December 12, 2022

How to Spot Counterfeit, Expired, or Unsafe Cosmetics

This is a blog post that I have been really excited to write. This is because in the age of content creation, there is lots of misinformation surrounding different cosmetics and their safety. With this post, I want to focus on drugstore and resale products. Are they safe and how can we determine what to leave at the store and what to take home?

Read the Ingredients List of Cosmetics

It has recently come out that there are many harmful ingredients in hair care products that are readily available for purchase at drug stores.

Among these findings were high levels of Benzene and Formaldehyde in products such as dry shampoo, shampoo, and conditioner. There are ongoing class action lawsuits against the companies who produced these products and even recalls in the fight to regulate production and spread awareness.

Benzene — the contaminant behind nationwide recalls of dry shampoos by Unilever and Procter & Gamble — is also showing up in products that remain on store shelves.

Kate Gibson, CBS News

This is why it’s so important to double check labels and make sure that you are keeping yourself safe from potentially harmful ingredients such as these. If you’re ever unsure of the safety of an ingredient, I love and recommend the EWG database for research.

Identify Counterfeit Products

I’m beginning this section with a fact that a lot of people don’t know.

-Those Redken, Paul Mitchell, and Chi products at the grocery store are fake.

I will never forget working my first salon job under a Redken artist and educator. I remember asking her why her clients purchase products from the salon when they could buy it elsewhere. That’s when I learned that not only were those products counterfeit, but also potentially harmful.

“We don’t sell our products directly to grocery stores, drugstores or discount stores, and our e-commerce presence is very limited and select. If you purchase our products outside of a professional salon, these items may be old, stolen, or counterfeit and are diverted, or grey market.”

Vikki Bresnahan, Director of Brand Protection at John Paul Mitchell Systems

The reason that these products are available for purchase at drugstores with no regard for licensure is because they are counterfeit cosmetics from third parties or expired overflow.

The best way to ensure that you are buying authentic products is to shop small with your local beauty providers or visit a reputable retail store such as Sephora. This is because licensed stylists like myself are able to buy products directly from the retailer, guaranteeing authenticity every time.

Understanding Packaging Clues

PAO or period-after-opening symbols tell us how long cosmetics retain their efficacy after opening or removing the protective seal. These symbols will often read 6M, 12M, etc and are typically located on the back or bottom of a product. If the PAO symbol says 12M, that means that your product will be safe to use up to one year after opening.

Cosmetics PAO symbol. Understanding how long you can safely use cosmetics
Cosmetics PAO Symbol

Let’s take for example a store where people frequently test cosmetics before purchasing. Of course this does not apply to actual testers. I recommend checking each product you are thinking of purchasing to see if it has been opened. If so, it is best to put it back since there is no accurate way to track the PAO.

Cosmetic products that have exceeded their PAO date are a big risk to use on your skin. This is because the active ingredients begin to destabilize over time. When we continue to use these products on our skin past these dates, we are opening ourselves up to the potential of dermatitis, harmful bacteria, and even infection.

Date of Manufacture

Cosmetic products are required to have batch numbers in addition to a PAO icon. The batch number tells you when a product was made. Let’s say you are looking at an item at a store like TJ Maxx. If the product is unopened, the PAO does not yet apply. Now you need to ensure that the product is not past its shelf life. Here’s how to check:

  • Grab the product you are wanting to buy and check the exterior for a batch code. The following example marks in red what is not the batch code and marks in green what is. Note that the location of the batch code will vary from product to product. Most haircare products for instance should look something like this on the back ↓
Cosmetics batch code for understanding when a product was manufactured and how long it can safely be used.
Cosmetics Product Batch Code
  • Head to this cosmetic calculator and input the item’s brand + batch code. This calculator is a fabulous resource that provides the product’s manufacture date and general shelf life. It also gives you a thumbs up or down on usage depending how the two dates align.

The Bottom Line

It is important to stay informed when shopping for cosmetic products. Remember to keep track of when you open products and double check ingredients. If in doubt, I always recommend shopping small with local salons or visiting reputable stores such as Sephora or Ulta. If you prefer to shop virtually, I have an online storefront full of my favorite products. Access it here.

If you have questions after reading or would like a personalized product consultation, get in touch here. From one beauty lover to another, let’s shop savvy.

Vanity House Beauty

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