The Underground World of Beauty Product Dumpster Diving

The Underground World of Beauty Product Dumpster Diving featured image

When Amy* worked at Sephora a few years back, she had some store-related responsibilities that went beyond handing out beauty samples, helping customers find products and ringing them up at the register, and they involved a very systematic method of throwing out merchandise.

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“A specific manager was in charge of deciding which products to destroy and throw out. For anything in jars or bottles, we’d opened them, empty them out in the trash, and toss the cap and jar out separately. If the products can’t be opened, like some eye creams, we’d squeeze them out,” she says, adding that almost all returned merchandise was thrown out. “Anything that could be cut in half with scissors was directly cut in half. Brushes were also cut and mangled. When it came to pressed powders, we’d scrape them up. Essentially, we’d do as much physical damage to a product as possible so that they could not be used.”

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That might sound like an extreme form of collecting the garbage, but stores like Sephora and Ulta face a little-known “dumpster-diving” issue—where people actually rummage through the garbage outside in hopes of finding beauty products. (Both stores declined to provide a comment for this story.)

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Vlogger Joanie Roberts is one of those people. She doesn’t do it in secret and she doesn’t hide her dumpster-diving methods—in fact, she has a YouTube channel that broadcasts her “hauls.”

According to Roberts, the key to a “good” dumpster dive is first figuring out the store’s trash day. (She also says, in her experience, standalone stores are typically better, as they generally have their own dumpsters as opposed to a department store where you will most likely be rummaging through multiple stores’ trash.) “That way you know exactly when to go and when the dumpster is going to be full, and you won’t go on a day that it’s going to be empty. I also like going late at night, an hour after the store closes. It makes it easier to not be seen or get caught, and, that way, if you actually do find merchandise, it doesn’t get taken from you.”

Some other steps Roberts swears by: Take gloves and have hand sanitizer with you at all times; keep a handy light available and always have a partner with you, especially at night; and lastly, take any makeup you find and check the status later at home to see if it’s broken, full or empty.

“For me, a good dumpster dive is if I find anything. It could be one item or 10 items. It’s all fun for me. I will open up all of the bags I see that are clear and look like they might have makeup in them. I stay away from trash bags that have food or anything disgusting in them—it’s not worth it. I will also check the recycling dumpster as well, because sometimes the stores will stick their ‘soup’ [what Roberts describes as makeup covered in foundation and lotion intended to destroy them] boxes and bags in there to hide products under the cardboard.”

Roberts also adds that she’s never had any issues with store associates—yet. “I never go when the store is physically open so it helps to not get ‘caught,’ but dumpster diving is legal where I live, so it wouldn’t matter either way.”

She stresses that she’s not selling the merchandise she finds, and, in her opinion, she thinks most beauty dumpster divers are getting products for their own use—not for profit. “It feels nice to save that makeup from getting destroyed for no reason and I like to keep what I find unless it’s something I can’t use, like the wrong color, or something I know someone would use more than me. And I never sell what I find, I just donate it to my friends and family. I also am saving some for a contest giveaway on my channel soon.”

So, if so much of this merchandise will go to waste, why can’t it be donated, or even given to employees? “Because of health and hygiene reasons, products marked to be thrown out cannot be given to employees or be donated,” Amy says. “Stores get a number of products that are specifically to be gifted to employees, called gratis, so most employees wouldn’t want returned merchandise.”

Of course, one man’s trash can be another’s treasure, but Amy says, among her former store employees, the question of right-versus-wrong would always evidently pop up. “We would all wonder how legal this was, and what’s the line? If you were only dumpster diving for your own use, does that make it OK? But if you are profiting from it, then what?”

*Name has been changed upon request.

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