News Sexual Health

Did Rihanna’s Lipstick Really Give a Woman Herpes?

Martha Kempner

A New York City woman is suing MAC cosmetics claiming that she got herpes from the Rihanna-branded RiRi Woo lipstick, which she sampled at the singer’s May 7 show in Brooklyn.

A New York City woman is suing MAC cosmetics claiming that she got herpes from the Rihanna-branded RiRi Woo lipstick, which she sampled at the singer’s May 7 show in Brooklyn.

The bright-red lipstick is the first in the RiRi Hearts line of cosmetics, which will also feature eye shadow palettes, brushes, and false eyelashes. On May 2, Rhianna tweeted that the lipstick was available for sale, and just three hours later it was sold out. That didn’t stop a pop-up shop at the Barclay’s Center from letting consumers sample the new color. That’s where 28-year-old Starkeema Greenidge says she contracted herpes.

In the lawsuit, Greenidge says that an employee at the store applied the lipstick directly to her lips after it had been used by another customer and the told her to “press her lips together and spread the lipstick around.” Two days later, her lips began to swell, she developed a cold sore, and was then diagnosed with oral herpes. Greendige is suing MAC for emotional distress and lost wages from the two weeks she was unable to work.

Two strains of the herpes simplex virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2, are responsible for oral and genital herpes infections.  Most often, HSV-1 causes oral infections and HSV-2 causes genital infections, though it is possible for HSV-1 to infect the genitals or HSV-2 to infect the mouth. Oral infection, which leads to sores on the lip that we tend to call cold sores, can be transmitted through kissing or oral-genital contact. The virus is most contagious when actual sores are present but can be spread in the few days before a sore appears when the virus is “shedding.” Though shared lipstick is probably not the usual method of transmission, herpes can be spread through objects that an infected person has used, such as infected razors or towels.

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It remains unclear whether Greenidge really contracted herpes from the lipstick or if there is another source of her infection, but her case offers a reminder about some basic hygiene lessons for people trying on lipstick in a store: Experts suggest that before using a tester lipstick, you should wipe it down with a tissue or, even better, a tissue dipped in alcohol, and once it’s clean, use a cotton swab or other disposable applicator to put the lipstick on your lips. This advice applies to other make-up products as well. (Though herpes only infects the lips, mascara, eyeliners, and eyeshadows can spread pink eye.) One study found staph, strep, and even E. coli bacteria on tester makeup. So don’t apply anything directly from the package onto your face, and don’t use a store’s brushes, as animal hair can trap bacteria.

Analysis Sexual Health

Almost Everyone Has Herpes, But How Worried Should We Be?

Martha Kempner

A new report by the World Health Organization estimates that two out of three adults under the age of 50 had herpes simplex virus 1 in 2012. That’s 3.7 billion people worldwide who are infected. But that doesn't mean it's time to panic.

We used to call them cold sores or fever blisters and dismiss them as unsightly and annoying. But the truth is that little sore in the corner of your uncle’s mouth was always caused by a herpes virus that is easy to spread. So easy, in fact, that a new report by the World Health Organization estimates that two out of three adults under the age of 50 had herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) in 2012. That’s 3.7 billion people worldwide who are infected. Before we panic and start to plan for the herpes apocalypse, though, we should know a few things about this sexually transmitted infection (STI).

It’s a Virus

There are actually eight herpes viruses that can infect humans. Some are associated with known childhood sicknesses like chicken pox and roseola, and others can cause illnesses such as Epstein-Barr, which leads to chronic fatigue and other symptoms. The two herpes viruses talked about the most, however, are HSV-1 and HSV-2, because both are sexually transmitted.

It used to be thought that HSV-1 caused all infections above the waist and HSV-2 was responsible for those below. While it is more common for HSV-1 to infect the mouth and HSV-2 the genitals, we know now that either strain of the virus can cause infection in either place. Herpes is spread when cells from infected skin come in contact with either broken skin (like a cut or a sore) or mucous membranes such as the lips or genitals.

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So Many People Have It

One thing that makes herpes infections so common is that it can be spread whenever the virus is shedding, which can happen when people are not experiencing any symptoms. Though this can make prevention more challenging, people who get multiple outbreaks often come to learn what their skin feels like right before an outbreak and know to avoid contact with others at that point.

As Rewire previously reported, there is a new theory that may explain why so many younger people are becoming infected with herpes. Research suggests that in the past, kids were exposed to the virus during childhood—possibly as a result of kissing relatives who thought nothing of the cold sore they had on their mouth. This exposure allowed their immune systems to build up antibodies that could protect against infection if or when they were exposed again once they became sexually active.

A rising awareness of avoiding contact during outbreaks, coupled with generally more hygienic living situations, means kids do not get exposed at a young age and do not develop antibodies. This leaves their immune systems unprotected when they start having sex. The researchers believe that the lack of antibodies, coupled with an increase in oral sex, is a recipe for more genital herpes infections caused by HSV-1 in the future. 

Some Get Symptoms

For many people, infection with herpes is a non-event. They will never experience symptoms and won’t even know they have the virus. Some people might experience mild symptoms, like tiny sores on the skin that they barely notice or mistake for an ingrown hair, pimple, bug bite, or very chapped lips.

Others may get an unmistakable fluid-filled blister or even a cluster of them. Blisters can appear on the lips, inside the mouth, back of the throat, genitals, or rectum. The blisters then break, leaving sores that are painful and may be slow to heal. Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, aches, or swollen glands, can also accompany an initial outbreak.

For some people, the first outbreak is the only outbreak. Others will have recurrences, especially in the first year. These outbreaks are usually not as severe or as long-lasting as the first one. Some people find that they have repeat infections in moments when they are run-down or stressed out. Repeat infections usually stop on their own after about five years.

