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All the facts you need to know about the Beauty Black Market

Cosmetics

When Autumn, 21, found her favorite mascara — Laura Geller GlamLash — listed on eBay for half-price, she jumped on it. Her retail high didn’t last long.

“I noticed the tube was missing the brand’s lips logo, and the brush’s bristles looked uneven,” she says. Still, she applied it.

“It felt like sandpaper on my lashes! The brush was so scratchy,” she says. “My eyes immediately started burning and were irritated for the next five days. My doctor felt it was an adverse reaction to a product.” Autumn assumed it was a fake and filed a complaint with eBay.

“Cosmetics counterfeiting is a global epidemic,” says Gregg Marrazzo, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for Estée Lauder Companies. He leads the company’s Intellectual Property Group, which focuses on anticounterfeiting — a reality for many in-demand brands, including MAC Cosmetics, part of Estée Lauder’s portfolio. A few of its most hotly counterfeited products are Studio Fix Fluid foundation, Spice Lip Pencil, and Ruby Woo Lipstick.

Marrazzo cites a recent case in which a group of bloggers outed an Australian department store for selling faux MAC products. The store paid out $1 million and ran corrective advertising.

While companies are concerned about knockoffs — it hurts their image and profits — these copies can have much more dire consequences for consumers.

“About 90 percent of these counterfeit items come from China, where manufacturing is cheaper and there’s a copycat culture,” says Bob Barchiesi, president of the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition, a D.C.-based trade organization.

“It’s horrifying,” says Karen Buglisi Weiler, the global president of MAC Cosmetics . MAC is one of the rare beauty brands bringing awareness to this issue. Many companies (including Laura Geller), when approached for this story, declined to comment. It’s easy to understand why they wouldn’t want to publicize these counterfeiters or admit that their brand identity has the potential to be (or has been) hijacked.

Some cynics may wonder if MAC is simply trying to redirect dollars back to their channels. The company counters: “This isn’t just a MAC issue. It’s a public health and safety issue,” says Buglisi Weiler. 

“Counterfeit cosmetics sometimes contain harmful or even carcinogenic ingredients, perhaps not intentionally designed to harm but because the counterfeiters feel no obligation to protect the consumers they are defrauding,” says David Farquhar, supervisory special-agent unit chief at the FBI. In unsanitary working conditions, the products can be contaminated with bacteria and waste — even urine and E. coli have been found in some formulas. Unsurprisingly, people have cited rashes, dermatitis, eye infections, and aggravation of conditions such as acne and eczema as being linked to suspected counterfeit products. Prolonged exposure to some of the chemicals found in these cosmetics could have a toxic effect on your organs, says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a Cambridge, Massachusetts, derm.

“We’re not talking about a knockoff designer bag that you carry around on your arm,” says Buglisi Weiler. “You’re purchasing products that you put on your eyes and lips, which you may ingest.”

Even if you buy a counterfeit lipstick — and come out unscathed — it’s not a victimless crime, says Barchiesi: “In some cases, the proceeds support organized crime and the funding of terrorist organizations.”

There’s no crime in wanting a deal, especially on high-end beauty products. However, there are things you can do to stay healthy while saving cash.

“Consider the three Ps,” says Barchiesi, “price, packaging, and point of sale.”

PRICE
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. “Think of it like a $20 Rolex watch,” says Barchiesi. “At that price, it’s fake.” However, he acknowledges that counterfeiters’ prices aren’t always that disparate, which makes things trickier. Check the retail price online.

PACKAGING
Scan for red flags including misspelled product names and haphazard packaging. The beauty-blog community can help: They name and shame many bogus items — from Urban Decay’s Naked Palettes to Benefit’s BadGal Lash Mascara — calling out exactly what to look for. “Like many companies, we are struggling with our products being counterfeited,” says Urban Decay’s legal team. “We have a program in place with U.S. Customs and Border Protection that intercepts these shipments from time to time, but it most likely catches only a fraction of the amount eventually shipped into the U.S.”

POINT OF SALE
Sites like eBay can be tricky. You’re largely placing your trust in the seller. However, eBay works extensively with brands and law enforcement to root out counterfeiters. Even if you’re heading to a brand website, check that it’s the official one. People will create fake sites to trick shoppers, using similar URLs and the brand’s copyrighted photos. Recently, the MAC team successfully shut down more than 110 phony MAC websites run by a counterfeiting ring and was awarded a $90 million judgment.

Offline, be extra cautious at street fairs, mall kiosks, and outdoor vendors, hot destinations for counterfeit MAC, according to Lew Rice, senior vice president of global security and trademark protection for Estée Lauder Companies.

BOTTOM LINE
The safest places to shop? A brand’s official store or website or a reputable retailer you’d trust with your health.

 

 

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