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Fake Sunscreen Is More Common Than You Think. Here’s How To Spot It

Photographed by Ramona Jingru Wang.
Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29’s global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there’s no such thing as safe sun. 
I watch, transfixed, as a cosmetic scientist proves that a sunscreen claiming to contain SPF 45 might actually have, if you can believe it, an SPF of 3.6. Not SPF 30 — not even SPF 15 — but SPF 3.6. 
Posted on TikTok by Dr. Julian Sass, the video shows the staggering process he goes through to uncover that the sunscreen in question could contain almost no protection from ultraviolet damage. Dr. Sass shows the full extent of the alleged fraud: Firstly, a suspiciously transparent consistency. Secondly, the ingredients list, which is missing many of the usual ingredients that typically constitute mineral sunscreen, like zinc oxide, for example. Then an inspection under ultraviolet light: Sunscreen should appear completely black under UV as it absorbs the light, but this sunscreen fails to do so. Eventually, Dr. Sass conducts in vitro lab testing. His findings are shocking.
Compared with two genuine sunscreens, Dr. Sass reported that the supposed-fake SPF protected skin for a third of the time — and from UVB rays only. Dr. Sass proposes that, despite the claims printed on the tube, it is not broad spectrum (so it would not protect skin from UVA, also present in sunlight and which causes premature aging and skin cancer). In fact, Dr. Sass purports that the product contained none of the sun-shielding ingredients stated on the label.
Disturbingly, his experience is not unusual. Counterfeit skincare products abound online with K-beauty products being some of the most regularly faked. Korean beauty, one of the world’s most innovative and lucrative cosmetic hubs, is often touted as the gold standard for sunscreen — how is it so convincingly ripped off?

I had placed an order for Beauty of Joseon’s Relief Sun Rice and Probiotics SPF50 PA++++ when I spotted a listing for the same product at a much lower price. The seller even had the same brand photos. I had heard rumors of counterfeit products being sold online, but I told myself that they wouldn’t be able to do that with sunscreen, surely.

Janine Falcon, freelance writer and beauty content creator

How easy is it to accidentally buy fake sunscreen?

Janine Falcon, a freelance writer and beauty content creator who goes by Beauty Geek online, unknowingly bought a counterfeit Korean sunscreen, ensnared by the cheaper price and convincing packaging. “I had just placed an order for Beauty of Joseon Relief Sun Rice and Probiotics SPF50 PA++++ when I spotted a listing for the same product at a much lower price. The seller even had the same brand photos. I had heard rumors of counterfeit products being sold online, but I told myself that they wouldn’t be able to do that with sunscreen, surely,” she shares with Refinery29. “I’d never used the sunscreen before, so I had no reference point for the packaging or box when it arrived.” The reality of the situation dawned on Falcon when it came to applying the product to her face; the chalky, paste-like consistency refused to blend or absorb. What’s more, the tamper-proof foil cover slid off suspiciously easily and alarm bells started to sound.
@janinefalcon Excited to try Beauty of Joseon Relief Sun SPF 50+ PA++++, renowned for its elegant texture, hydrating formula and invisible finish…. That's NOT aligning with this experience. But SO MANY PEOPLE, including some I know and trust, can’t ALL be wrong. Something is amiss. Stay tuned for PART 2. #SkinTok #SkinCare #koreanskincare #kbeauty #sunscreen #sunscreenviral #beautyofjoseon #counterfeit #korean_skincare #Beautygeeks ♬ X's files parody _1 minute loop(1079525) - KeySets
“I never cancelled the original order (from reputable seller, so when it arrived, I was able to properly compare the products. There were multiple differences: The genuine Relief Sun Rice and Probiotics SPF50 PA++++ is a pale cream lotion with a light, silky texture that absorbs into the skin easily. The fake just sat on the surface of my face.” Echoing others who were duped into buying an alleged counterfeit version of the Relief Sun SPF, Falcon describes the packaging as feeling coated in aluminum rather than plastic. She details the depressions left on the tube after squeezing and the lack of a proper expiry date.
The thing is, these differences are small and easy to overlook when sellers are using stolen brand images to market their sunscreen as genuine. Beyond positive seller reviews, which many of these counterfeit outfits have, there is little to alert buyers to a potentially fraudulent product. Due to the high number of imitations, Beauty of Joseon has since introduced a QR code printed onto its packaging that buyers can scan to confirm that the product they’ve bought is genuine. 
Round Lab, a hugely popular K-beauty skincare brand, has repeatedly had its bestselling Birch Juice Moisturizing Sunscreen SPF50+PA++++ falsely duplicated, to the extent its website now includes an authenticity page, created to help buyers spot counterfeit versions. The differences between a fake and real Round Lab sunscreen include bolder, curvier font and a lack of spacing between letters. These are differences that consumers could easily miss. A slightly bolder letter or slanted writing could believably be attributed to a printing error or manufacturing mishap. But at what cost are we making these mistakes?
@janinefalcon PART 4 in this fake Beauty of Joseon SPF 50 PA++++ saga... Yes, ANOTHER COUNTERFEIT from, plus tips on buying legit @Beauty of Joseon skincare online safely. Refund for THIS fake via was prompt and accompanied by "We are sorry we disappointed you." 😑 Up next: how to get your refund from Amazon even if the third-party seller lies, becomes difficult - or the product page disappears before you realize you got a counterfeit… #SkinTok #SkinCare #koreanskincare #sunscreenviral #sunscreen #counterfeit #BuyerBeware #beautyofjoseon #Beautygeeks ♬ original sound - Beautygeeks SHE/HER