Though herpes can never be cured, antiviral drugs can help cut down on the frequency, severity, and length of outbreaks.

Herpes Can Be Serious

Outbreaks of herpes can be severe for some people, particularly people with suppressed immune systems due to HIV, AIDS, or other underlying health conditions. Moreover, outbreaks of herpes make becoming infected or infecting a partner with HIV far more likely because of the presence of open sores and blood.

Herpes can also be serious for pregnant women and newborns. Without treatment, active outbreaks can lead to miscarriage or premature birth and, if passed from mother to baby during delivery, it can lead to neonatal herpes, which is potentially deadly for the infant. Women who have a history of herpes should tell their health-care provider, who will continue to examine them for sores during their pregnancy. If any sores are found around the time of delivery, the provider will suggest a c-section to prevent the newborn’s exposure to the virus.

But It’s Not the Apocalypse

The good news is that, as mentioned earlier, for many people infected with herpes, nothing happens. The virus travels down the nerve endings and stays there, causing no damage. And the person may never know they have it.

Moreover, people who do have herpes outbreaks can live long and healthy lives and still have sex without passing the virus to their partners. Current research on HSV-2, for example, suggests that men with genital herpes who are not having an outbreak carry a 10 percent risk of transmitting the virus to their female partner if they have unprotected sex. That risk is cut in half to 5 percent if they use condoms during sex, and cut in half again if the man is taking antiviral medicine. Women have a slightly lower risk of passing it to their male partners—a 4 percent risk from unprotected sex, a 2 percent risk if they use condoms, and a 1 percent risk if they are also using medication. Though data for HSV-1 is not available, it is spread in the same fashion.

By avoiding some sexual contact during outbreaks, using condoms, and taking advantage of antiviral therapy if needed, we can do a lot to prevent the further spread of herpes.

At the same time, by understanding how easily transmissible the virus is and just how many people have it—and encouraging everyone to get testing and any treatment they need—we can do a lot to end the stigma and shame surrounding it.

News Sexual Health

Study: Today’s Teens Have Less Protection From Herpes

Martha Kempner

New research suggests that today's teenagers may be more susceptible to genital herpes than previous generations. Public health experts worry that this could mean more cases in the future.

A new study suggests that today’s teenagers may have less protection against genital herpes than previous generations when they become sexually active, which could lead to an increase in cases of sexually transmitted herpes as well as mother-to-child transmission.

The study, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, looked at two groups of teenagers—those who were 14 to 19 years old between 2005 and 2010, and those who were the same ages between 1999 and 2004. It found that fewer teens in the more recent group (30 percent) had antibodies to HSV-1, one of the two strains of the herpes virus that can cause genital infections, compared to the older group of teens (39 percent). This could leave them more vulnerable to infection.

For many years, it was thought that HSV-1 caused oral herpes infections, which most often presents as cold sores on the lips, and that genital infections were caused by HSV-2. As Dr. William Schaffner, who was not involved in the study, explained to LiveScience, he was taught that HSV-1 caused symptoms above the waist and HSV-2 was the culprit if the infection was below the waist. However, that has changed over time, possibly as a result of an increase in oral sex. In fact, the researchers noted that one study suggested as many as 60 percent of genital herpes cases were caused by HSV-1. As Schaffner put it, “HSV-1 is now having the opportunity to cause more and more herpes in the genital area.”

This may be particularly problematic for today’s teens because, as the new study suggests, they have not built up any protection to this virus as a result of better, more hygienic living conditions. HSV-1 is transmitted through saliva and skin-to-skin contact. Researchers think that in the past young people were exposed to the virus as kids and therefore able to build up antibodies that could protect them if they were exposed to it again once they became sexually active. The researchers believe that the lack of antibodies coupled with the increase in oral sex is a recipe for more genital herpes infections in the future.

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Genital herpes infections—whether caused by HSV-1 or HSV-2—can lead to painful sores on the penis, vulva, or anus. While some people get these sores only once, for others outbursts can recur regularly. There is no cure for herpes, though anti-viral medication can reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks for some people.

According to an editorial published in conjunction with the study, written by Dr. David Kimberlin, an increase in genital infections could also cause an increase in infections passed from mother to child during birth. Herpes infection in newborns can cause serious diseases and even death. To prevent such transmission, mothers are tested for herpes during pregnancy. Some may be given antiviral medication toward the end of pregnancy to prevent an outbreak. Mothers with active herpes outbreaks usually have a cesarean section to prevent the baby from coming into contact with sores during delivery.

The researchers say their results point to a need for increased monitoring “to better understand the changing epidemiology of the disease, and inform vaccine development.” Other experts add that the results highlight the importance of prevention.

William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, told Rewire,What we need to remember is that the best way to prevent herpes is to use condoms when you engage in any sexual activity. This includes the use of dental dams and condoms for oral sex,” Smith said. “Whether a teen has antibodies or not, prevention remains most important not only for herpes but all other STDs as well.”

Lynn Barclay, president of the American Sexual Health Association, also spoke to Rewire about the importance of prevention efforts, especially among teens. “Young people have a good general sense of how to protect themselves against STIs but don’t always think that sex includes oral and anal sex,” Barclay said. “This is obviously misguided, given the prevalence of HSV-1 in new genital herpes infections, most of which are acquired through oral sex. We need to do a better job of encouraging a safe sex frame of mind with any sex act, and this includes educating youth about using dental dams and condoms for oral sex.”

For those who might be skeptical of adding latex to oral sex, she noted that both products come in flavored varieties.