Industry Insider Report: How to Spot Fake Makeup

Dear Megan,

I’ve seen more and more articles about “fake makeup.” What is fake makeup? How can I know if the makeup I bought is fake?

– Cynthia M.

Wooo here we go.

First off, let me say that you are not alone. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, I think we have all unknowingly been part of the fake makeup market at one point or another.

It starts so simply: You want something. A liquid lipstick, a palette. It’s expensive, or sold out, always coming and going. You just want to find the best deal.. or find it at all!

When it arrives, something seems.. off. 

You, my dear, have been the victim of fake makeup.

It’s happened to me, it’s happening in the UK (a lot), it’s happened this year with Kylie Lip Kits and Jeffee Star Makeup (others, too), and the FBI is even warning us about it now.

Here’s how you can spot fake makeup before you buy, so that you don’t risk the nasty side effects of fake makeup.


Q: What is “Fake Makeup”?

Fake makeup is literally what it sounds like–makeup that is NOT the real thing.

But … how? why? who?

Sorry China, I love you dearly, but this originates with you (though it seems the UK has some fake makeup labs now, too..).

China is the copycat center of the world. I love and hate that about China, but it is what it is.

Here’s what happens y’all, because I spend half my year in China, work in factories in China on a weekly basis, and I SEE this stuff in action. I kid you not: Any makeup that is popular in the US–enough to draw attention–WILL be copied in China almost immediately and sold online.

How? You may ask.

Well, factories here that private label are clever. They know how to make anything on the turn of a dime. They can see a color online, copy the picture and know how to reasonably produce the same color. They see the packaging and can copy it, too.

They will sell it online–most likely on Ebay, AliExpress / Alibaba, and sometimes even Amazon–and if you don’t have a keen (read: skeptic) eye for detail, you will get bamboozled. It happened to me before. I’ll circle back to that later.


Q: But Why? Why Make Fake Makeup?

Besides the fact that money is literally god in China..

There’s both a domestic AND an international demand for fake makeup. And where there’s money to be made, there’ people ready to do anything to make it.

Here’s why there’s demand across the world:

China: The first time I wrote about the Chinese beauty market, it became a 1,000 word manifesto. I’m going to try to make this quick.

In China, owning foreign luxury goods is a sign of affluence, education, and mostly importantly: status.

Why? Because of internet censorship, the average person is not able to search online and learn about foreign brands. Anyway, the “rest of the world’s” internet is in English; you need to know English to read and understand it. If you find goods online that aren’t available in China, shipping is high and the import taxes are levvied on a whim–40% is what they charged me on WINK.. my own product. Combine that with the fact that most makeup brands aren’t available domestically because then cosmetic companies must submit to involuntary animal testing and yes, you’ve got yourself a problem.

Knowing about, finding, and acquiring foreign luxury goods is a hassle, but the ultimate sign of status in China.

Do you know what quick workaround? Buy the fake item on Taobao (China’s Amazon). You might not even know it’s fake when it arrives because, to be honest, you’ve never seen one of these things in person. You might not even know the brand (People ask me all the time, “Do you know this brand?”).

I cannot even tell you how many fake things I see all day every day here. At least 95% of what you see every day is completely fake. Clothes, shoes, bags, makeup, even food..

BUT, if people will buy it in droves, factories will manufacture it in droves.

So believe it or not, China is making, but also buying, driving a portion of the fake makeup market.


Domestically (US) + Globally: Have you noticed how many 12-16 year olds are on Twitter, following the every move of beauty gurus? Holy Moley, not just 12-16 year olds, but a good chunk of people under 35.

Beauty gurus use popular products–again, like Kylie Jenner lip kits and Jeffree Star highlighters–because they have relationships with the PR team, or more like, just because they want views.

So in this social media age, everyone ends up using the same products for looks. Young people see that, they want it. They may not have enough money to buy the real deal. They may just want the best deal or be able to buy it at all (Kylie lip kits used to sell out in minutes). So, they Google and click and look until they find something available.

