Counterfeit Beauty Is A Big Problem: How To Spot A Fake & What To Do About It

Not everyone can afford to splash out on an expensive makeup palette, the latest Chanel fragrance or a top-up of MAC lipstick every month, so many of us are turning to unofficial sources to get our fix. There’s a plethora of online stores offering discounted makeup, skincare, fragrance and hair products, as well as an abundance of ebay sellers and even market stalls offering their wares at a discounted rate. From fake GHDs to imitation OPI, a new study reveals that counterfiet products make up 6% of sales in the beauty sector and it’s a growing problem. A new report claims that the beauty industry loses approximately £3.4 billion of revenue annually due to the presence of counterfeit cosmetics, with lost revenue translating into 50,000 lost jobs – before we even address the health and safety issues associated with something unregulated. It’s a huge problem, but how do you spot a fake and what can you do about it?

Buying imitation beauty products not only means you’re getting a rubbish deal on quality, it can also mean there are ingredients inside that may irritate or damage your skin. Because they’re not regulated in the same way as cosmetics you buy legitimately, they could chuck anything into the formula and not declare it – dangerous stuff if you’re allergic or intolerant to an ingredient or chemical. Furthermore, electrical goods can be incredibly unstable (sometimes catching fire or even exploding) because they’ve not been made according to EU safety guidelines; I’ve had a hairdryer catch alight in my hands before and it’s a scary experience. It’s just not worth risking your health for the sake of a good deal, so here are the key ways to spot a fake product:

Where are you buying it from?
If it’s off the market, from an ebay seller that magically has 1000 MAC lipsticks to sell off cheap, or from a dodgy looking website that’s got no affiliation with the brand, be careful. Most high end products will only be stocked in approved retailers, so if it seems too good to be true it probably is.

What does the packaging look like?
Although many counterfeit operations are extremely clever and produce nearly identical packaging, there will always be a giveaway sign – from the fonts being slightly wrong, to the positioning of graphics and even the quality of the cardboard used. Look closely and spot the difference.

How is the quality of printing?
When I worked at Paul Mitchell we had a huge issue with counterfeit products, but they were easy to spot due to the lack of quality printing. The black font was printed on the bottle without precision and wiped off easily when it came into contact with heat or water; it simply didn’t look like a £20.00 bottle of shampoo. Take real care and attention to look at the quality of the printing and compare to official pictures online if you can. 

Does it smell as you’d expect?
Big brands spend a small fortune on developing a distinctive scent for their product, as it evokes a very strong emotion in their customer; this is true of everything from lipstick to shampoo. If you’ve bought from the brand before, then compare the scent with the potential fake and see if you can spot the difference – imitation products will often have a very ‘plastic’, generic or indistinguishable scent. 

How qualitative are the applicators or tools included?
Many fakes can be outed simply by the ugly plastic applicator tools that are included within the pack. If they look like they’ve been bought in bulk for 50p, then stay well clear. There’s no way Bobbi Brown, Clinique or MAC will offer you a cheap and nasty unbranded eyeshadow applicator. 

What’s the shade name?
If it’s a legit product then it will have an official name that’s easy to research online. If it’s a fake, it may just have a number or something that you can easily track down as counterfeit – if it’s obviously different to what’s featured on the brand’s official website then it’s definitely dodgy.

So what do you do if you think you’ve found, spotted or purchased a counterfeit product? It’s always a safe bet to pay for any online purchases with either PayPal or a credit card, where you benefit from buyer protection; this means if the goods are fake, then you can almost definitely expect a refund. However, if you’ve bought something that you’re almost certain is coutrfeit then it’s worth contacting your local Citizens Advice Bureau as well as the Trading Standards Authority; Which have a really handy guide of all the people who may be able to help here. It’s also worth contacting the brand directly through their social or customer service channels, making them aware directly of the issue; they may be able to get their legal team on it immediately, as well as potentially compensating you with an official product for your time and helpfulness! If you bought the product on eBay or a similar selling site, it’s also advisable to report them and raise a case so they’re blocked from continuing their business activities; eBay in particular are incredibly hot on fake and counterfeit goods so should suspend the account in question immediately.

If you have spent your heard-earned cash on something that’s not legit, then don’t panic. There are things that can be done and you shouldn’t be left with a dodgy eyeshadow palette that’s about as much use as a chocolate teapot. The moral of the story? If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.

Have you ever experienced, bought or found counterfeit beauty products? 

Features PR samples unless otherwise stated. To read my full disclaimer, click here.  




  1. Nathalie Pickford
    March 18, 2015 / 2:41 pm

    I do IP as one of my modules at University so this is really interesting for me! It's not just the people who buy the products that are being affected; it also has an impact on the companies that the products are pretending to be from as it can harm their reputation! Great post 🙂 Nathalie @

  2. Fran Mcmonagle
    March 18, 2015 / 2:53 pm

    Tip for Mac (I got stung with a fake powder from ebay) is if the shades on a sticker then it's not real. Also, the packaging generally feels wrong / too light or too heavy!♥ Fran – xx

  3. Carly Jade
    March 18, 2015 / 3:12 pm

    I once bought a Benefit Blush on eBay – it was listed as brand new, was my favourite shade and they were just listing the one single item for sale. Took a chance and I'm fairly certain it was a fake. I got worried anyway, and just threw it out! Never would buy cosmetics anywhere but a store now :)I also have seen fake Chanel nail polishes that my friend owns – they don't have the cap that lifts off to reveal the actual cap underneath! And so many fake MAC bits it's unreal…

