Beauty addicts love a good makeup sale. With prices for the good stuff continuing to climb and trends constantly changing, it’s no wonder cosmetics fans look for discounts and even resort to dumpster diving in order to snag free designer cosmetics. Then, there are the knockoffs. There have always been counterfeit versions of high-end apparel and accessories – why not beauty products, too?
You may ultra-tempted by that $5 online listing for a Kylie Lip Kit (especially if it’s sold out in every single authorized store), but step away from the computer. Counterfeit makeup is flat-out dangerous, and you’re far better served buying a drugstore dupe. You may be aware of some terrible knockoff makeup stories, like the one about a blogger who suffered painful rashes and chemical burns, but every tale from the multi-million dollar counterfeit cosmetics industry is harrowing. Dangerous fake makeup can slowly poison your body and even cause cancer.
The industry of counterfeit beauty products is on the rise, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy in. Here’s what you need to know about knockoff makeup.
The Factories Producing Knockoff Makeup Are Disgusting
Illegal operations running out of mainland China don’t often take the same sanitation measures as OSHA-regulated manufactures in the US. According to Greg Marrazzo, the Senior Vice President, Deputy General Counsel of Estée Lauder Companies, the factories that produce knockoffs are horrifically dirty:
“If I could paint a picture of what it’s like in one of these [counterfeit factories in China]… If you took the most disgusting frat house bathroom, it looks like a surgical suite compared to these conditions. It’s filthy, there’s bacteria everywhere… it’s disgusting.”
It’s terrible to think about people working in those conditions. The bacteria found in those factories tends to seep into the makeup they produce, too.
Fake Makeup Can Cause Cancer
It may be tempting to snag that faux Kyshadow, but it’s not the same thing as carrying a knockoff handbag. These products are used on sensitive parts of your body and can deeply affect your health. There’s a reason the FDA has to approve makeup ingredients.
According to FBI reports, counterfeit makeup can include carcinogens. This means that over time, the use of that fake Jeffree Star liquid lipstick can actually give you cancer.
Counterfeit Makeup Can Contain Dangerous Ingredients Like Paint Thinner, Lead, And Mercury
You’re probably not in a huge rush to bathe your lips in paint thinner – but that’s exactly what you could be doing if you use counterfeit makeup. It’s also likely that you’re slathering yourself in toxic metals like lead and mercury.
According to the FBI, counterfeit cosmetics can contain paint thinner, which irritates the eyes, nose, and throat in addition to being flammable and poisonous. Mercury and lead are also sometimes found in makeup knockoffs, which can lead to heavy metal poisoning. Mercury poisoning has long-term health effects including headaches, lack of coordination, vision impairment, mood swings, and insomnia. Lead poisoning can cause a number of similar long-term health problems, as well as miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women.
In the best case scenario, being exposed to dangerous heavy metals and toxic chemicals in counterfeit makeup causes swelling, rashes, irritation, and chemical burns. Those symptoms subside should subside after use is discontinued.
Your Eyelids Can Fuse Together After Using Arsenic-Laced Eyeshadow
Counterfeit makeup can contain arsenic (also known as rat poison). The Guardian speculates that it finds its way into makeup through rats. The unsanitary factories that produce knockoffs are often infested with rats and loaded with poison to keep them away.
Arsenic is the opposite of something you’d want in makeup. In fact, your eyelids can actually fuse together if you use an eye product that contains it. In addition, continued exposure to arsenic can cause drowsiness, headaches, diarrhea, and confusion. In extreme cases, arsenic poisoning can lead to seizures, impaired hearing, cancer, and death.
Knockoff Makeup Often Contains Rat Droppings And Human Urine
According to cosmetic scientist Colin Sanders, rat droppings aren’t “particularly harmful in small quantities.” That still doesn’t mean you’d want to rub rat feces all over your face and mouth. Unfortunately, because of the disgusting conditions inside of counterfeit makeup factories, you may be doing just that.
