A New York woman has filed a lawsuit against a cosmetics firm claiming that a sample of lipstick applied by an employee gave her the herpes cold sore virus. Is that even possible?

She claimed that two days after she tried the sample of lipstick her lip began to swell and a physician diagnosed her with a cold sore. She stated that her goal is to force makeup companies to practice better hygiene and use disposable tubes and applicators.

Cold sores are the result of an infection with the herpes simplex virus type 1. HSV-1 can be transmitted from person to person by kissing, sharing dishes, towels, razors and other items. It is different from herpes simplex virus type 2, the main cause of genital herpes, which is spread by sexual contact.

There is no cure for a herpes infection. Once someone is infected, the virus invades nerve cells. Even after the cold sore heals, the virus remains in the nerve cells and can lie dormant for any length of time. The virus can be reactivated by exposure to the sun, fever, menstruation, emotional distress, a weakened immune system, an illness or even space flight.

As many as 90 percent of American adults have been exposed to HSV-1. For most people, HSV-1 infections are an embarrassing nuisance but not serious. However, HSV-1 infection of the eye is a leading cause of blindness in the United States, causing scarring of the cornea.

The woman suing could have acquired a primary HSV-1 infection from lipstick if a previous customer had an active HSV-1 infection and the lipstick was not properly disinfected or the top layer was not removed between customers. On the other hand, she may have simply reactivated a latent HSV-1 infection that she had been harboring, unrelated to the lipstick.

Sharing makeup of any kind is not a good idea, since people can also share bacteria and viruses.

Don’t use lotion samples that people have put their fingers into; instead use one that can be squeezed out. Ask if individual samples are available for testing. If not, request that the surface of the makeup be cleaned with a tissue, preferably dipped in alcohol, before applying. For lipsticks, scrape off the top layer. Always use disposable applicators or cotton swabs, never communal makeup brushes.

Regardless of whether this woman received her herpes infection from lipstick, it’s important to be cautious about exposing yourself to other people’s microbes. Beware — the price of fleeting beauty may be a permanent infection.

Medical Discovery News
Professors Norbert Herzog and David Niesel are biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at