Fakes & Bad Batches: Don’t Be A Victim Of Online Beauty Scammers

Illustrated by Maïté Marque.
If you've become a lot more invested in your beauty routine over the past year, you're not alone. From makeup to skincare, many of us now see beauty through a self-care lens, stocking up on bath and body products or practising DIY facials. Perhaps skin bugbears like 'maskne' mean you're willing to try new ingredients and remedies, or more free time has convinced you to bag all the viral beauty products on TikTok.
Either way, we're avoiding long queues and unnecessary journeys and are choosing to stock up on beauty supplies online. According to Mintel, 53% of adults are shopping more online now than they were at the start of the pandemic. There are a number of brilliant and trustworthy online beauty destinations featuring big-name brands such as The Ordinary right through to indie brands like Q+A Skincare. Think Cult Beauty, Beauty Bay and Lookfantastic, among others. But for every legitimate e-commerce website, a third-party seller is also operating.

What are third-party beauty sellers?

Third-party sellers are independent merchants which may sell new, old or surplus stock. They offer up many of the same products as trusted e-commerce websites and often at discount prices but understanding exactly how they work can be complicated. A handful of big beauty brands actually sell their products through trusted third-party selling companies, for example Quiverr, which allows the sale of legitimate products on Amazon. But plenty of self-standing third-party sellers slip through the net and are not verified or even recognised by the brands they are selling.
More often than not, the lure of third-party sellers is price. In these uncertain times, you'd be forgiven for shopping around to save money and being swayed by bargains. Social media is also a contributing factor. Thanks to TikTok, for example, beauty products from all over the world are achieving viral status. Often, many of these brands are sold outside the UK, in places like Korea or the US. It can be disappointing when a brand's official website doesn't ship here but that's where third-party sellers have an advantage, as they often do.
Unfortunately it's difficult to distinguish between a trusted third-party seller and one that could be risky. On Amazon in particular, many legitimate beauty brands have their own official Amazon Store, where "visit the store" hyperlinks will take you to a landing page with safe products to browse. However, anyone can sell via a third-party website. R29 research found that unauthorised sellers are taking advantage of this and can easily tweak their name to pose as authorised brands, tricking consumers into making what they believe to be genuine purchases.

What are the risks of buying beauty products from third-party sellers?

Watchdogs work hard to regulate third-party sellers online but it's impossible to shut them all down and there are many risks associated with them. We found that plenty of products sold via third-party sellers may be altered, expired, diluted or even counterfeit. Head to Twitter or Reddit and you'll spot numerous complaint threads written by consumers who have been stung. On Twitter, cult curly hair brand DevaCurl issued an apology to a consumer who had bought DevaCurl branded hair products via a third-party seller only to discover that some products were missing from the order while the rest were not officially packaged and had leaked. DevaCurl said that the third-party seller was not reviewed by them and that they "can't guarantee the safety or quality of products bought from unauthorized sellers as they [...] could be old, expired, diluted, or tampered with." The brand went on to list authorised stockists and said that while they try to catch and remove third-party sellers, it can be difficult. The brand also stated that when buying from Amazon in particular, it's important to look out for the "Sold by DevaCurl, fulfilled by Amazon" label, which they claim means the products are authorised.
According to the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA), although there are many legitimate third-party sellers online, counterfeit sellers may be among them. As websites and sellers can appear and disappear quickly, policing them can be challenging. The CTPA reports that counterfeiters in particular are unlikely to follow the requirements of the strict laws governing cosmetic products. According to the body, all cosmetic, toiletry and perfumery products on the market in the UK are regulated by strict UK legislation, otherwise known as the UK Cosmetics Regulation, which ensures they are safe. The CTPA reports that counterfeiters are unlikely to be using the same quality of ingredients and, as is often found by Trading Standards, their products "may contain unsafe levels of certain ingredients".
Dr Kemi Fabusiwa, medical doctor and director of Joyful Skin, suggests that losing money might be the least of our worries when buying from third-party sellers which may be offering up fake beauty products. "The worst case is that you can do possibly serious, permanent harm to your skin," Dr Fabusiwa told R29. "Fakes can be manufactured and stored in unregulated conditions, leaving the consumer at risk of buying and applying products that are chemically unstable, expired or colonised with bacteria," she added. "Other products purposefully contain cheap, harmful filler ingredients such as paint thinners and heavy metals." Dr Zainab Laftah, consultant dermatologist at HCA The Shard, agrees. "Although it is tempting to buy potentially counterfeit skincare products for a fraction of the price, the consequences to your skin can be disastrous. Genuine skincare products undergo extensive testing to establish their safety and quality control is essential." Dr Laftah explains that products such as these may result in skin inflammation (known as irritant contact dermatitis), skin sensitivity, post-inflammatory pigmentation and skin infections, in addition to other issues.
Dr Fabusiwa has seen firsthand the effects of buying beauty products from third-party sellers. "Clients of mine have erupted in hives following an allergic reaction to the products bought from third-party websites," she said. "It's difficult to know which ingredients led to the irritation, or if it is poor product storage, but signs that you've reacted badly to products include redness, burning, stinging and hypersensitivity." Dr Fabusiwa adds that if you have bought products from a third-party seller and are experiencing any of the above symptoms then it's important to stop using the product immediately. "Wash the product off your face and even consider an antihistamine, which can help if you've had an allergic reaction," she said. The CTPA advises checking if the websites you're buying from are intended for UK consumers, too. Products that are not directed at a UK consumer or placed in the UK market might not have to comply with UK laws on safety, according to the CTPA. Instead, they might be in compliance with the legal framework of other countries, which could spell trouble.
Earlier this year, founder of Pai Skincare, Sarah Brown, took to Instagram to share a blind unboxing of counterfeit Pai products which she had bought from, an online marketplace where third-party sellers operate. In the four-minute video, Sarah was shocked by what she discovered. "I'm going to be unboxing Pai; Pai that has been bought on the internet," she told her followers before opening the packages on camera. "As your brand grows in awareness, you can become a victim of counterfeiting," Sarah said. "We've had a few customers get in touch saying that they had a disappointing experience from Pai and they had bought off this website. A platform for other retailers."
Sarah showed the camera a picture of Pai's Bioregenerate Rosehip Facial Oil, which she said the website claimed had been reduced from £94 to £3. "We don't normally sell Rosehip at that price," said Sarah. "Neither £3 or £94." The Perfect Balancing Serum and a gift set followed a similar story. Sarah paid £5.78 for the serum, which was previously advertised on site at £125, and flagged that the gift set was three years old. "Even if this was in existence, it would be extremely old and I would not advise using it," she said of the set. When Sarah opened each package (the size and thickness of an envelope), she was obviously disappointed. Inside one was nothing but a teabag. Inside the second, a small eyeliner brush, and in the third, a "Pai" product which was half empty and entirely the wrong colour. Testing the product on the back of her hand, Sarah came to the conclusion that it was simply coloured water. "Don't be duped, people," Sarah said as she signed off. "If you see a Pai product that's cheap like that, it's probably too good to be true." The CTPA suggests being suspicious of any products offered for sale from lesser known internet sites.

