In a 2017 episode of E!’s Life of Kylie, Kylie Jenner opened up to viewers about the “responsibility” she feels to confront and stop opportunists selling counterfeit versions of her Kylie Lip Kits. To prove it, she sent her then-BFF Jordyn Woods on a mission to buy some forgeries. Unsurprisingly, the street vendors weren’t interested in making a sale with cameras rolling, so the big confrontation was a bust. But the makeup mogul seemed genuinely disturbed by what she had seen that day.
In a taped confessional after the fact, and a few instances on Twitter and Snapchat, Kris Jenner’s youngest used the same tone that many articles about fake makeup do: She implied consumers were being duped, unknowingly purchasing branded knockoffs instead of the real deal, and putting their health in danger in the process.
Remember, Jenner’s televised crusade against the sellers of fake Lip Kits took place long before her products became available at Ulta locations across the country. Back then, the Kylie Cosmetics site would crash under high demand and resellers went as far as using bots to buy the authentic product and then offload it at a steep markup. Undoubtedly, casual eBay shoppers had been lured in by the low prices on the otherwise-spendy cosmetics. Surely, tourists walking by street vendors in Downtown LA or Manhattan’s Canal Street had been too excited by the prospect of instant gratification with no shipping time to question the immediate availability of such an in-demand item.
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But not everyone who purchases makeup is being duped. There’s a growing community of shoppers who not only seek out knockoff products online but review and recommend the products in secret groups by the tens of thousands. And despite Jenner generously presuming her fans are being tricked, these shoppers know exactly what they’re there for.
One such group on Facebook has over 60,000 members who post reviews of imitation Kylie Lip Kits (“not sticky but pretty drying”) and Too Faced palettes (“actually smells like peaches!!”), among others. They post questions and tips, too, and there are plenty of other groups that also boast membership in the thousands. Many of these buyers are entirely aware of the possibility that the unregulated lipsticks and foundations they’re ordering from overseas could include risky ingredients, but they’re undeterred.
The question is, why? Why buy counterfeit makeup on purpose? Unlike a pair of knockoff Louboutins or a fake Louis Vuitton bag, no matter how well replicated the phony high-end makeup products are, once a buyer is wearing them, no one else can tell what they’re supposed to be. Why not just wear safe, dependable drugstore makeup if the packaging won’t be visible while you’re out wearing it?
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Clarisa, a 22-year-old in Australia, who are pictured here along with her collection of fakes, boasts counterfeits of beloved beauty brands like Fenty, Too Faced and — her favorite “for sure” — Anastasia Beverly Hills. She says it’s not always easy to tell when a product isn’t the real thing, so that wouldn’t dissuade her from buying a dupe. “Some don’t smell like they should, but I love them,” she says.
Leigh*, a 35-year-old mother from Texas, bought replicas of Lime Crime lipsticks and Kylie Lip Kits and even gave imitation makeup to her family members as gifts for a while, but she says she made sure they knew they weren’t getting the real deal. Interested in starting a makeup line herself, she heard about the replicas “from other ladies on the makeup pages” and “just wanted to try it out.”
On those “pages,” women like Leigh share photos and swatches, sometimes with side-by-side comparisons of imposter lipsticks and eyeshadows up against their genuine counterparts. In these photos, the telltale signs of a forgery are highlighted, just like they are in articles designed to help would-be buyers avoid getting scammed. The difference is, of course, that publications just like this one point to uneven packaging fonts or chalky formulas as a warning sign, while these online shoppers herald particularly good dupes for not featuring those flaws. The packaging, for many people in the fakes game, is the whole point.
“I buy replicas when I want the product displayed but won’t wear those colors much,” Joanne*, an active member of one review group, explained. She described herself as a licensed makeup artist who started getting into fakes so she could understand what others were talking about on YouTube. Citing the Morphe James Charles Palette, an assortment of 39 rainbow-hued shadows in a variety of finishes made in collaboration with the star makeup artist, which retailed for $39 before selling out, she noted, “I don’t love the color story so I wouldn’t want to pay retail price for just having the packaging in my collection.”
For makeup lovers, the packaging is key. Cashmere Nicole, founder, and CEO of cult-favorite brand Beauty Bakerie, told InStyle that packaging is one of the most important parts of her line, which features decadent-looking confectionary packaging on Lip Whips ($20) and Cake Mix foundations ($28). “When it comes to packaging, everything matters,” she explained. “I get so many customers sending me photos of their setups at home, their unboxing. They don’t even want to open or tear our boxes.”
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Of course, Nicole’s products are available through trusted retailers, but the desire to display a cute package is something replica-buyers care a lot about, whether the contents are legit or not. But how the outsides look is just one of the concerns that come up in these secret social media communities, where conversations highlight just how much thought is going into the purchase of fake makeup. Users ask which e-commerce site is best for buying realistic replicas with the lowest chance of being hassled by their bank or customs, as a number of the sites are Chinese. They request links to specific items by name, along with reviews. Does anyone know if Wish is a reliable site? Is iOffer safe? AliExpress? DHGate? Has anyone seen the Anastasia Beverly Hills Subculture palette?
