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Innovation vs Imitation: Inside the Counterfeit Cosmetics Sold on TikTok

Published June 1, 2023
Published June 1, 2023
Markus Spiske via Unsplash

A recent report from The Observer newspaper revealed that third-party vendors have been selling counterfeit beauty products on TikTok’s in-app shopping marketplace. While fake goods have been around for years, the cosmetics industry has become one of the most brutally hit in recent years. In the UK alone, beauty products are the third-most counterfeited sector, and the Government’s Intellectual Property Office reports that 17% of UK women have knowingly purchased a counterfeit product online. The increase in counterfeit products is likely a result of the industry value being so high, projected to reach $758.4 billion by 2025, and despite the economic downturn post-COVID-19, the industry saw growth of 15% in the United States in 2022.

The ongoing sale of counterfeit beauty products through TikTok’s marketplace has been encouraged by searches for makeup items that have led to recommendations for fake products labeled as “dupes.”  These so-called dupes include Dior Sauvage counterfeits being sold under the names “Suave” and “Savage,” Viktor and Rolf’s Flowerbomb being sold as “Mark and Victor,” and a slew of fake Maybelline mascaras, NYX lipsticks, and Vaseline lip balms. When these items are sold through the TikTok marketplace, the social media app takes a 5% commission, even though TikTok claims to prohibit the sale “of all counterfeit products.” Searches on the app for mascara and other makeup products led to recommendations for fake products, which can be dangerous as data revealed 35% of users buy something they see on the platform, and 37% discover something on TikTok and immediately go to buy it.

The UK Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit seized samples of counterfeit products being sold on TikTok and ran tests, which unveiled “toxic levels” of lead, mercury, and arsenic as well as acne gels containing tretinoin, a prescription-only medication that can lead to negative interactions with other medications and cause fetal abnormalities if taken while pregnant. Illegal goods are created in China and sent to countries like the UK and the United States with no assurance of safety or quality control. This has come as a surprise since TikTok introduced an Intellectual Property Protection Centre in 2022 to assist brands in locating listings that violate their IP. In January this year while investigating a case involving online sales of counterfeit cosmetics, Hong Kong customs seized around 2,600 suspected fake products infringing trademarks held by big cosmetics and perfume brands including Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, and Clarins, with an estimated market value of $122,000.

The rise in counterfeit beauty may be having such a moment right now due to the increase in online shopping. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UK consumers became 45% more likely to buy skincare products online, and less savvy shoppers used to making purchases in brick-and-mortar shops may be more likely to fall for fakes and adding to their baskets with abandon at the sight of a good-looking deal. Brand protection agency Red Points saw a 56% increase in counterfeit products sold online across the 700 brands they look after in the first six months of 2020 when the world first went into lockdown. Another reason consumers may have been conned into purchasing counterfeits, or been tempted to knowingly purchase them, can be attributed to the post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis.

With the counterfeit product category continuing to grow at an alarming rate, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has predicted that fake goods will contribute $4.5 trillion to the global economy by 2024. Cosmetics brands and TikTok need to actively make consumers aware of fake products by communicating regularly on where to purchase genuine goods and alerting them to fake cosmetics and how to identify them. With 30.8 million active users a day, TikTok has made a profound impact on lives; however by profiting off of dangerous counterfeits, it calls into question the safety of the app, especially within the beauty community.


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