with the use of language like sustainability, eco-friendly, cruelty free, and vegan, but we as consumers must face the fact that it’s still a capitalist machine that is working for profit. What upsets me the most is the lack of effort of exploring different options, or adjusting regulations and procedures so that these ‘unusable’ products can still bring some good.”

So, what can be done? “Taking those crucial seconds to run some internal checks will help to curb unnecessary and excessive spending,” she advises. “Asking yourself, ‘do I really need this?’ and being completely honest with yourself helps to build a more realistic approach to shopping and leads to less ‘damaging out’.” She suggests gifting if money isn’t an issue, or donating to charities that do accept sealed unused make-up like Jo Jones and Beauty Banks.

“One of the most popular suggestions from our followers was to encourage retailers like Ulta and Sephora to offer better sampling policies so consumers can try products before they buy,” adds Estée Laundry. “Companies should also offer more products in smaller sizes. Ultimately, as consumers, we should do better. We should be more conscious about our purchases and avoid buying products we don’t need.”

“We need to see the beauty industry act in a sustainable way,” Salwa concludes. “Make-up is not there to be amassed and unused or destroyed, it’s meant to be shared and used to create.” 

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