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When it comes to searching for the perfect beauty product, being a savvy shopper is an absolute must — especially if it involves navigating the tricky world of counterfeit cosmetics. Also known as "black market beauty," this booming industry has caused some serious damage in recent years.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in the United States alone, nearly $250 billion dollars are lost every year to counterfeit products, with personal care and cosmetics accounting for 5 percent of that. The concern over counterfeit cosmetics is that they pose a major health threat to beauty enthusiasts everywhere thanks to non-regulated manufacturing processes. Some of the most widely reported cases involve counterfeit eyeliner purchases that caused rashes and eyeshadows that resulted in severe eye infections and swelling.

For those that are caught producing counterfeit beauty products, the consequences can be severe. Last year, Florida resident Tina Oleszczuk was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay MAC Cosmetics $961,744.75 for selling nearly $1 million worth of fake makeup on eBay.

The scams typically target shoppers who are on the hunt for a good deal and unknowingly jump at the chance to score a cult-favorite beauty product at a fraction of the cost. However, victims of the scam may fall prey to all sorts of risks that can stem from a single purchase. Organizations like the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC) work with major brands, including cosmetic companies, to put a stop to product counterfeiting and piracy.

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“Those counterfeit products are usually substandard in quality . . . They are not safe for people to use and consume . . . We advocate for stronger legislation and enforcement. We try to keep these products away from consumers so they’re not mistakenly buying them. One way we do this is by training government officials on how to spot fake and real products,” says Candice Li, vice president-chief of staff for IACC.  

The increasing popularity of counterfeit cosmetics in the United States stems from the rampant production found in China. Often counterfeiters work in conjunction with laboratories to produce the products overseas and later distribute them in America. Li sites saving on production costs as a major reason behind the outsourcing.  

“China is the top seller. Most of the counterfeit products coming into the U.S. and other countries are from China. That’s because China makes a lot of legitimate products, so you can imagine they also want to try counterfeit products as well. There’s also other parts in Asia and Latin America where it’s also coming from. There are counterfeit products created here in the U.S., but it’s cheaper to create them in other places. ”

However, in the same effort to save cash, counterfeiters also skimp on maintaining sanitary conditions and meeting basic safety standards. Li says that the laboratories have been known to produce perfume with traces of urine and sawdust. To make matters worse, the Daily Mail reports that trading standards officers abroad have even found high levels of harmful substances like lead and mercury in counterfeit makeup.

The booming black market has also spurred important discussions within the beauty community, thanks to bloggers like Emma, who has been raising awareness about counterfeit cosmetics on her blog, Rosy Disposition. After purchasing a knock-off Benefit Hoola Bronzer from eBay, she was shocked to see the seller actually had positive reviews thanks to other customers who were unknowingly ripped off. 

A photo posted by Emma (@rosy.disposition) on

At one point, even her local Target store in Australia started randomly carrying MAC products that were later discovered to be counterfeit. Emma warns that in the long run, purchasing counterfeit products can have negative ramifications by supporting other forms of crime.

“The manufacture and illegal trafficking of counterfeit products, whether they be cosmetics, handbags, clothing, etc., earns billions of dollars for organized crime syndicates. You may think buying a fake Urban Decay palette is harmless, but the $15 you pay for it very well might be funding human trafficking of the manufacture of drugs which kill people worldwide. It may seem over-dramatic but these criminal activities are all connected,” says Emma.

There are things that consumers can do to protect themselves from the pervasive black market beauty industry. Li recommends that shoppers be wary when offering their credit card information and avoid non-reputable counterfeiting sites that may expose them to fraud. She also advises shoppers to look beyond convincing and deceptive packaging.

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“It’s important for consumers to be mindful . . . They need to look at price and where they are buying it from, like a vendor on the street or physical store. It’s a little bit harder online because you can’t touch the product, or smell it or hold it. If you’re going to a website that has very fuzzy pictures and extremely good prices, that’s a pretty good indicator,” says Li.   

If you’re on a tight budget and can’t afford higher end products at the moment, Emma finds that product dupes are a healthy and safe alternative for saving some cash.

“I understand better than anyone the intense need we sometimes get to have the latest palette or the highlighter everyone is raving about, and as a postgrad I know how much it sucks not to be able to afford them, but counterfeit products should never even be considered as an option. So many beauty bloggers put their investigative hats on and find truly great dupes from reputable drugstore brands that have safety controls and strict hygienic production,” says Emma.

What you see is not always what you get, especially when it comes to counterfeit beauty products. At the end of the day, you’re better off purchasing products directly from the brands themselves or from authorized retailers like Sephora and Ulta. Saving money on bogus products in lieu of the real thing just isn’t worth the potential health, financial, and legal risks involved. Remember, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.