Counterfeiting is nothing new. Remember bootleg DVDs? What about that pair of 'Chanel' earrings you bought on Canal Street in New York, or the £10 Folex you treated yourself to on the beach. A friend of mine once arrived at a restaurant and asked the awaiting gang of us: "What do you think of my new Louis Vuitton bag?" "I think it's not Louis Vuitton" I said, and we all laughed, because it cost £30 and not £3,000 and what's the harm in that?
According to the OECD, handbags are the most counterfeited item on Earth, followed by shoes, watches, perfume and cosmetics. But in one area of the fast-paced and hugely launch-driven beauty industry, business is really booming. Counterfeits and knockoff (usually vastly inferior) versions of the pricey beauty tools we love – from hair straighteners to battery-operated cleansing devices – are springing up as fast as new products appear, and you don't need to lurk around a back alley to get your hands on them. They're all online and as easy to obtain as the real deal. One beauty tech brand alone says hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of fake stock is being uncovered every week.
If you are obsessive about your cleansing, you might own a Foreo Luna or something similar. These dinky beauty devices promise to enhance your everyday skincare ritual, with a gentle vibrating effect on the face. The Foreo Luna Mini 2 Facial Cleansing Brush is available on Amazon for £95.20. An almost identical counterfeit Foreo costs £6.99. Tempted? I was, so I ordered one. A few days later I received a garbled but friendly message from the supplier, which made me feel uneasy, but two weeks later my device arrived, in pink.
It looks almost identical to my legit Foreo; the bristles felt a little coarser on my skin but other than that, my 'Under Girl' device was pretty much a carbon copy of the real thing. I've used it about half a dozen times and so far, so good – but I have a sinking feeling that should it stop working, my dear friend Shirly will disappear.
Evan Feldstein is vice general manager for Foreo in North America, and part of his remit is guarding the brand's intellectual property. Feldstein says they are combatting forgery on a day-to-day basis. The law puts the onus on the company, he explains. "IP [Intellectual Property] law is that obtain your own copyright details etc, so it’s your responsibility to police this as a company from a legal perspective. IP protection is about protecting your consumers as much as anything else – so high quality Foreo products are in users' hands."
In 2018 alone, Foreo conducted 30 administrative raids and 15 criminal raids and seized approximately 30,000 fake Lunas. At any one time, the company has five cases under investigation.
Ninety percent of fakes (available on eBay and Amazon) are produced in China, then shipped around the world. (A note: It is possible to get a genuine Foreo on eBay, says Feldstein. "We don’t sell on there, but people do resell genuine products, unwanted gifts etc.") Caveat emptor: If it’s being shipped to you from China, it’s probably a fake.
It’s getting worse on a global level. There’s more money in it today than 20 years ago...it’s so easy to buy things online that people say are legitimate.
Evan Feldstein, vice general manager for Foreo
Feldstein (and all the other CEOs and beauty innovators we spoke with) says fakes are definitely on the rise. "It’s getting worse on a global level. There’s more money in it today than 20 years ago... it’s so easy to buy things online today that people say are legitimate."
The pro with a copy is obviously the knockdown price, but what about the cons? Well, obviously you have no idea what conditions the devices are produced in – they could be using child labour – although you should never presume that because you recognise the brand name, they are treating employees well. If in doubt about where your fashion and beauty purchases are coming from, you can check sites and apps like Cosmethics, Ethical Elephant and Good on You, or look for the Leaping Bunny. If you can't find the answers you need there, hold brands to account using social media – if they are legit and treat their workers well, then they have nothing to hide.
Ethics aside, fakes could be dangerous. With something battery-operated like the Foreo, there's a small risk but Feldstein says in all honesty, that's rare. The bigger issue for the brand, which is proud of the device it makes, is that its customers won't be getting the quality they expect. And while some people are proud of their frugal fakes (my mate and her LV bag), some are fooled into thinking they are purchasing the genuine article, only to end up with a cheap imitation.
Looking at the bigger picture, counterfeiting has a crushing effect on the economy, too. Fewer wholesale and retail sales equals thousands of job losses annually, and means governments lose out on not millions but billions in taxes.