What are the risks of using counterfeit sunscreen?

The risk of wearing counterfeit sunscreen (with a provable lack of sun protection) is too serious to ignore. Skin cancer, an abnormal growth of skin cells, is caused by exposure to ultraviolet light; this includes sunlight and tanning beds. It occurs in three main types: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, and can differ in appearance based on skin tone. 
Basal cell carcinoma, for instance, typically presents as a glossy black bump on brown and Black skin, while on white skin it usually appears as a semi-transparent bump. These distinctions are important. Squamous cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer, is the result of overexposure to ultraviolet radiation and can present on exposed skin (hands, scalp, face) but also on places that aren’t as exposed, like the inside of the mouth or around the genitalia. This is most common in people of color. Finally, melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, begins in the melanocytes (the pigment cells that give skin its color).

Do not believe very low prices — they are often too good to be true — and don’t buy from unverified sellers. It’s a gamble that’s just not worth taking.

Dr. Paul Banwell, skin cancer expert
SPF, whether a gel, cream, stick, mist or powder, is specifically designed to protect skin from ultraviolet light. When that barrier is compromised, whether by a lack of reapplication, insufficient protection factor, or, in the most sinister of instances, due to a counterfeit formulation, the consequences can be life-threatening. One in 41 women and one in 35 men will be diagnosed with melanoma in their lifetime.
This isn’t meant to scare you. Skin cancer is preventable with regular use of SPF and living in a UV-conscious way. This can range from wearing a brimmed hat when you’re outside (in the sun or the shade) and sunglasses to protect the delicate area around your eyes (the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wrap-around styles that block UVA and UVB rays). Even wearing a pair of UV gloves for gel manicures can limit your amount of UV exposure. Crucially, it means nixing tanning beds, avoiding sunbathing, using a sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 and not forgetting to reapply. It also means ensuring the SPF you buy is legitimate.

How do you spot fake sunscreen?

Dr. Paul Banwell, a skin cancer expert who runs The Banwell Clinic and the previous head and founder of The Melanoma and Skin Cancer Unit, shares his advice on spotting fake SPF. “Do not believe very low prices — they are often too good to be true — and don’t buy from unverified sellers. It’s a gamble that’s just not worth taking. After that, look at the packaging for misspelt words or a lack of certification, and when it arrives, make sure the seal is intact, too.”
The best practise is to stick to sellers you know and trust. Whether through brand websites, large-scale operations like Sephora, CVS and Ulta or smaller independent cosmetic retailers, an extra layer of protection is guaranteed. Purchasing from a third-party vendor can run the risk of a seller easily hiding behind anonymous accounts and stolen photographs. As Falcon shared, the point of these transactions is not to fool you into thinking the product you bought is authentic, it’s to collect your money and prove elusive when you have a negative review and refund request. 

The cumulative effects of unprotected UV radiation can lead to the uncontrolled growth of damaged cells, forming tumors and increasing the likelihood of skin cancer, including melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.