There’s a reason for the specificity of these questions, beyond just finding out how sticky a specific seller’s lip formula is: One wrong move from an uninitiated buyer could topple the whole operation. AliExpress, for instance, is a subsidiary of Alibaba Group, which has a clear rule for sellers who set up online shops in the marketplace: “Repeated postings of counterfeit or unauthorized items shall result in the immediate suspension of your membership.” Similarly, eBay tells its sellers that replica listings will be removed or worse: “[Y]ou may be subject to a range of other actions, including limits of your buying and selling privileges and suspension of your account.”
Aware they risk having their shops shut down, some vendors on the sites ship the product without a logo unless the buyer sends a certain kind of message with their order. The message can be as simple as the name of a person who has an established relationship with the seller. Instructions for what the word should say are posted clearly in the social media groups or private threads on chat apps like Telegram.
Sellers also strike out on their own, setting up unique websites or using messaging apps and conducting all their sales without the oversight of marketplaces like Aliexpress or eBay. There, unlike on third-party e-commerce sites, the photos of the products can be more detailed without risking the deletion of the seller’s store. Independent sellers are referenced and reviewed in the private groups, though less frequently than the more established sites like DHGate.
A lot of work goes into making sure the items are packaged and branded to a customer’s satisfaction, but money plays a significant role in determining why someone would choose fake makeup over the real deal, too. Joanne says she likes to “compare the formula and color payoff” between one of her authentic items and its corresponding copy so once she hits the pan on the real one, she can save money on replacements. She admitted the results from using knockoffs are rarely the same, but that she’s been “pleasantly surprised” by the accuracy of makeup on occasion. Still, the makeup artist said, she would never use it on a paying customer, because that’s not what they’re paying for, and they may not be aware of the risks.
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Jewel*, a 17-year-old in Guam, told InStyle she’s been buying the fakes for two years and doesn’t worry about the health risks because she rarely wears makeup herself: “I run a little Instagram closet account, and I used to buy counterfeit makeup from AliExpress or the Philippines and resell it for profit, but I would let the buyers know it is counterfeit,” she said.
Some customers might not care that they’re risking applying cosmetics that could contain cyanide, arsenic, rat poison, urine, or lead, as WWD reported, but the reasonable fear of rubbing any of those ingredients on their skin has led some members of the online replica-reviewing community to shy away from makeup and stick to bags and belts. “I don’t want to burn my face off,” one member of a handful of knockoff groups told InStyle of her decision to buy knockoff jewelry instead of skincare.
While it’s unlikely that someone who uses fake makeup — whether they know they are or not — will burn off their face, the possibility of experiencing irritation or worse is still very real. Dee*, a British Columbia woman in her mid-20s, knows that all too well now that she’s months into battling the side effects of an infection caused by replicas.
It started innocently enough, according to her: She saw copies of liquid Lime Crime lipstick in ads for e-commerce app Wish and joined a few review groups shortly after that.
“All the posts were positive and people were praising all their purchases, so I decided to give it a shot,” Dee recalled. “I knew the risks of purchasing, but in my mind, as a consumer, you can’t prove where any of the real stuff comes from, either, and the fakes are near identical, so why not give it a go? Why drop $25 on one lipstick when I can get a replica for $3?”
After amassing a collection of about eight lipsticks, she learned why.
Dee followed the advice from other posters in the groups she’d joined, swatching each formula on her hand to test for reactions before committing to wearing any of them on her mouth. With Halloween approaching, though, she got bolder and used an untested black lipstick to paint her face for a skeleton costume.
First, when she tried to remove the black makeup, her skin was stained magenta. Two days later, the pink hue finally faded, but her eyes started to feel dry. After 12 days of the dryness and itchiness getting worse, she woke up to find her eyes “oozy.” From there, she had to go to the doctor, where she was told she had an infection and given a cream that blurred her vision. Months later, the area around her eyes still flares up with eczema, she said, noting that it’s “red and wrinkly” even when there isn’t a flare-up.
“It sucks,” Dee told InStyle. “I haven’t been able to wear makeup since October.”
Leigh, the buyer in Texas, stopped ordering her makeup from bogus overseas retailers because of she is tired of the paranoia that came with risking her health, even though she never noticed any adverse effects from the counterfeit products. Now, she’s working hard on the makeup line she dreamed of launching after taking away a few lessons in private sales from her time in the review communities. Others are as committed to the fake-life as ever.
After Dee posted her cautionary tale in a Facebook group, she thought others would stop risking it with knockoffs, but her story doesn’t seem to have swayed the diehard deal-hunters there. Reviews of faux Anastasia Beverly Hills eyeshadow palettes and instructions for buying fraudulent Kylie Lip Kits are still prevalent.
The reasons for intentionally — and laboriously — purchasing fake makeup are as varied as the people who do it, but whether a consumer does it to save money, display particular packaging on a vanity, or simply satisfy some curiosity, an observer might never even know that the lipstick they’re wearing cost $3, required a codeword just to order, took half a month to arrive from China, and could be causing an infection at that very moment. Perhaps these buyers looking to the wise words of Kylie herself, who once said: “Everyone is always telling me what, and what not, to do; you just get a tough skin.”