  4. Lily
    March 18, 2015 / 3:49 pm

    Really interesting post. I only ever buy products straight from the actual brand or supplier, but this is good to know

  5. Philippa
    March 18, 2015 / 4:27 pm

    Great post. Interesting and thought provoking as always! (:ABlogByPhilippa

  6. Neesha Rees
    March 18, 2015 / 5:21 pm

    I'm pretty sure my recent Mac Lipstick purchase from Depop is fake but I really can't tell the difference! It's so annoying. I will definitely use the genuine source from now on. It's not worth the riskReinventing Neesha ♥

  7. Allthat Shimmers
    March 18, 2015 / 7:59 pm

    I bought a fake Naked 2 palette from Ebay and it also broke in the post – it was horrendous! I wrote a whole post comparing the real and the fake so hopefully someone didn't make the same mistake! xo

  8. Catherine Sayer
    March 18, 2015 / 8:36 pm

    I didn't even realised this was such a problem as I've never bought any makeup off ebay etc! Definitely something to watch out for though x

  9. Jasmine Stewart
    March 18, 2015 / 9:36 pm

    I'm at the point where I'm just not willing to take any risks! I will only buy high-end products from Selfridges, Space NK etc. as it's just not worth it. Fake handbags are one thing but putting dodgy chemicals on my face is just not worth saving £20 over! I learned my lesson from my one experience in this area and luckily PayPal/eBay refunded my money but worryingly the seller is still continuing to list these products despite eBay siding with me and agreeing they were fakes…xx Magpie Jasmine Magpie Jasmine

  10. Jayne
    March 18, 2015 / 10:13 pm

    One of my duties at one of beauty brands I worked for was searching for fakes and reporting it. It wasn't even a big brand and it could have been a full time job finding and reporting them. Most big brands list their authorised sellers on their site so that's always a good place to check. Most premium brands would not sell on Amazon or eBay in my experience.

  11. cinabar
    March 18, 2015 / 11:42 pm

    My mum bought a foundation (Kanebo) from Amazon (UK) but the shade didn't match her usual shade correctly and as you pointed out the packaging was very slightly different. The foundation didn't feel as smooth either. The seller told her it was original but gave her a refund. They are still selling on Amazon, this isn't eBay, its Amazon – that really scare me, it is somewhere extra the counterfeiters are creeping in via third party sellers.

  12. Katherine L
    March 19, 2015 / 2:17 am

    I've seen a lot of comments on youtube videos about people saying "oh you can get that really cheap on ebay or amazon!" but I'm always completely skeptical of that. I always order from reputable sights that I know are certified sellers, especially when it comes to skincare and makeup. Who knows what horrible things the knock-offs contain?!-Katherine

    • London Beauty Queen
      March 22, 2015 / 5:42 pm

      That's what worries me! You have no clue what's in these fake products, so they could cause SO many problems it's scary to even think about.

  13. Lucy M
    March 21, 2015 / 10:03 pm

    Such an interesting and eye opening post to read. Aside from the profit damage to the authentic companies, I would mostly be concerned about the health and safety in a counterfeit product- I would always chose to save up and purchase the real thing.Ooh La Luce | Beauty, Life, Fashion

  14. Beth Smith
    March 23, 2015 / 5:25 pm

    I didn't even know this was such a big issue with not buying a lot of make up online, such an eye opening post I'm going to have to keep a look out for this!Beth

  15. Sophie
    March 24, 2015 / 11:45 pm

    Youre right about ebay. Ive seen some sellers call items 'real good techniques' and 'bare naked minerals' or something to that effect. I wouldnt mind IF I knew that the ingredients of the make up were EU regulated. I recently read an article where there was a link to someone going blind from using counterfeit goods and another story where someone bought a stretch mark balm of ebay and got really bad rashes and spots the next day that she ended up in hospital. The problem is, some items on there probably are genuine but many are likely not. As for quality of eyeshadows, the article I read compared an urban decay naked palette they got off ebay to the real thing and the pigment and colour of the eye shadows was just about identical. Some print on the packaging and the brush was different though. Some of the counterfeit goods are SO similar and do look practically identical though, but for me its the health and safety aspect which does it. Glad you pointed out the brushes (or lack of them) – I've no idea if estee lauder uses those cheap small sponge brushes and was surprised to see on ebay that they 'apparently' did.I know a lot of what makes a premium product so costly is the packaging and research in to how to present it/lay it out/font of the type and have a luxury feel/material used.Can definitely see the appeal of the ebay goods when they start at from 1-99p though.

  16. Laura Jane Style
    March 27, 2015 / 3:21 pm

    Hayley this is such a useful post! i have seen other posts on " fakes " but not as in depth. Thanks for sharing

  17. Kissel
    April 2, 2015 / 1:38 am

    Thank you for this informative post, Hayley. I've experienced buying two fake palettes in the past. The good thing was I was able to get full refund for my purchase. One huge thing I've noticed from comparing the fake palettes with the authentic ones is that an authentic palette will feel just that – it would look and feel authentic even from just holding it in your hands for a few minutes.

  18. Isabel O'Brien
    April 7, 2015 / 3:10 pm

    This is why I've never bought things like Mac lipsticks on eBay. I've seen several sellers who are obviously selling fakes. And I always use Paypal.

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