What You Need To Know Before Buying Beauty Dupes

Designed by Kristine Romano.
For every cult product (think Urban Decay’s Naked Palette, the iconic YSL Touché Eclat highlighter and Kylie Jenner’s sell-out Lip Kits), you can bet there’s a beauty 'dupe' — basically a very similar copy — going for a fifth of the price. Now referred to simply as 'dupes', it’s easy to see the allure when compared with their often expensive or even elusive counterparts.
There's a reason why dupes are so popular. They help make beauty accessible to everyone, provide a wider spectrum of products and tap into some of the biggest beauty trends, like glass skin and skincare cocktailing. The majority of us can’t afford to fork out $350 on a luxury daily moisturizer or risk buying a $75 concealer which might not suit our skin tone; dupes, on the other hand, offer a cheap and easy entry point into discovering beauty. Plus, we all know that expensive doesn’t always equal best — as drugstore brands like CeraVe and The Ordinary, along with Beauty Pie, prove with every new high-tech and highly affordable product they bring to market.
Alex Hawkins, senior foresight writer at The Future Laboratory, agrees and explains that dupes have a large impact on the beauty industry. "We now know it’s possible to find affordable yet effective products, which makes it much harder to justify shelling out on high-end and luxury skincare or cosmetics," she says. Clare Varga, head of beauty at trend forecaster WGSN, puts the rise of beauty dupes down to the shift in shopping habits during the pandemic. According to WGSN’s "Big Ideas 2023" report, beauty dupes are flourishing because consumers are unable to buy products in the traditional ways, for instance asking for advice from sales associates in store. The report adds that consumers have turned to digital communities and apps to seek advice on all aspects of beauty, and dupes are hugely popular in these spaces.

Dupes are associated with 'hauls' and, while fun to watch, they promote the ethos of a 'more is more' unbridled consumption that is bad for the planet.

Ashlee Piper
Social media plays a big part in dupe culture. Instagram account @dupethat exists solely to provide its beauty fans (all 1.3 million of them) with the best and most affordable dupes, while community-driven beauty dupe platform Brandefy had 330% year-on-year growth in 2020, says Varga. Even #makeupdupes now has 90 million views on TikTok, while on Reddit, the r/makeupdupes thread is constantly booming with recommendations and new discoveries. With more demand from Gen Z and millennial consumers eager to get hold of the latest beauty trends fast, there are now platforms to seek information and advice on dupes along with influencer endorsement accelerating the hype and demand. "Beauty is very driven by community and knowledge," agrees Hawkins. "Dupes in particular have been popularized by creators on YouTube and TikTok, while brand loyalty has also faltered, and younger consumers are far less enamoured by legacy beauty brands."

Are beauty dupes bad for the environment?

While gaining traction on social media, beauty dupes have recently come under fire for promoting consumerism. Despite significant progress, the beauty industry still has a waste problem. Zero Waste reports that 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global beauty industry, a lot of which is not recyclable. Beauty trends like skincare layering and the #shelfie have long taught us to consume more and despite the rise in 'skinimalism' and cutting out excessive steps, brands encourage us to add to our already extensive routines. With even more hype and spending tied to dupe culture, the exponential rise in dupes could be detrimental where beauty waste is concerned. 
"When we look at the influencer realm, dupes are so often associated with 'hauls' and, while fun to watch, they promote the ethos of a 'more is more' unbridled consumption that is bad for the planet," says Ashlee Piper, sustainability expert and author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. "Moreover, dupes are also usually identical to the duped items in that they're still rife with wasteful, often non-recyclable packaging, shipping waste and resource consumption." Piper also suggests that because dupes are usually a lot cheaper than the original, consumers might be inclined to buy more products.

A less expensive item can mean that ingredient sourcing and production practices are more likely to feed into the same ills as fast fashion.

