Amazon’s Big Beauty Problem

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When vlogger Jaclyn Hill released a 35-pan eye shadow palette in collaboration with Morphe in 2017, her fans had to have it. The palette sold out on Morphe’s website in a matter of hours. But thanks to Amazon, 18-year-old Alex Catron still thought she had a chance to snag one.

When the palette arrived, Catron happily noted that it came in a box identical to the one she had seen her beloved Hill advertise. But when she started watching YouTube videos on how to use the shadows—of which there are many—she noticed the print on her packaging was two inches higher than the version she saw on-screen. Even more damning, the eye shadow colors were slightly off. “I kept looking up pictures and sadly realized it was a fake,” says Catron. “It was actually upsetting because I had spent close to $30 on this fake makeup that I was using all the time, not even knowing what chemicals were in it.”

Image/Screenshot Amazon.com

Catron is just one of the many beauty shoppers burned by Amazon, along with similar resale sites like eBay and Walmart. Amazon is currently facing multiple lawsuits from companies like Daimler AG, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, which claim that the company is purposefully looking the other way when it comes to counterfeiters. For beauty shoppers, the rise of fake products or products sold by unauthorized retailers is a concern. As Catron points out, customers have no way of knowing the ingredient list on a product’s website or packaging applies to a product sold on the sly. In January 2018, the Government Accountability Office released a report on risks posed by the counterfeit market. The agency purchased thirteen Urban Decay-branded cosmetics from resellers as part of its research. Every single one was a fake.

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Customers who realize they’ve bought a fake product don’t necessarily go out of their way to return it, or even leave a negative review. Casey, a 24-year-old teacher in Gwangju, South Korea, purchased cult favorite CosRX acne patches after reading about them online. “The patch was clearly a fake and did not want to stick to my skin. It either fell off or I took it off within a few hours of suspecting it was not authentic,” she says.

“Stuff that’s going on your skin and in your body, I have an issue with buying from Amazon,” Montclair, NJ dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD tells NewBeauty. “I remember somebody came in a year ago, and wrote down all my product recommendations all excited. She went out and bought cheaper versions online, and literally four months after, she came back right before her daughter’s wedding, livid with me because her face was super red and bumpy.”

Even if the product you get is a legitimate formula, sold by a legitimate seller, Downie points out that there’s no way to know how product has been stored before it lands on your skin. “If you’re buying sunscreen but it was shipped to you from a facility outside of Phoenix that’s 120-degrees in the summer, that’s going to decrease the effectiveness,” she explains. “Even if it’s real, it may not have been stored properly.” Lax storage may also mean you end up with an almost-expired product.

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Long my own sunscreen of choice, Image Skincare sells its Prevention Matte Moisturizer SPF 30 on Amazon. But when I logged onto the platform to restock, I noticed reviews questioning the authenticity of the product. “It has the weirdest smell after application to a point where it makes me nauseous! No idea maybe it was expired or getting close to expiration. I have had facials where they had used this product and it was fine. Since this happened I just buy my facial products straight from the producer even if it means spending more to make sure its safe for use,” wrote in a reviewer named Christine B. “Not sure if it’s Image brand or not. Won’t buy again on Amazon,” agreed janean.

When asked if it’s possible that customers have received fraudulent product in the past, an Image Skincare spokesperson responded with “Definitely.” “All the people that were selling Image Products before March 2018 were not authorized to do so,” the brand said in a statement. “Therefore, they may have been selling expired or counterfeit products.” All product that is now gathered under the IMAGE SKINCARE Amazon shop is now purportedly authentic. Still, a discerning shopper would find the negative reviews that still haunt the sunscreen’s product page.

In the new wild west of e-commerce, companies exist with the sole goal of protecting brands from counterfeiters and unauthorized sellers. Bruce Anderson is the director of global operations and investigations at E-Enforce, one such company that works with luxury goods, including beauty and skin care. E-enforce monitors Amazon for the specific tells that can signify a fraudulent seller. Anderson looks out for “escalated reviews,” like when a new seller has mysteriously accrued hundreds of reviews for a product that just came out that month. Like with Image, Anderson sees a “fair amount” of reviews that directly call out the product for being counterfeit. Once his team has flagged a potential counterfeit product, they’ll purchase and analyze it. If the product is indeed counterfeit, they’ll escalate with Cease & Desists of increasing severity.

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“The counterfeits don’t even have to be convincing to sell,” says Anderson. “I talked to a company the other day that hasn’t even released the product yet. It’s still in production, and they already have 99 people on Amazon selling it. But it has never been produced.”

Dermatologists suggest that the best, if not only, way to ensure high quality products is to buy directly from their offices. But for those of us who don’t have a regular dermatologist, let alone the time to buy skin care offline, Downie and a suite of fellow top-tier dermatologists launched Regimen Pro. Described as a “professional online skin distribution network,” the service coordinates with manufacturers like SkinMedica, Viviscal, NuFace and more to ensure the products shipped to their consumers are 100-percent authentic.

If the lure of one-click ordering is still too difficult to resist, there are a few precautions to take as an Amazon shopper (Amazon initially declined to comment for this story). Start by narrowing down your search to items that “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com” instead of trusting third-party sellers. Products marked as shipped by Amazon come directly from the company’s warehouse. That doesn’t account for storage issues, so be sure to check expiration dates and return any product that appears separated or has a strange odor. Shoppers can also adopt some of the same screening processes as E-Enforce: Don’t buy from a seller who has amassed a large number of reviews over a short time. Confirm that reviews are authentic via Fakespot. And know that if a deal looks to be too good, that’s probably because it is.

Update  May 31, 2018: An Amazon spokesperson provided the following statement in response to this story: “We strictly prohibit the sale of counterfeit products and invest heavily—both funds and company energy—to ensure our policy against the sale of such products is followed. Our global team is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to respond to and take action on reported violations and notices of potential infringement. Customers are always protected by our A-to-z Guarantee, whether they make a purchase from Amazon or a third-party seller. If the product doesn’t arrive or isn’t as advertised, customers can contact our customer support for a full refund of their order.” 

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