Makeup Mirage

Demystifying Makeup


Thanks to increased news coverage of counterfeit and unsafe cosmetics, we are seeing more efforts by the beauty industry, as well as the government, to protect and educate the public about makeup safety. However, regulatory and enforcement agencies are still playing catchup to the counterfeiters, so it's up to you to keep yourself safe. Please educate yourself and share your story!

Facts About Government Regulations (or lack thereof)

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA) includes 112 pages of standards for food and drugs, but just two pages for cosmetic safety. The cosmetics title of the FFDCA, which has not been amended significantly since it was enacted more than 80 years ago, provides virtually no power to perform even the most rudimentary functions to ensure the safety of an estimated $84 billion cosmetic industry.

In the absence of government authority, the safety of personal care product ingredients is evaluated through a voluntary industry program known as the Cosmetic Ingredient Review process. The CIR has reviewed less than 20% of the FDA estimated 12,500 chemicals used in cosmetics, and of those the CIR has reviewed, they have found only 9 chemicals unsafe for use in cosmetics. What safety data does exist focuses on acute reactions to products, such as skin rashes or allergic reactions, as opposed to studies that look at chronic health effects from chemicals in personal care products, like cancer, reproductive or nervous system effect that are driven by genetic susceptibility, the timing of exposure, and aggregate exposures over a lifetime.

All About Counterfeit Makeup

What is Counterfeit Makeup? Counterfeit or "fake" makeup is makeup that intentionally looks the same as a brand-name product but isn't. It is also illegal. Counterfeiters imitate the packaging of authentic products closely to fool the customer, but the contents inside could be anything.

Counterfeiters have to use cheaper ingredients than the authentic version in order to sell the item for less, since price is the only reason a customer would buy a fake instead of the real item. But using cheaper ingredients, plus shortcuts in processing, again to keep costs down, can make counterfeits extremely dangerous. The FBI reports that its agents have found human carcinogens, aluminum, dangerous levels of bacteria, and even human urine and feces (!!!) in the products they’ve seized.

Counterfeits are also a growing problem. Global seizures jumped 25 percent between 2011 and 2013. In 2016 alone, the government reportedly seized over 2.8 million fake makeup products (most of them MAC knockoffs).

Knockoffs are cheaper versions that look similar to but not the exactly the same as brand-name products. Oftentimes, they will use a slightly different spelling of the product name.

Knockoffs are not necessarily illegal, for example, most grocery stores and pharmacies have their own off-brand or knockoff versions of name-brand products, but you should still think twice about buying cheap makeup, especially if you have any allergies or sensitivities. The reason that knockoffs are cheaper is because they use cheaper ingredients. Plus, it is difficult to distinguish legal knockoffs that abide by FDA regulations from those that don't.

Basically, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!

How to Buy Safe Makeup

The best way to stay safe is to buy your makeup from a reputable seller. Avoid mysterious online vendors, such as Amazon third-party resellers, overseas sellers on eBay, and products sold in Instagram and Facebook ads. However, even reputable resellers like Sephora and ULTA can be fooled by counterfeits, and legitimate products expire, so check expiration dates.

Here are the FBI's tips for recognizing suspicious or counterfeit cosmetics:

  • Packaging is slightly different from the authentic brand (different color, lettering) or the label is askew or poorly printed
  • Product is advertised as a "limited edition" even though the manufacturer doesn't offer a limited edition (check manufacturer's website)
  • The price is either slightly or dramatically lower than usual, and may be advertised as discount, cheap, or outlet pricing
  • Consistency, texture, or color seem different
  • The scent seems a little off
  • The product is being sold at a non-authorized retailer (flea market, mall kiosk, online)

Educating yourself about what should and shouldn't be in your makeup is also a good idea. Check out our introduction to the most Common Makeup Ingredients and what they do.

Be Part of the Solution: Share Your Story

It is important to spread awareness about a product if you have personally experienced an adverse reaction. Report the incident and product to the proper authorities as soon as possible. If this sounds daunting, see our advice on How to Report a Bad Reaction or Possible Counterfeit.

Also consider posting to relevant social media sites to increase awareness and help prevent others from having a similar negative experience. Just remember that you might have used a counterfeit product, especially if you bought it at a discount or from a reseller (as opposed to from the manufacturer), so please be careful about making accusations. It's more helpful to say, "I bought this product from this place on this date and this is what happened to me" instead of "No one should buy this product because it causes this terrible reaction."