Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by something (or someone) you love. Sushi, tequila, that amazing pair of heels… Why is it that some of the best things in life can yield the most unpleasant of consequences? For the most part, we’ve learned our lesson (though every blue moon we will sacrifice comfort for a well-earned blister) and do our best to steer clear of the things our bodies oh so lovingly reject. But what about something as innocent (and beloved) as makeup? After all, we know we’re playing with fire as we reach for the chopsticks at a new sushi bar or order an extra-strong cocktail after a certain kind of week, but lipstick, eye shadow, and foundation?
Frankly, these are things we never thought would threaten our health. However, depending on the source, they most definitely can. Enter the beauty black market.
What was once coined “the gray market” of the beauty industry has now become a full-fledged business worth—wait for it—a half trillion dollars worldwide. Even scarier? As consumers, we’re lending a helping hand. To get a better understanding of the beauty black market (aka the business of counterfeit makeup), we researched and talked to popular online marketplaces like Amazon and even interviewed the head of one (hotly duped) company’s counterfeit program to get his take on the topic. In short, there are a lot of dirty details. Keep scrolling for everything you never knew about the beauty black market.
The dirty truth
Eye infections, arsenic, heavy metals, bacteria, rashes, psoriasis, and acne. While we wish we were describing the plotline of an especially juicy episode of Grey’s Anatomy, we’re actually talking about the negative side effects of makeup—counterfeit makeup, to be exact. And according to findings from the FBI, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What was once reserved for the admittedly suspect likes of tabletop market places and knockoff designer handbags and shoes, the counterfeiting industry has morphed into an entirely different beast—one that thrives on society’s fascination with beauty and our lust for online shopping.
Then, take into account the NPD’s report that the business of beauty is one of the few industries to hit (and increase) its financial stride despite nationwide debts and financial downturns. Well, that’s the brew for a perfect storm.
According to Gregg Marrazzo, senior vice president, deputy general counsel of Estée Lauder Companies, Inc. (think must-have brands like MAC, Becca, Tom Ford, GlamGlow, Too Faced, and La Mer), tabletop counterfeit is now the smaller market for duped products. The current concern stems from online sellers. After all, from the comfort of our laptop and duvet covers, we’re unable to feel, smell, and look at a product in person, which can make it decidedly more difficult to discern its authenticity. Especially, Marrazzo adds, if there’s only a slight difference in price.
Take, for instance, MAC’s (cult favorite) Retro Matte Lipstick in Ruby Woo, which sells on its website (and that of trusted retailers) for $17.50. If we see the iconic lipstick selling for a measly $3 price point somewhere in the depths of the world wide web, we’ll (hopefully) be suspicious. But one that sells for a comparable $12 or $15? It could be a sneaky selling strategy.
To make matters worse, Marrazzo tells us that un-trustworthy sellers will often lift a brand’s trademarked images and use that same art to depict their own fraudulent product. The writing on the wall: What you see on your computer screen may not be what shows up in your mailbox the following week.
To trust or not to trust
Not surprisingly, MAC is one of the most widely counterfeited brands in the industry, and as Marrazzo tells us, hot-ticket items like its vibrant lipsticks, glittering eye shadow singles, and anything with the glorified “Studio Fix” stamp are some of the most common culprits for counterfeit.
According to Marrazzo, you can always depend on authorized, in-store retailers like Sephora, Ulta, department stores, and a brand’s own retail store, in addition, of course, to their associated websites.
Unfortunately, it’s online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon that can become problematic and confusing for consumers. Amazon, for instance, is a safe, authorized distributor for countless makeup brands. However, there are individual sellers on the site that disseminate product that hasn’t lawfully been approved for sale. For clarity, we reached out to Amazon, and according to its spokesperson, the website will immediately take action on a fraudulent seller the moment they learn of any unlawful activity.
In their words: “Amazon prohibits the sale of inauthentic and fraudulent products. We remove items in violation of our policies as soon as we become aware of them and block bad actors suspected of engaging in illegal behavior, such as counterfeit. If merchants sell counterfeit goods, we may immediately suspend or terminate their selling privileges and destroy inventory in our fulfillment centers without reimbursement. In addition, if we determine that a seller account has been used to engage in fraud or other illegal activity, remittances and payments may be withheld or forfeited. The sale of counterfeit goods can also lead to legal action by rights holders and civil and criminal penalties.”
And according to Refinery29, eBay maintains a similarly vigilant policy: “We utilize a combination of sophisticated detection tools, enforcement, and strong relationships with brand owners, retailers, and law enforcement agencies to combat bad activity and present our customers with a safe, trusted shopping experience.”
Amazon also reassured us that it consistently works with manufacturers, content owners, vendors, and sellers to better detect and discourage counterfeit products from infiltrating their marketplace, saying “This is why we stand behind the products sold on our site with our A-to-Z Guarantee. We also encourage anyone who has a product authenticity concern to notify us, and we will investigate it thoroughly and take any appropriate actions.”
In other words, if you become aware of fraudulent activity—anytime and anywhere—don’t be shy, and report the activity or your individual experience immediately. Marrazzo wholeheartedly agrees. “Our number one concern is product and customer safety." He explains that reputable brands spend millions in research and product development, and the issues of authenticity and potentially dangerous product “need to be addressed." Quite adamantly, he adds, "This problem can't just be swept under the rug.”
Marrazzo also explained to us that the Estée Lauder brands are very much connected with its customer service operations and social media accounts—"all a customer has to do is contact us." Additionally, by working closely with numerous government agencies, Estée Lauder was able to seize over two and a half million artifacts of fraudulent MAC makeup in 2016, and the company continues to actively work with authorities around the world to increase understanding and recognition regarding fake makeup.
Shop wisely. While the age-old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” definitely rings true when it comes to counterfeit makeup and the beauty black market, some fraudulent deals don’t seem all that fantastic—which is part of the trickery. Ultimately, it’s truly best to follow Marrazzo’s advice and keep your beauty purchases exclusive to authorized sellers.
However, if you're the ultimate bargain hunter, just be sure to do your homework. “Watch out for products that aren’t even real,” he tells us. In other words, items with spot-on packaging that have never actually been sold by the brand.” Still not sure? All it takes is a quick email, comment, or phone call to the makeup brand's customer service department. They'll easily be able to discern if a product (and the seller!) is legitimate or not—saving you time, hassle, and perhaps a gory eye infection.