Fake makeup: The toxic truth you need to know this Christmas

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

Bargain-hunters beware: the cheap designer makeup you are buying this Christmas could be toxic.

Shoppers - increasingly fuelled by the desire to emulate their Instagram idols - are buying fake versions of the most popular makeup brands at a fraction of the price.

But while these knock-offs look almost identical to the real deal, they have a dirty secret: many contain lead, paint-stripper - and even faeces.

The toxic ingredients have left users with chemical burns, severe rashes and at risk of serious long-term health problems.

Meanwhile, the counterfeit industry is booming with sellers exploiting millennials' online shopping habits and their unprecedented demand for big-brand cosmetics.

So how easy is it to buy these fakes? How dangerous are they? And why do some still take the gamble in the name of beauty?

We went to find out.

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  • Generation Vain

The UK beauty industry has exploded; sales topped £4 billion for the first time last year and the appetite for the latest in vogue, big-brand items is showing no sign of waning.

Social media has played a pivotal part in that growth, with consumers increasingly turning to YouTube and Instagram stars for advice on what cosmetics they should be buying.

"Our generation is vain and it's very much about the image," says PJ Lacey, a 17-year-old beauty student.

"If you have something that's like Anastasia Beverly Hills or MAC - regardless if it's fake or not - then people are like 'I've got it'. Even if it could cause a reaction people are like, 'I've got this glow kit or that' - people just want to use it because it has got the name on it."

Maya Gibson, a YouTube blogger with over 150,000 subscribers, was inundated by questions from her followers about the possible benefits of using fake cosmetics.

She decided to try applying a full-face of makeup using only knock-off goods - with terrifying results.

"After I used the makeup and took it off, my skin absolutely went mad - it did not react well at all. My skin went up in acne, my lips had partial chemical burns, and bear in mind the makeup was only on my face five minutes after filming."

But worryingly, Maya's experience has done little to deter her friends from taking similar risks.

"Quite a few of my friends own pieces of fake makeup - especially the Kylie lip kits - knowing that it's fake. And when I've questioned them, they don't think much of it which is scary, because they don't particularly know the dangers.

"I think social media, Instagram and different platforms are part of the reason. If you get a high-brand item, you just naturally want to show it off on Instagram. It makes it look like you have the real deal and have the same items as big people that you look up to."

  • Easy access

Christmas shoppers were being told that the products were genuine and safe. Credit: ITV News

Our changing shopping habits mean Maya’s friends can purchase fake goods with just a click of a button.

A simple search for the latest high-end product on prominent online market sites throws up tens of thousands of counterfeit items.

But of course, traditional market sellers are also cashing in on the booming illegal industry.

Following a tip-off, we went to one of Britain's most popular markets to see how easy it was to buy fake makeup.

We were spoilt for choice.

Multiple stalls were selling counterfeit MAC, Kylie Jenner and Anastasia Beverly Hills - all advertised as genuine and safe - at an estimated 75% less than the retail price.

"It's all safe, we all use it," one seller told us.

Another insisted: "Yes, it's 100% real."

  • Spot the fakes

Fraudsters - taking advantage of advancements in production techniques - have flooded the market with fakes which look remarkably similar to the legitimate products.

Would you be able to tell the difference?

Credit: ITV News
Credit: ITV News
Credit: ITV News
  • The not-so-desirable ingredients

While these cheap imitations may look like the real deal, hidden inside are a cocktail of potentially damaging ingredients which can have dire health consequences.

Tests, commissioned by ITV News, found that one of our fake MAC lipsticks contained dangerously high levels of lead.

"You wouldn't expect to find lead in lipstick; we analysed it and found it to be significantly higher than the guidelines for lead," Dr Steve Barton, from Kingston University London, said.

"It's a neurotoxin so it can have various effects like menstrual difficulties, hormonal problems so my advice would be certainly not to be putting it on the face and certainly not to be putting it on the lips with this level of lead in it."