Dr. Sophie Mormen, a consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic
“Counterfeit SPF is fairly uncommon, but it’s prevalent in two kinds of places,” Dr. Sass shares, and alarmingly, it isn’t always online. “First, places like spas and dermatology offices.” This, says Dr. Sass, is because practice owners will often buy private, white-labelled products from companies, put their branding on them, and then sell these products on to their customers. The issue here, Dr. Sass explains, is that once the product has been bought, it isn’t checked again by a chemist to ensure that the product matches what’s printed on the label. It’s an easy win for shady sellers looking to dupe customers.
When asked about the process that dermatology offices go through when procuring products, Dr. Ifeoma Ejikeme, a medical consultant, skin expert and founder of the Adonia Medical Clinic, says while she can’t speak for all clinics and medical professionals, her team has received specialised training in cosmeceuticals. “We collaborate directly with brands and are approved suppliers, purchasing products directly from manufacturers and distributors to guarantee authenticity,” says Dr. Ejikeme. For this reason, it pays to ensure that your chosen dermatology practitioner or doctor is properly qualified. Check that they are recognised on the General Medical Council (GMC) register.
Another potential red flag is Amazon, says Dr. Sass. Of course, plenty of legitimate beauty brands have their own official Amazon Stores. Here, “Visit the store” links refer customers to verified pages with genuine products. But Dr. Sass notes that anyone can open a listing and start selling — the provenance of sold products is unclear. Sure enough, R29 research found that unauthorised sellers often adjust their names to imitate recognised brands.
Refinery29 reached out to Amazon for a comment on counterfeit and fraudulent sunscreen potentially being sold on its website. We were told that “Amazon has a zero-tolerance policy for counterfeit products,” and that it has “proactive measures in place to prevent counterfeit products from being listed.” The statement notes that the online store is “continuously monitored” but makes no mention of which measures or what monitoring are actually in place. Amazon has since removed one of the fraudulent listings of the Beauty of Joseon SPF. A number remain active.

What is the best sunscreen?

When it comes to sunscreen, you can separate products into two categories: mineral (or physical) and chemical. This refers to the types of filters (the things that shield your skin from UV rays) that the formula contains. Dr. Ejikeme says, “Mineral sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These ingredients predominantly sit on top of the skin and work by reflecting and scattering UV rays away from the skin.” Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain organic (carbon-based) compounds. “These include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate,” says Dr Ejikeme. “They predominantly absorb UV radiation and convert it into heat, which is then released from the skin.”
People of color have long bemoaned mineral sunscreens for the white or purple cast they leave on the skin, a result of the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that physically block the UV rays. However, a new generation is emerging, with brands such as Black Girl Sunscreen, iS Clinical and Paula’s Choice creating formulations that protect without the tell-tale ghostly glow.  “Mineral sunscreens are more stable than chemical sunscreens, which means there are often fewer preservatives added to the formulations,” says Dr. Sophie Mormen, a consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic. “This can make them preferable to those with sensitive skin.”
Chemical SPFs are more versatile and come in various formats, including transparent, gel-like consistencies (Supergoop! Unseen Screen is a prime example of this), plus tinted serums and traditional creams and mists. The most important thing is to wear sunscreen regularly, rain or shine, on holiday or at home. “The cumulative effects of unprotected UV radiation can lead to the uncontrolled growth of damaged cells, forming tumors and increasing the likelihood of skin cancer, including melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma,” warns Dr. Mormen. “Consistent sunscreen use helps to block or absorb these harmful rays, reducing the risk of DNA damage and ultimately lowering the risk of skin cancer.”
If you’re unsure of the protection your SPF provides, Dr. Sass has an easy solution: “If you’re concerned about whether your sunscreen is real or not (or if it’s adequately protecting you from the sun) consider using UV stickers.” They are usually readily available from many retailers as well as verified Amazon storefronts. “These stickers turn purple when they’re exposed to the sun,” adds Dr. Sass. “If you put the sticker on your skin or even a piece of paper, put the sunscreen on top of the sticker, and then go outside, the sticker shouldn’t turn completely purple, since the sunscreen should block most of the UV from getting to the sticker. This should be enough to tell you whether or not your product is capable of providing sun protection.” While sun stickers can be beneficial, they shouldn’t be used as your only form of sun protection. It is recommended to reapply sunscreen every two to three hours if you’re out in direct sunlight. Dermatologists advise that the average adult should use 30ml of sunscreen for one head to toe application. That’s almost one third of a 100ml bottle.
Whatever you choose, Dr. Banwell, who performs mole checks, mole removal, skin cancer removal and reconstructions daily, has some parting advice. Make sure that the formula you pick is a broad spectrum, meaning it’ll protect against UVB (which causes redness and sunburn, as well as skin cancer) and UVA rays, which also cause cancer and aging of the skin.
Lastly, keeping an eye on your moles (changing or otherwise) is easier when you use the ABCDE protocol, which stands for Asymmetrical, Border, Color, Diameter and Evolving, a handy acronym for the following questions: Does the mole or spot have an irregular shape with two parts that look very different? Is the border irregular or jagged? Is the color uneven? Is the mole or spot larger than the size of a pea? Has the mole or spot changed during the last few weeks or months? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it’s time to speak to a professional. 
For more information on the signs of skin cancer, The Skin Cancer Foundation has a list of things to look out for. As always, if you are concerned, reach out to a medical professional promptly. 

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