Ah, Sephora—the hallowed halls of beauty heaven. Girls become women when they acquire their first Beauty Insider card (and they graduate to addict when they earn gold status). There are a few pieces of Sephora trivia that most beauty junkies already know. For example, you've likely heard that in Sephora terms, each store is called a stage and the employees are called cast members who wear not uniforms but costumes. (Read more little-known Sephora facts here.)
But even the most Sephora-obsessed consumers don't get an inside look at the company like the people who've worked there do. We have a certain fascination with Sephora cast members: Do they receive as many free products as we think they do? Are there any genius shopping tips sitting right under our noses? And how many samples are really too many?
We decided to do some in-depth investigating to find exclusive Sephora knowledge that only an insider would possess. To keep things objective, we spoke with five former employees of the company: Ariel Orellana, Kylie Dennison, Rebecca McDonald, Tiffany Colon, and Nathalie Nieves (@natsnirvana). Keep scrolling to hear 15 of their genius insider secrets!
Orellana says Sephora's skincare section is often the quietest place in the store, so its attendees are always happy and available to demonstrate products on you.
"Skincare consultants are required to learn how to give skincare expresses, which are basically express facials on the floor, with cleanser, toner, treatment, and moisturizer," says Nieves. Simply pick whichever products you'd like to try, and ask for a skincare express. "It's a great way to try different products and give yourself (and your skin!) a quick pick-me-up," Nieves adds. Plus, it's free!
Same thing goes for hairstyling. "Cast members are actually trained on different dry-styling hair trends every couple of months from brands like Living Proof and Drybar," says Orellana. "So you can stop in for a touch-up on your hair, as well as your skin and makeup!"
In college, I used to sneak into Sephora just to do my nails and leave; but apparently, I didn't have to act so suspicious. "The nail studio is a fun way to kill some time and try out new colors if you're bored," Orellana says.
Pro tip: Formula X works with beauty bloggers to release a new collection at the beginning of every month, so stop by around that time to play with the new shades. (No one will yell at you if you don't make a purchase.)
It's so tempting, but so gross. "For the love of god, if you want to try on any product, either give it to a cast member first to sanitize or look around for the nearest hygiene station," Orellana pleads. "When trying on lipgloss or mascara, always use a tester wand and do not double-dip it."
Double-dipping in potted products is even worse. "Do not, I repeat, do not sample any makeup or skincare that is in a pot—ever," says Nieves. "Only sample or try things in store that come in a pump container." The reason? "Things get really gross and unsanitary with sampling, and I've seen many clients dip their fingers into multiple pots with no regard—it's gross and a breeding ground for bacteria," Nieves says. If you're hell-bent on trying a product that comes in a jar or pot, Nieves says just to buy it and return it later, or ask an employee if they have any prepackaged samples. "Every brand provides us with some type of prepackaged sample, so just ask!" she says.
Our insiders say the rules about samples fluctuate, depending on the store. According to Orellana, there is no limit to the number you're allowed to take home. "If someone tries to tell you in-store that the limit is three, they are lying to you," she says.
But Nieves attests that in her store, they were only allowed to give each client three samples per day. "No more, no less." Colon agrees, adding that if you are "one of those people who comes in every day," you'll be limited to three a week.
Either way, you should never be afraid to ask for samples. Some stores might be more lenient about it than others, but you'll never be turned down completely. "Fight for your right to sample, ladies!" Nieves says.
Orellana and McDonald promise that Sephora's in-house line is just as high-quality as brands twice its price, but most people don't take advantage. "Sephora Collection has a dupe for almost every high-end favorite beauty product," she says. "The price is always lower, and the quality is great!" Here's proof: Any Sephora product that is not rated with four stars or higher is either "discontinued or reformulated," says McDonald. "This ensures high-quality products for a decent price tag!"
"The value sets offered at Sephora are always worth way more than what you actually pay!" says Dennison. "A lot of the time you get an entire set of full-sized makeup for a third of the price. It’s a great way to try new products while stocking up on your old favorites!"
Colon recommends that perfume sampler in particular. "It's usually $40 cheaper than buying one perfume bottle alone," she says.
Sadly, not every brand is cruelty-free. What's even sadder is that some brands claim to be when their manufacturers actually aren't. This can make trusting brands difficult.
If you want to triple-check to make sure a brand is bunny-friendly, Orellana and McDonald say to ask a cast member at the Beauty Studio (that's the station in Sephora where they do mini makeovers). "There's usually a list at the Beauty Studio in every store of which brands are truly cruelty-free," Orellana says.
Saturday is Sephora's day to host brand events, so if you stop in on the way to brunch, odds are there will be something fun going on. "Brand events mean the employees are focusing on that brand for the day and there is often a free gift with purchase!" says Orellana.
Sephora cast members are trained to give 15-minute "single-feature" makeovers for free (as in, just your eyes or just your lips). But Colon says if you're nice to your consultant, "she will mostly like do your whole face."
If you agree to spend at least $50 in the store, you can get a more involved "custom makeover." But according to Colon, that $50 minimum isn't actually mandatory. "When we're done with the makeover, we put the stuff you want in the basket, but you could walk right out and we can't say anything," she says.
Our insiders agree Sephora's Fragrance and Color IQ stations are not something to skip over. "That little computer can really come in handy when shopping for a new fragrance!" says Dennison. "Instead of assaulting your nostrils with 30 different perfumes, take the quiz on Fragrance IQ and it will pull up recommendations. I've found it to be very accurate, usually pulling up scents I've already used and loved."
The Color IQ device is also surprisingly accurate at finding your correct foundation shade, and it's now capable of determining which lipstick and concealer shades suit you best as well. "It can help you find the perfect red, nude, or even purple to suit your skin tone!" says Orellana. "It also can tell you your exact concealer shade in any brand, just ask a Sephora employee to help match you."
"Sephora's return policy is super lenient," says Colon. "You can pretty much return or exchange anything that's not more than half used."
They may be cute, but our insiders say they're not the best way to spend your money. "Avoid buying anything from beauty-to-go," says Colon. "Buying the full size is a better deal."
This is to prevent against theft. "Employees are required to have their employee number etched into their makeup products by a manager and can only carry six products at a time," Nieves says. "If you can't prove it's yours and it doesn't have your employee ID number, it will get confiscated. Learned this the hard way: #ripjackblacklipbalm."
There's even a special name for them: "the gratis." Each employee's free swag is collected in a personal bin over the course of a month until a manager empties it for her. As Nieves puts it, "You then hop on a cloud propelled by unicorns 'cause you're so ecstatic at all the free stuff. It was insane the number of full-sized products we received for free. God, I miss it…"
Want more inside secrets from your favorite brands? Don't miss two Lush employees spill their best tips.
This post was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.