Both rat feces and human urine have been found in knockoff cosmetics. The source of the rat poop is obvious, but the human urine remains a mystery – are people really peeing into batches of knockoff lip gloss?
Counterfeit Makeup Can Trigger A Life-Long Allergy
Not every ingredient used in counterfeit makeup is inherently harmful; many are actually found in the designer makeup products you know and love. The only problem is that the people who make these products don’t always use the right amount of these ingredients, particularly preservatives. This can trigger allergies to regular makeup, too.
“Once you’ve developed an allergy to something, you get it for a considerable period of time, possibly even life,” cosmetic scientist Colin Sanders told The Guardian. In other words, even if you switch back to that legit lipstick, it could still give you a rash.
Buying Counterfeit Makeup May Put Your Identity At Risk
The negative health effects of counterfeit makeup are frightening enough, but there’s also a financial risk to buying from a shady seller. According to The Guardian, victims who bought fake cosmetics online found suspicious changes on their credit cards and discovered their personal information was used to set up hundreds of illegal websites selling counterfeit products.
Estée Lauder Fights Counterfeiters With A Dedicated Security Team
Counterfeit makeup has been around since the dawn of designer makeup brands, but that doesn’t mean those brands can’t fight back. In 2003, Estée Lauder Companies formed a global security team to crack down on fakes. Comprised of 42 agents and lead by the former head of the US DEA’s office in New York, the team scours knockoff websites, third-party retailers like eBay and Amazon, and flea markets around the world to find counterfeit makeup. They work with local law enforcement to rack up enough evidence to press charges against the people putting these dangerous fakes on the market. In some cases, justice is served.
The Department Of Homeland Security Is Also Vigilant
The Department of Homeland Security ramped up the fight against counterfeit cosmetics with Operation Plastic Beauty. This effort was led by the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which works with 19 federal agencies and four international agencies to stop counterfeiters in their tracks.
A whopping 83 percent of their work occurs in mainland China and Hong Kong, where counterfeit packaging is largely produced. The department seized 25 percent more counterfeits in 2013 than two years prior, and in 2016, Homeland Security seized over 2.8 million fake Estée Lauder products (mostly MAC counterfeits). But this just scratches the surface; counterfeit cosmetics are on the rise.
Fake Makeup Is On The Rise
The counterfeit makeup industry is as booming. In 2014, complaints over counterfeit merchandise increased by 357%; commerce authorities got a whopping 77,800 complaints. The year prior, counterfeiting made up 2.5% of the world’s trade. Though retailers like eBay and Amazon try their best to remove counterfeit listings, many slip through the cracks. Alibaba, China’s version of Amazon, has over 22,000 listings for just lipstick, many of which are openly marked as counterfeit and have not been removed from the site.
It’s not simply the loss of sales that concerns major beauty brands. Counterfeits tarnish a brand’s reputation, because many buyers don’t know that what they’re buying is a fake.
$37 Billion A Year Is Spent On Anti-Counterfeit Measures
Unfortunately, counterfeit makeup is almost impossible to detect by look alone. Many times, packaging is replicated pretty perfectly. Makeup giants are continuously looking for new ways to thwart counterfeit packaging, which is often the only discernable way for the average person to spot a fake. These high-tech methods, like watermarks, holograms, and RFID chips, require a ton of research. In 2014, Big Beauty spent an estimated $37 billion on these types of anti-counterfeiting measures alone.
There’s Only One Real Way To Protect Yourself From Counterfeit Makeup
Because so many fakes have spot-on packaging, it’s almost impossible to tell if you’re buying a counterfeit – especially if you’re buying it online. The best way to protect yourself is to buy from trusted, authorized sellers like Sephora and Ulta or the beauty brand’s actual website.
If you insist on shopping from an unauthorized website or kiosk, keep the price in mind. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. More often than not, super cheap makeup is counterfeit, stolen, or straight-up watered down and repackaged.