Other goods, tested by police and trading standards, have been found to contain:

- Mercury

- Cyanide

- Arsenic

- Paint-stripper

- Faeces

The products are often contaminated with harmful substances during production in unsanitary working conditions.

Anjali Mahto, a dermatologist with the British Skin Foundation, has seen a marked increase in the number of patients suffering reactions triggered by fake makeup.

Just some of the harmful ingredients found in fake makeup. Credit: ITV News
Tanya Arguelles's eye infection after using a fake Kylie cosmetics product. Credit: Sarah Tanya Official
Louise Emery's face swelled up after using makeup containing arsenic. Credit: Louise Emery

But it is not just the immediate effects that consumers have to be wary of, Ms Mahto warns - some substances have the capacity to cause long-term damage.

"Toxic ingredients in these counterfeit products can lead to a large number of reactions, in particular things like skin rashes, allergies, chemical burns in more extreme circumstances.

"Some of the metals that have been found actually have the potential to cause problems with the nervous system and brain long-term as well."

  • Operation Beat The Fakes

While posing significant health risks to their customers, big brands also suffer financial and reputational implications.

It is therefore no surprise that the likes of MAC and Benefit deploy substantial resources to fight the fakes.

MAC's parent company Estee Lauder has a global security division of more than 40; their staff sniff out markets and online outlets and identify those who are ripping off their brand.

China is the world leader in producing counterfeit cosmetics. Credit: ITV News

Ian Marshall, who brought Benefit Cosmetics to the UK more than two decades ago, uses the services of former British policemen to find and expose counterfeiting operations.

"With counterfeit product, it's an amorphous mass up of hundreds of little traders, people who are displaying an in-flagrant ignorance when it comes to laws and governance and we can't control that," a clearly frustrated Mr Marshall says.

"All we can do is jump on it as soon as we are aware of the problems as they arise in various markets and we like to think we are doing everything possible, but it is very, very frustrating."

Some cosmetic companies we approached were unwilling to discuss the issue, perhaps reluctant to acknowledge or publicise the fact that their brands have been hijacked.

Police were so alarmed by the scale of the issue that they issued a nationwide alert in 2015.

But while authorities seized 2.2 million counterfeit beauty products in the UK last year, the problem has continued to evolve with the battle against the fraudsters increasingly moving online.

Despite huge efforts to stamp out the practice, the counterfeit problem persists. Credit: ITV News

"As the proportion of shopping people do online goes up, so will the proportion of counterfeit goods sold online," Detective Sergeant Kevin Ives, from the City of London Police, says.

More than 30,000 counterfeit good websites have been removed in the last three years, with his officers currently taking down sites at a remarkable rate of 1,000 a month.

"We are doing a lot to combat the sale of these goods but unfortunately a lot of time these goods are sold from foreign jurisdictions, so it's difficult to lay our hands on the perpetrators."

  • What next?

So what's the answer to stopping the spread of fake makeup? Credit: ITV News

With fraudsters continuing to innovate and largely evading capture, what is the answer to what some industry insiders say is a global epidemic?

Education, insists beauty teacher Shabana Davison.

She regularly reinforces the dangers of using fake makeup to her students at City and Islington College, and believes the only way to eventually end the supply is to eliminate the demand.

"It's better to have less and the real stuff than to obviously buy things that aren't going to good for you to use."

So how do you avoid being duped?

Anjali Mahto has this advice:

- If the price is too good to be true, it probably is

- Look closely at the packaging: are there typos or letters where there shouldn't be?

- Buy from reputable shops and online outlets that you know will be selling you the genuine product

But as we've discovered, not all shoppers are being duped; a substantial number are knowingly purchasing fakes, with the name on the label the only thing that matters.

With potentially hideous ingredients and numerous horror stories, is this toxic gamble really worth taking?

Makeup shoppers have a choice: their bank balance and reputation, or their health.

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Credit: ITV News