Headed to the Makeup Counter? Read These Etiquette Tips First

Woman applying makeup to her face

Sean Cunningham

With rows and rows of Technicolor eye shadows, shimmery blushes, inky eyeliners, and silky powders just waiting to be tested and (hopefully) bought, the beauty counter is basically makeup heaven. But before you get too swatch-happy, make sure you know your etiquette.

Are you supposed to tip after a makeover? Can you try on the products yourself or do you have to ask for help each time? We spoke with an insider source at Barneys New York and asked her our most pressing beauty counter etiquette questions, so you can spend more time finding that perfect shade of lipstick, and less time worrying about protocol.

Keep scrolling to find out what you should do (and not do!) when visiting a makeup counter.

makeup counter etiquette

Feeling ignored by a salesperson may be annoying, but before you stomp off or say something rude, pause and take a deep breath. Chances are, even if the salesperson doesn’t look like they're directly interacting with another customer, they may still be working on something for someone else. Politely ask them if they're available to answer a couple of your questions or show you some products—if they say they're busy, ask them if you should come back at another time or if you can make an appointment. Treat them with respect, and they'll do the same for you.

This is the ultimate don’t. Though it may be tempting to stick your finger in an alluring eye shadow or lipstick hue, resist the temptation. Your fingers are full of germs, which can be easily spread through makeup—just think of the number of people testing products every day. “If you want to try something on, ask a sales associate to give you a disposable [applicator],” our source says. “Or, they can assist you by cleaning the product first with alcohol to keep everything sanitary. It’s for your safety and the safety of others.”

Don’t be afraid to ask questions—the people behind the makeup counter are there to help you, not intimidate you. Don’t know what BB cream is? Curious about a new eye shadow? Just ask. In most cases, they'll be more than happy to answer questions and show you how a product looks when it’s applied. Just be conscious of their time—if you aren’t planning on buying anything, don’t bombard them with every makeup question under the sun. (That’s what Byrdie editors are here for.)

Is there anything more enticing than a mini version of your favorite product? Everyone loves samples, but keep in mind that the point of giving them out is to help you decide whether or not you want to purchase the full-sized product. “Typically, two to five samples are the norm,” our source says. “That way, you can use it for a few days and see how your skin reacts to the product after continued use.” Do not make the mistake of viewing the makeup counter as a way to get free beauty products or stock up on as many samples as possible (there are beauty box subscriptions for that).

If you do take the plunge and buy, many stores like Nordstrom and Sephora accept returns if the product doesn't work out—just make sure you ask about the policy.

Sometimes, you go to a makeup counter truly wanting to buy something, but nothing seems to work out. In that case, don’t feel pressured to buy anything just because a salesperson has spent time with you. Instead, tell them you appreciate everything and ask for their business card so you can reach out to them if you change your mind or have any questions in the future.

How fun is getting a makeup counter makeover? Just remember that most salespeople have commission-based salaries and are not allowed to accept cash tips. “You are allowed to purchase products from them, however, which will influence their commission,” our source says. If you're doing a full-face makeover, most counters suggest purchasing at least two items.

Finally, don’t be afraid to have fun. It can be daunting to see the rainbow of makeup colors, but let the beauty counter person guide you. Eyeing that navy mascara but nervous to try it on yourself? Ask them to apply it with a clean spoolie. Thinking about a vampy red lip but not sure which one works best with your skin tone? Ask them to show you options. This is your time to experiment. Who knows? You might just find your newest Holy Grail product.

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