Counterfeit makeup sales are on the rise, especially online

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC 4 Utah) – Counterfeit cosmetics are on the rise—it is something even the federal government is warning consumers about.  Just last month, 2,500 websites selling knock-off goods were shut down.

Name brand cosmetics can cost a pretty penny these days.  That is why Angela Brown says she thought she hit the jackpot when she found a link online for discounted lipstick. 

"Cheap MAC makeup—buy it in bulk—something around those lines.  So, I clicked on it," Brown said. 

 The cosmetics arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

"They were clearly not authentic MAC products,” Brown said. 

Brown first noticed the poor quality of the lipstick tubes.  The silver “MAC” lettering wore off with the scratch of a finger nail.  The curious consumer continued to compare her authentic lipstick to the knock-offs.

"It's like a different size!" she explained. 

Brown is not alone in her eye-opening experience.  Counterfeit cosmetics have become big business, according to the F.B.I.  Many go online to find beauty bargains, but those products often end up costing people more than they realize.

"When you buy a product on Amazon, or EBay, or some other random site that claims to sell cosmetics online, you don't know what you're getting unless you buy it from the manufacturer's website," explained Cheryl Lee Eberting, MD., a certified Dermatologist for Alpine Dermatology & Laser

Many third-party vendors order knock-offs from China to sell here in the U.S.  ABC 4 Utah decided to find out what exactly these products are made of.  We took Brown's lipstick, along with other counterfeit cosmetics found online, to a local analytical lab. 

"We analyzed for any metal we were able to detect with our ICP-MS instrumentation," said Ron Fuller, a manager for Chemtech-Ford Laboratories.  

One of the metals chemists found in Brown's lipstick is lead.  Toxicologists say that can cause serious health problems, depending on how much lipstick ends up in the body. Lead can get into anyone's system through consumption, inhalation, or absorption.

"If you were using lipsticks that had lead in them, you would have no way of knowing," Eberting said. 

Lead is not the only metal loaded into Brown's lipstick; barium showed up in the results at more than 1,000 parts per million.  Doctors say that number is a big deal.

"Whatever it's coming in contact with can give you cancer," Eberting said. 

Do not forget the knock-off “Naked” eye shadow, though. Aluminum showed up at almost 3,000 parts per million, which is definitely a concern “mostly for the toxicity/toxicological reasons… and cancer-causing effects," Eberting explained.  

So how exactly can you be sure you are buying the real thing? Makeup experts have a few ideas.

"Real MAC lipstick has more like a vanilla scent, and another counterfeit product might not have that distinct smell," said Mckenzie Judd, a local makeup artist and aesthetics instructor.

Knock-off powders and eye shadows are a little harder to catch, until you wear them.

"You'd place it on the skin, you'd go to blend it, and it would just fall off," said Judd.

There are plenty of red flags, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes you just won't know. 

Experts say it is best to simply check the retailer's website. 

"They may have a list of 10 or 20 companies, where they are permitted to sell it,” said Eberting.  

In the end, if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

"When I first purchased [the knock-off products], I figured, "what's the worst that could happen?" well apparently, there are worse things that could happen than you would think!" Brown said. 

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