TikTok cashing in on sale of counterfeit cosmetics and prescription skin creams
TikTok is profiting from the sale of illegal and potentially dangerous beauty products, including counterfeit cosmetics and prescription-only skin creams, despite claiming to take a “zero tolerance” approach to rogue sellers.
Counterfeit versions of Dior perfumes, Vaseline lip balms and Maybelline mascaras are among products being touted by third-party vendors via TikTok’s in-app marketplace.
Skin-whitening lotions containing banned ingredients and potent acne creams that should only be supplied with a prescription were also being openly advertised last week.
The products are being sold via TikTok Shop, an in-app shopping feature which allows users to buy products they see promoted by influencers and brands. There is also a “shop” tab where users can browse products, from cosmetics and clothing to toilet rolls and sports drinks.
Since launching in 2021, the feature has helped turn TikTok into a destination for online retail, with a recent poll by market research firm Savanta finding that UK respondents under 26 used it to make 19 purchases per year – more than through Instagram or Facebook.
TikTok, which takes 5% commission on sales, says it has strict rules on what can be sold via TikTok Shop, including prohibiting “the advertising and sale” of all counterfeit products. It also bans the sale of prescription-only medicines, such as the acne skin cream, and of skin-whitening creams that contain banned ingredients. “By ensuring the safety and authenticity of products sold on our platform, we create a positive shopping experience that users can have confidence in,” the policy adds.
But analysis suggests the rules are not being effectively enforced, with illicit beauty products routinely being promoted to users via their content feeds and search results.
Last week, nine out of the first 12 results shown to people searching “perfume” in the TikTok Shop section of the app appeared to be counterfeit. The products included variations of Dior’s Sauvage perfume, with names such as “Suave” and “Savage”, and a copy of Viktor and Rolf’s Flowerbomb perfume, which looks the same at first glance but was actually called “Mark and Victor”.
Searches for mascara and other makeup items also led to recommendations for products that appeared to be fake. In some cases, the items remained live on the marketplace even when they were explicitly labelled as “dupes”.
The prevalence of counterfeits has led to warnings from some TikTok Shop customers. A UK-based woman who bought a £25 beauty gift bag said she was “fuming” after being sent a single lip gloss that was clearly a counterfeit. “Be careful who you order from on TikTok Shop,” she said in a video. “Please check your sellers because there’s so many fakes going around. It’s not worth the loss of money. I can’t even get hold of the company and funnily enough they’ve now got nothing on their shop.”
Another TikTok Shop customer said she was sent a poor-quality perfume that “literally smells like nail varnish” after ordering from what she thought was a reputable seller on TikTok. She messaged the seller to ask for a refund but was told that because the item had been opened it couldn’t be returned. In a video for followers she added: “If you are going to buy this perfume please check out the shops you’re buying it from and avoid these guys. I lost out on my money.”
Health and consumer experts say the products are unlikely to have undergone safety testing in line with UK standards and contain unknown, potentially toxic ingredients.
Many of the illicit products sold via TikTok Shop are made in China and shipped to the UK, according to TikTok’s listings data, with details about their origin and manufacturing processes unknown. Tests of seized counterfeit cosmetics by the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit have previously found that many contain “toxic levels” of arsenic, mercury and lead.
If something goes wrong, customers are left exposed, Gavin Terry, lead officer for intellectual property at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, said. “If somebody has a counterfeit product and they put it on their skin and have an allergic reaction, they’ll go to the brand. And that’s one way these horror stories develop. The brand will say, ‘That’s not my product’. There’s no quality control and no guarantee they’re safe.”
Terry added that there had been an increase in the sale of counterfeits on social media in recent years, with endorsements from influencers driving demand. “The influencers are the soft face of it. Behind that there’s a criminal organisation. And the social media platform is an intermediary – they create the conduit,” he said.
In 2021, a report for the Intellectual Property Office found that the role of influencers was key to affecting consumer purchases of counterfeit products. Of 1,000 women aged 16 to 60 who were surveyed, 13% said they had been prompted by social media endorsements to buy counterfeit products.
In addition to the fake products, prescription-only gels containing tretinoin, which is used for the treatment of acne, were available to buy through TikTok Shop last week. Tretinoin can lead to interactions with other medications and cause foetal abnormalities if taken while pregnant so must be used with medical supervision.
Dr Jane Ravenscroft, of the British Association of Dermatologists, said the illicit sale of skin creams was a “major concern” and a “public health risk”. “Unfortunately, people selling these prescription products illegally are preying on people’s insecurities and naivety. Social media adds fuel to the fire,” she said.
TikTok blocked searches for “tretinoin” and removed listings from third-party vendors that referred to the ingredient after being alerted by the Observer. Selling prescription-only drugs without a prescription is a criminal offence. Listings for skin-whitening creams containing the banned ingredient hydroquinone were also removed.
TikTok said it took intellectual property infringement and the illicit sale of medical products seriously, and that those breaking the rules could be banned from the platform. It said it had removed hundreds of products and merchants from TikTok Shop so far this year, including around 50 listings flagged by the Observer. In 2022, it launched an Intellectual Property Protection Centre, a tool it said would help brands identify product listings that breach their IP.