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 "Rolex" 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, not £3,000.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 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 (usually vastly inferior) knockoff 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 skin-care ritual, with a gentle vibrating effect on the face. In the UK, the Foreo Luna Mini 2 Facial Cleansing Brush is available on Amazon for £95.20. An almost identical counterfeit 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, the 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 says that you obtain your own copyright details, etc., so it’s your responsibility to police this as a company from a legal perspective," he says. "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, things like that.") Buyer beware: 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," he says. "It’s so easy to buy things online today that people say are legitimate."
The appeal of 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 labor — although you should never presume that just because you recognize the brand name means they're treating employees well, either. (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 accountable using social media; if they are legitimate and treat their workers well, then they have nothing to hide.)
Ethics aside, fakes could be dangerous. There's a small risk with something battery-operated like the Foreo, but Feldstein says that, in all honesty, it'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 friend 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 (or $399 USD), a ghd hair straightener ranges from £80 to £155 ($149 to $249 in the US). That's a lot of money, but a bad fake could cost you a whole lot more.
"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," warns Tim Moore, ghd's chief technical officer. "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 UK-based beauty device experts CurrentBody, agrees that safety is a big concern. "These products are untested and unregulated. Many customers don't realize 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: Smaller entrepreneurial types, like Jamie O’Banion, founder and CEO of BeautyBio and the creator of GloPRO, are also affected. The GloPRO is a popular (and patented) microneedling tool that solves a genuine consumer need, and thus is a target for the fakers. "In any industry where creativity and new product launches are the lifeline, you’re going to encounter forms of design borrowing," O'Banion says. "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, $199 in the US) and seem tempting at less than half the cost, there are major differences. The GloPRO "groupies," as O'Banion 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 maximizing 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. 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," O'Banion says. "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 O'Banion's 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," she says. "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 wherever it came from. Good luck with that.