If we're talking about heated devices – hairdryers, straighteners, curling tongs and the like – the risks are higher. A Dyson hairdryer will set you back £299, a ghd hair straightener costs from £80 to £155. That's a lot of money but a bad fake could cost you a whole lot more.
Tim Moore, the chief technical officer for ghd, warns: "While counterfeit stylers and curlers may look very similar, they pose a number of serious risks to consumers – including electrocution, burns and hair damage – and would not pass strict regulatory requirements. ghd are renowned for their dedication to testing products within their R&D labs in Cambridge."
If you want to spot the difference, it's easy enough. All authentic ghd products have verified hologram codes on them. If you’ve bought a ghd product and want to make sure it's real, go to their website and enter the code found on the product. Moore says that buying electrical goods when you’re unsure of their authenticity can be "extremely dangerous" so it’s important you purchase from reputable stockists.
Laurence Newman, CEO of beauty device experts CurrentBody, agrees that safety is a big concern. "These products are untested and unregulated. Many customers don't realise they have been sold a counterfeit product, then they begin to see issues with charging. Manufacturers and sellers of fake goods are not only taking advantage of hardworking consumers, but also damaging the reputations of brands that pride themselves on the quality of their product."
It's not just big name household brands that are fighting the counterfeiting war. When you hear about entrepreneurial types like Jamie O’Banion, founder and CEO of BeautyBio and the creator of GloPRO, talk about what counterfeits do to their business, it makes you think twice about purchasing a fake.
The GloPRO is a popular (and patented) microneedling tool that solves a genuine consumer need and thus is a target for the fakers. O’Banion elaborates: "In any industry where creativity and new product launches are the lifeline, you’re going to encounter forms of design borrowing. When you’re the first to claim a space, of course others are going to follow and try to capture the same audience."
O’Banion says the tool "took the technology out of the aesthetician’s hands, giving people control over their microneedling treatments with zero downtime," so there's zero surprise people want to rip off their good idea. "It would actually be stranger if there weren’t replica attempts and reproductions," says O'Banion, but while other rollers make the same claims as GloPRO (which costs around £199) and seem tempting at less than half the cost, there are major differences.
O'Banion believes the way to win the battle is to educate the customer. "We know you want to do what’s best for your skin, here’s how and why GloPRO is still the best and safest, but please make whatever choice is right for you."
The GloPRO "groupies", as she calls them, usually have lower quality needles and don’t offer the red-light therapy or pulse stimulation, "all which combine to give your skin the safest experience while maximising cellular regeneration."
As for the cost, she says her lawyers are kept pretty busy. "Protecting a patent is a full-time job, so there is definitely an arm of the company whose sole job it is to monitor competitors and whether any infringements are being made, not just on GloPRO but on other BeautyBio patents and formulas as well. The beauty industry is like its own little Silicon Valley, everyone racing to the next finish line, hoping to surprise customers with the most advanced tech, but we have the even harder job (thanks to today’s social media and comparative culture) of delivering it in vanity-worthy packaging. The biggest 'cost' to the company is time. We take competitor claims and product comparisons very seriously, so my team spends a lot of time educating customers on products, ingredients and points of difference so that they feel fully informed. There’s a lot to choose from out there. We want them to feel empowered in their choices."
I’ve seen skin scan analysis of a competitor’s tool where the needles created erratic slashes in the skin, tearing it instead of lightly puncturing.
Jamie O’Banion, Founder and CEO of BeautyBio
As for the dangers, here's her informed opinion. "I don’t want to scream 'fire' in a crowded cosmetic aisle and scare anybody, but there are so many tools out there, I recommend doing thorough research, especially on any tool that disrupts the surface layer of skin. I’ve seen skin scan analysis of a competitor’s tool where the needles created erratic slashes in the skin, tearing it instead of lightly puncturing. BeautyBio has a lot of information about microneedling on our website, blog and partner websites, so if there’s anyone out there who just needs basic info, please use us as a resource." No amount of money is worth destroying your skin and creating long-term damage.
If you've got a guilty conscience or are worried about the safety of a dupe, then toss it, or you could try to return it to China. Good luck with that.