Of course, having more affordable options is a good thing, Piper continues, and a less expensive beauty product doesn't always equate to lower quality or poor eco ethics. However, she suggests that dupe culture feeds the cycle of consumerism and production. "Instead of making do with items we currently have and paring down our beauty routines to focus on sustainable items with a focus on multi-use, reusability and circularity (using food waste to make eco-conscious beauty products), dupe culture can sometimes focus on acquiring more than we actually need and will use." Micaela Nisbet, founder of Neighbourhood Botanicals, seconds this. While she says there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking for a bargain, especially during difficult times such as these, there is no denying that dupes play into beauty's hyped up consumerism. "I think it’s wise to buy less and to buy better," she adds.

Are beauty dupes really ethical?

Another cause for concern is buying far too much, too quickly, and not knowing exactly what you’re buying. Many uncertified dupes call ethics into question. "A less expensive item can mean that ingredient sourcing and production practices are more likely to feed into the same ills as fast fashion," says Piper. There may be a growing community of 'dupe experts' on social media, and an increasing knowledge to boot, but there is still a ton of uncertainty, misinformation and lack of ingredient transparency where the formulas are concerned.
Nisbet cites some cases on Reddit where duped palettes have caused burns and reactions. An expert in cosmetic science and skincare formulation, Nisbet alleges that there are potential health hazards with some popular celebrity makeup dupes in particular, adding that they may often be made in "terrible unsanitary conditions" in countries where regulations aren't as tight as the UK and potentially "using ingredients not fit for skincare".
Supermarket dupes appear to be a lot more regulated but R29 research shows that some of the products surfacing on online marketplaces are featured with little to no information on either the product or brand, which makes finding out the ingredients list and claims near to impossible. The hundreds of Lush bath bomb dupes online are a good example of this. "Certifications might be faked or not pursued," says Piper. "Depending on where you live, products can espouse they are cruelty-free, vegan, natural, organic and eco-friendly without having much regulation around those."

Aim to shop responsibly. While it's difficult not to be swayed by mesmerizing dupe hauls and buzzy products gone viral on TikTok, being mindful is a good first step.

By contrast, when purchasing a bath bomb from Lush you can find every granular detail on the product: ingredient sourcing, the strict non-animal testing information, care for the brand’s environmental impact and for your skin. One example is the brand’s charcoal, which is made in Dorset to provide a more positive impact on the woodland and surrounding wildlife. "Around 70% of charcoal used in the UK is imported from sources such as rainforests of west Africa and South America, mangroves of southeast Asia and southern African savannah, and yet when we produce it here in the UK, it benefits our woodlands massively," says Gabbi Loedolff from Lush's global buying team. Loedolff adds: "If a product talks about the ingredients used in it, it’s always worth looking at the website to see what information is being shared; not just about the benefits of the ingredients but also where they are coming from and their sourcing practices in general." 
Ingredients aside, we celebrate dupes which are copied and reproduced at cut prices but this poses its own issues. Not only are dupes passing off the work of fellow beauty brands as their own (and mostly without repercussions) but the big brands which are forever being duped are very often involved in important charity work. Benefit Cosmetics, for instance, works on the Bold Is Beautiful project to support women and girls in local communities worldwide and has raised £1.7 million (approximately $2.9 million) since its inception. Elsewhere, Charlotte Tilbury, another dupe victim, has pledged £1 million (approximately $1.7 million) to Women for Women International. This raises lots of questions around ethics and beauty dupes, particularly when it comes to giving back to communities.
As Piper points out, vilifying all beauty dupes is not the answer. Some might be more sustainable or have better credentials than the original product. It pays to do your own research, though. Check websites for information on ingredients, look out for logos and certifications printed on packaging and don't be afraid to question brands and sellers on their claims, whether that's via social media or by contacting them directly. It's the idea that we need to constantly buy more – of which dupe culture is definitely guilty – that's of increasing concern. The first port of call? Aim to shop responsibly. While it's difficult not to be swayed by mesmerizing dupe hauls and buzzy products gone viral on TikTok, being mindful is a good first step. Consider buying products only when you're running low, buying skincare specifically formulated to your individual skin type, and trying not to buy on impulse. It can make all the difference.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.

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