And usually.. it’s fake makeup.

Maybe they are super detectives and know if something is fake or not, but with little experience, that’s tough to do. I wouldn’t have been able to spot a “fake” lipgloss at age 12 or even 16!

Look, living and working in China has made me very cynical, but no matter how optimistic or pessimistic you are, you gotta know that in the world, it’s this simple: C.R.E.A.M. – Cash Rules Everything Around Me. Believe it.

Without proper I.P. protection in China, there ain’t a thing anybody can do to stop these factories. Maybe the FDA or customs can seize fake goods before they enter the border, but it’s unlikely, especially on a single item.

For the youngsters buying fake makeup in other countries that have different laws? Good luck.

But let me be clear, it’s not just young people and foreigners falling for the fake makeup, we all do.

Including me..


Q: Why is Fake Makeup Necessarily Bad?

From a manufacturing perspective, I will tell you the bad news, and quickly:

  1. Most manufacturing facilities in China are not sanitary. You risk all sorts of infections.
  2. Chinese companies can–and do–use ingredients that are both unsafe and illegal in the United States
  3. Further, the pigments used in Chinese cosmetics are usually NOT safe for use on the eyes, lips, face. I have first hand experience in this realm. We had to re-do an entire color cosmetic project because the factory neglected to use FDA-approved pigments.
  4. You can and will burn your skin with these products. Lots of people have been reporting burns.
  5. These products SUCK. They smell bad, taste bad, wear horribly, are unpigmented..
  6. You are supporting organized crime. (I had to lol at that one, but it’s true!)


Q: How Can I Spot Fake Makeup?

As you can see from this fake ABH liquid lipstick comparison post, it can be tough to tell. So before you ever get to the point where you’re mixing up the legit and fake product boxes and using swatches to tell what’s real or not, let’s first let’s talk about how you can avoid buying it altogether.

Others have given tips like: check for spelling and grammar errors, don’t rely on product photos (they’re normally stock photos), check for a secure url (https://)–that one I don’t agree with–and many other tips, which can be found here.

In my experience, this is how you can spot fake makeup with 99%+ accuracy:

1. Avoid these stores at all costs and/or follow the disclaimers:

  1. AliExpress – AliExpress is the quick and dirty version of Alibaba, a website that connects factories with manufacturers. AliExpress has LITERALLY NO WAY to carry the REAL makeup.
  2. Ebay* – Do not buy from a REAL STORE on Ebay. The stores are fronts for Chinese factories or agencies, who make and/or sell fake makeup. Look at the selling history. Is it a store or a person? Are they just selling or do they buy items, too? You will be able to tell very quickly from the reviews and interactions. The best case scenario is that a person wants to sell off 1 unit or 2 units that they have from a subscription makeup box. Even then, do you want to buy something that could’ve potentially be tampered with or used? Yuck.
  3. Amazon** – Amazon is great. It’s full of legitimate vendors and products. It’s also full of non-legitimate vendors who tag onto listings. Yes the SAME listing with the legitimate vendor will typically have 1 or more non-authorized vendors. CHECK WHO YOU ARE BUYING FROM.  All I have to say is be very, very careful. I have a trademark on my business name and filed with Amazon to let them know I am the sole vendor and sole manufacturer. They still refused to stop those who were reselling WINK units. Who were these people selling WINK? How’d they get it? Honestly, I don’t know. All I know is that I had customers emailing me telling me about WINK that was from batches and batches ago (like 2013 era) that had been used, gone rancid, etc. Thankfully, Amazon has a very good return policy, so you shouldn’t be totally S.O.L. if you have a bad experience, but it’s still a “WTF?” moment. Think before you buy from a 3rd party.

Put yourself in the shoes of the vendor. Ask yourself: How does this person have wholesale units of what I’m trying to buy? Was this product recently discontinued? Does the vendor have an agreement with the manufacturer or  some special partnership? How? Was there a huge blowout sale somewhere?

No matter how you spin it, the chances are that if there’s a significant discount from the MSRP, it’s because its fake makeup.