How can you protect yourself against third-party beauty sellers?

While beauty brands have a responsibility to protect their consumers, for example by making sure their ingredients and packaging pass UK safety regulations, they are not required to answer for products sold without their knowledge by third-party sellers. Refinery29 reached out to three big-name beauty brands for their thoughts on the matter, all of which we spotted being sold on third-party e-commerce sites. The only beauty company to provide an answer was Deciem, which handles The Ordinary and NIOD.
"We have been contacted on multiple occasions with regard to unauthorised sellers," Nicola Kilner, Deciem cofounder and CEO, told Refinery29. "It is something our team monitors closely and is working hard to eradicate," she added. "The origin of products bought via Amazon are difficult to determine," said Nicola, "which makes it extremely difficult to assess if they are valid products including their ingredients, formulations, lab conditions and so on. When you purchase from an unauthorised seller you can lose consumer rights, so if anything is to go wrong, for example a skin reaction, you may not be able to access the support you need." Nicola said that it is important to shop with authorised stockists for genuine ingredients and formulations. "When purchasing from an unauthorised seller you could end up with a counterfeit product, making it difficult to understand its origin including that of the ingredients," said Nicola. "This could potentially be harmful."
Nicola said that when purchasing from authorised stockists (which include retail partners, the Deciem website, retail stores and all authorised retail partners listed at you are more likely to be covered. "At Deciem, we offer a 365-day returns policy in case of a change of mind." Dr Laftah echoes this advice. "Stick to reputable stockists who can guarantee the products you purchase have been formulated correctly to ensure they are safe to use and that they target the area of concern," she said. "Purchasing from unregulated distributors may end up costing you more to fix your skin if you develop a severe reaction or infection."
According to the CTPA, online enforcement authorities are already taking into account the virtual marketplaces and anti-counterfeiting initiatives from retailers. "They are active in trying to make online shopping safer," they say, "but as consumers, we can also take some actions to protect ourselves." Firstly, the CTPA advises making sure you are aware of who the seller or retailer is. Trustpilot and the National Cyber Security Centre are good websites for weeding out e-commerce platforms and shopping safely online. Take the time to read descriptions thoroughly, too. Spelling mistakes, jumbled language and blurry images may suggest the product is not being sold by a trustworthy party.
Like Sarah, the CTPA recommends questioning the prices, especially if a product appears overly discounted. Dr Fabusiwa agrees. "If it looks too good to be true, that's because it is," she said. "If the price has been significantly marked down compared to the original, don't trust it. There is a chance that the product is old, has been diluted or has been stored in inappropriate conditions." The CTPA says that legitimate luxury brands are very rarely sold at heavily discounted prices. 
Dr Fabusiwa hits home the importance of choosing first-party sellers when beauty shopping. "This is where your favourite skincare brands sell directly to websites, such as Amazon," she said. "The brand has the same standards to uphold and therefore there is a level of credibility and safety there." Dr Fabusiwa said there is no real way to assure safety when buying from a third-party seller whose name you do not recognise. She suggests reading reviews before making any purchases. "See what other buyers thought of the product and learn from their experiences," she said. Look for good, trustworthy reviews which detail the buying experience, how long it took for the product to arrive, whether it came intact and as described, and if the purchaser was happy with the quality of the product, including packaging, texture, smell and efficacy. Before you get to the checkout, it's imperative to read up on the seller's refund policy, too. "Check expiry dates and that the seal is in place," adds Dr Fabusiwa. "It's important to review the product and make sure that it hasn't been tampered with." If you believe it has, you are well within your rights to take this up with the third-party seller but be aware that they might not always be helpful.
The expert consensus is that more often than not, buying beauty products from third-party sellers whose credentials don't seem to be legitimate is more stressful than anything else. Retail therapy is meant to be a mood-booster but coming to the realisation that you've been duped can be disappointing and embarrassing. The good news is that more brands like Deciem and Pai are getting the word out to consumers. What's more, there are so many legitimate beauty shopping websites offering great deals on beauty products all year round, like Escentual and Feelunique. As with most things, if you have a niggling sense of doubt about purchasing any beauty product online (whether that's skincare, haircare, makeup or anything in between), it's probably best to leave it in your shopping cart.

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