Dumpster Diving For Beauty Products: Is It Legal And Safe?

Image courtesy of JY O'Reilly

Sure, it’s always nice to get a great deal on beauty products, and what’s a better deal than 100% off? “Dumpster Diving” — the art of sourcing still-usable items from the trash — is nothing new, but there are growing reports from beauty bloggers and YouTubers claiming to score free lipsticks, nail polishes, eye shadows, and other items by sorting through the items that Ulta, Sephora, and others throw out. Is this legal, and if so, is it safe?

While you might not think twice about salvaging a bookshelf or rocking chair from the curb, you might raise an eyebrow at the idea of using a bottle of foundation or palate of blush plucked from the trash.

Yet that’s exactly what some beauty lovers are doing after seeing videos of makeup “experts” dumpster diving behind beauty retailers:

Over the holiday weekend, two teenage girls were stopped by police for rummaging through the dumpster of a Texas Ulta, WFAA reports.

The girls told police that they had watched videos on Facebook in which people claimed to have found stashes of perfectly good makeup in Ulta’s dumpsters.

While the two teens only found garbage, police tell WFAA that they could have come home with something entirely different: a ticket for trespassing.

Additionally, if they had found cosmetics, they could have walked away with a bottle full of infection causing product.

With the lure of scoring free products enticing beauty lovers, here are three things you should know before you hop in the dumpster and bring home last season’s must-have lipstick.

Is Dumpster Diving Legal?

The legality of dumpster diving isn’t quite as clear-cut as “yes, you can” and “no, you can’t,” it’s more of a gray area.

The general idea of dumpster diving received an indirect stamp of approval in 1988 when the United States Supreme Court ruled in California v. Greenwood that police didn’t need a warrant to search someone’s trash that had been left on the curb.

While this doesn’t explicitly declare that dumpster diving is allowed, it does establish that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy for trash that’s left out on the curb.

“It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left along a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public,” the court ruled. “Moreover, respondents placed their refuse at the curb for the express purpose of conveying it to a third-party, the trash collector, who might himself have sorted through it or permitted others, such as the police, to do so.”

However, the SCOTUS ruling only clearly applies to trash that’s effectively left out in public. For instance, police would still need a warrant to search the trash cans inside your house.

Trespassing is still illegal, so if a company’s dumpster is on private, restricted property, you could be in violation of local trespassing laws. In this case, the person could be ticketed or arrested by police if they’re caught rummaging through a dumpster that is on private property, against the side of a building, or in an area marked with a “no trespassing” sign.

“A person could be committing a minor trespass offense by reaching into a privately owned dumpster, especially if the dumpster is on private property,” explains Darryl Brown, O.M. Vicars Professor of Law at the University of Virginia.

Brown notes that dumpster divers may not face theft charges for anything they do take from a dumpster, as “Stuff that people have thrown away in dumpsters and other trash bins is usually considered to be legally ‘abandoned” by them.”

One exception, says the professor, are waste receptacles where the property owner is getting paid for whatever is in that container. For example, we recently noted the uptick in thefts of restaurant grease from locked dumpsters. Eateries with these grease bins typically receive money when the old cooking oil is sold to a refiner.

“That kind of material would not be abandoned, and taking it could be a theft,” says Brown. “But that’s pretty rare.”

LOCAL BANS
There are some areas of the country where dumpster diving is expressly forbidden. Some cities have enacted ordinances outlawing the practice, most often in the name of protecting residents from identity theft.

For instance, in 2005, the Layton, UT, city council passed an ordinance outlawing dumpster diving. The Associated Press reported at the time that the measure was taken into consideration as a way to help prevent identity theft.

KEEP IT NEAT
Even if you’re not trespassing and you can’t be charged with the items you salvage, you want to be careful to not get messy. While it might be easier for scrounging purposes to throw all things you don’t want off to the side of a dumpster, leaving that trash there could get you in trouble for littering or possibly vandalism.

Is It Safe?

Putting aside the legal issues for a moment, the mere act of dumpster diving raises several health concerns: You could hurt yourself while jumping into the garbage receptacle, you could bring home a pest (like bedbugs) when you retrieve a chair, clothing, blanket or other items, or you could contract an infection from tainted beauty products.

In the case of those looking for high-end cosmetics or other beauty products, the items have been thrown out for a reason — they may have been returned or they might be expired.

The Food and Drug Administration has warns that using shared or expired products is not a good idea.

“It’s important to use cosmetic products safely,” a rep for the FDA tells Consumerist. “Cosmetics should be stored properly, in clean and tightly closed containers, to avoid potential contamination with harmful microorganisms. Sharing cosmetics or using potentially contaminated products can cause infections or other serious health concerns.”

For instance, the shelf life for eye-area cosmetics — like mascara, eyeliner, or eyeshadow — and “all natural” products are more limited than for other items. Both of these types of products are more conducive to microbial growth, which could lead to infections.

The FDA also warns against sharing cosmetic products as it can increase the risk of contamination. In the case of dumpster diving, these shared products could come in the form of discarded “tester” items or products returned by other customers. You might feel comfortable sharing makeup with your best friends, but do you trust every person that’s ever shopped at Sephora or Ulta?

Additionally, the improper storage of cosmetics could cause premature expiration and growth of bacteria. So if that tube of mascara has been sitting in the hot dumpster for a few days, it could contain infection-causing bacteria.

With regard to the two teenagers found dumpster diving at the Texas Ulta, the retailer tells WFAA it discourages the practice for health and safety reasons.

“Health and safety is a top priority for Ulta Beauty and we strongly discourage the unsafe, and sometimes illegal practice of ‘dumpster diving.’ We are aware that individuals sometimes assume the risks associated with this practice and retrieve discarded products. Ulta Beauty, like other retailers, disposes of products for a reason. All products that are damaged, used, expired or otherwise unsaleable or unsuitable for donation are disposed of in accordance with applicable laws, rules and regulations. These products should never be retrieved or used.”

Pre-Destroyed Garbage

Much like most good businesses shred documents before they go out in the trash to discourage snoops, some retailers like to do things to their trashed products before they hit the dumpster, so as to make them even more worthless.

We’ve told you before about stores, like Eddie Bauer and H&M cutting up their clothing before throwing it in the trash.

Just recently, and directly related to this article, the CBS Jacksonville reported that a local Ulta store was accused of bleaching discarded cosmetics to deter dumpster divers.

A post on social media purportedly showed an Ulta employee pouring bleach on the discarded products and warning dumpster divers: “Here’s a new recipe for you. A collection of smashed products covered entirely in bleach. Enjoy your finds.”

A man claiming to be a former worker at the store tells CBS that the while he was unaware of the bleaching of products, employees were previously tasked with using box cutters to damage discarded goods before throwing them away.

A spokesperson for Ulta reiterated to CBS that it discourages the act of dumpster diving, but that the tactic used at the Florida store does not meet its policies.