2. Read Reviews

Speaking of vendors to avoid.. if you decide that you MUST have the make-up from an unauthorized vendor, read the reviews. What are other users saying? In Amazon, you can filter by seller first and read the seller’s reviews. If they might scam you, you better believe that they’ve already scammed others. Reviews can be a lifesaver.


3. Don’t Buy From Vendors with 0 Reviews

On the same note, don’t buy from any vendors (except the manufacturer, of course!) with NO online reviews. Hello! Talk about a total shot in the dark. It’s the 21st century! Reviews are a must for every distribution platform and vendor.

If you’re really curious / the deal is amazing / they’re the only store in stock, then email the original manufacturer and ask if that store is a legitimate, authorized vendor.


4. Smell It First

If you’ve got the makeup in your hands and you still had no way of knowing, smell it first. This is definitely a last resort, but I’ll tell you what.. you can tell a lot of things from a simple sniff.


5. Honestly, If you want the real goods, just pay the real price.

Have you ever noticed that makeup on Sephora is the same price as on the manufacturer’s website? That’s because most brands have an MAP–a minimum advertised price–that EVERYONE including the actual manufacturer, has to follow. I have MAPs in place for my products. If I violate those MAPs, it will be a very expensive mistake. The takeaway? Just pay the real price if you want the real goods.


My Experience with Fake Makeup

Last week I wrote about my beauty haul in China. In case you didn’t notice, I avoid color cosmetics like the Dickens here because you just neeever know what you’re going to get. The only color cosmetic I bought was Dolly Wink, from Japan. I hope that’s real because it was like $7.

Anyway, I, being an idiot, bought a fake YSL lipstick.

I didn’t know it at the time. I just wasn’t ready to pay $30 or $40 or whatever ungodly amount YSL charges for a lipstick (when I’m going to need 100 colors that I’ll never wear anyway), so I bought it for $9 on Ebay. Ariana Grande was wearing this shade at the time and I wanted to copy her look. Go figure.

ariana grande purple lisptick

All seemed fine. The packaging looked off(?) though. I already had one YSL lipstick and loved the packaging. This packaging was decidedly old-looking. I just figured it was vintage. *shrug*

No, I didn’t follow any of the tips outlined above, because before this I didn’t know that fake makeup was a real thing, let alone a real issue that I would face in my daily life. Oh boy..

Time comes and goes, I don’t use the stupid thing. I brought it to China with me (on my first trip), then made an wechat post at the end of the trip, lamenting the fact that I didn’t use it. Here is the picture from said post:

fake ysl lipstick

Later that summer, when I returned home and was bored one day, I tried it on. Except.. wait, what? It was all waxy. There was no pigment. A big chunk moved over to one side of the tip of the lipstick.

This wasn’t anything like my other YSL lipstick. My other lipstick was highly pigmented and wore like a dream.

Within a few seconds, I started coughing and gagging.

This tastes horrible! I thought. Toxic.


Fake makeup.

Tacky, sticky, goopy, pigment-less fake makeup.

I, too, was a victim!

Ain’t nothing like buying a lipstick, taking it around the world with you, only to find out you got BAMBOOZLED!

This, by the way, is the REAL lipstick:

YSL purple lipstick

I was so naive. I didn’t even check.

Lesson of the day: stick to department stores and legitimate manufacturers. If you need a discount, wait for the Sephora VIB sale (once a year, but it’s 20% off!). If you can’t afford the real thing, find a dupe ? Just do yourself a favor and don’t buy the fake makeup.


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Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez is a board-certified general practitioner with more than 15 years of patient care experience. She takes an integrative approach to patient care that considers the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – and is deeply committed to assisting her patients in achieving and sustaining optimal health. Dr. Vanessa is also a skilled writer and medical reviewer, specializing in preventive care and health promotion. Her articles are written in an approachable manner that is simple to comprehend and implement in one’s own life. Dr. Vanessa’s mission is to equip her patients and readers with the knowledge and resources necessary to live their greatest lives.

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