‘Convenience at a risk’: When buying cosmetics online turns ugly

‘Convenience at a risk’: When buying cosmetics online turns ugly

Authorities advise discretion in the face of “widespread circulation” online of cosmetic products - which, contaminated or otherwise, are in fact not required to undergo testing before hitting the market in Singapore.

SINGAPORE: When Shikin first started using the Han’s cosmetic brand back in 2014, it made her “skin absolutely flawless”. She was pregnant then, and trusted the online seller who insisted the products were “original and mercury-free”.

Except they weren’t. The local Health Sciences Authority (HSA) later reported Han’s as containing potent, undeclared ingredients - including mercury, a toxic substance banned in cosmetics for its ability to cause skin problems and at worst, organ damage.

“After I stopped, a few weeks later my skin became worse than it ever was before,” Shikin recalled. “Thankfully there were no adverse health effects, my skin slowly recovered... and my kid turned out okay.”

Yet contaminated cosmetics like these persist online. Last Wednesday (June 7) HSA announced a skincare product under the Tati brand had been banned for sale in Singapore for having mercury levels 20,000 times over the limit. It had been similarly touted on various online platforms as free of harmful chemicals.

HSA said its surveillance of these online platforms over the last two months had unearthed “widespread circulation” of adulterated cosmetics, with over 200 sellers of the Tati product as well as one Royal Expert Whitening Cream, which earlier in May had also been reported as containing high levels of mercury.

All these offending postings have been removed as of Thursday (June 15), said an HSA spokesperson, from online sales platforms such as social media, blogs, online discussion forums and consumer-to-consumer websites.

Tati skincare
The Tati Skin Care 5 in 1 cosmetic set, found to contain very high levels of mercury (Photo: HSA)


Despite her close shave - and the awareness that tainted products are often hawked on the Internet - Shikin continues to shop for makeup, skincare and cosmetic lenses on an extensive list of online portals including the Carousell marketplace and a host of Instagram accounts.

“Sometimes the items that you want aren’t at physical stores. And you can’t get some stuff locally,” she explained. “And with online shopping you can do ‘own time, own target’ browsing and in the comfort of your own home.”

Social media assistant Maria Braberry, who frequents the Qoo10 online marketplace for mostly skincare and toiletries, agreed. “Some indie brands and other smaller Korean or Japanese brands either aren't sold here or are quite a bit more affordable online. There's also the convenience of having it delivered to my doorstep.”

But “it’s convenience at a risk, as with all online shopping”, said Shikin, 31. “If you’re the type who can’t wait and you’re ‘OCD’ about the exact quality of the entire item, online is not the way.”

According to HSA, cosmetic products are not required to undergo testing by the authority before their supply in Singapore. Dealers must notify HSA before placing their products on the market, but this is not a form of approval, certification or registration.

Companies or individuals who manufacture, import and sell cosmetics have to ensure they comply with regulations - and it is them who are directly responsible for the safety of their products, said a spokesperson.

royal expert whitening cream packaging
Royal Expert Whitening Cream, touted to help whiten skin and reduce wrinkles (Photos: HSA)


For both Braberry and Shikin, “safety” lies in reviews left by other buyers.

“I only buy from sellers with high ratings. Thus far I haven't been disappointed,” said Braberry. “I wouldn't buy products with a bad reputation. I'm not that adventurous.”

“I haven't really come across any dodgy sellers because most sites like Qoo10 and eBay filter search results and show up the most reputable sellers first. Most scammers don't last long.”

But she added: “You shouldn't trust the claims on the packaging or the online description even with major ‘reputed’ brands.”

The best way, she said, is to be educated on ingredients and “know exactly” what you’re getting, with the help of websites like cosdna.com.

Shikin’s advice was to suss out the price of the item. “If it is way too cheap, you know they are ‘inspired by’ products - in other words, still fake goods. It’s just a nicer way of putting it.”

“With these, you don’t know what’s the content.”

HSA said consumers should “exercise discretion” when purchasing cosmetic products from online sources.

“The dangers of purchasing online include the possible inauthenticity of information on the source of the products, and the conditions under which the products were manufactured and stored,” said a spokesperson. “The products could also potentially be counterfeits or adulterated with undeclared potent ingredients.”

“When possible, they should purchase them from reliable and reputable sources,” said the spokesperson. “Unlike other commodities, the use of poor quality and falsely labelled health products including cosmetics, can cause serious health effects.”

Meiyong cosmetic cream
Another example of a cosmetic product flagged by HSA (Photo: HSA)


To monitor product safety, HSA said it has in place a “post-market surveillance system” which includes sampling and testing for potentially harmful ingredients on “a risk-based approach”.

Separately, the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) also commissions several product tests every year, said executive director Loy York Jiun.

The two bodies may then share information with each other leading to action being undertaken, such as the issuing of press releases and advisories to alert the public and the removal of online listings of the adulterated product.

HSA also said it works regularly with web administrators of online sales platforms to screen and remove affected postings and to explore opportunities for joint educational and awareness initiatives.

A spokesperson for eBay said the e-commerce giant was in “regular contact” with HSA, although it has not received any specific requests regarding cosmetics recently.

“eBay has in place a range of measures it can take - anything from account restrictions and suspicions, to working directly with law enforcement,” he said.

Carousell also said it had a close working relationship with HSA. “Where available, we will provide the advisory notice issued by HSA to the (offending) sellers when we remove their products,” said a spokesperson.

“We have internal systems in place to identify potentially risky sellers, by considering multiple data points,” he added. “Our community members are encouraged to report any suspicious behaviour or prohibited items to us, so that our team can review the listings and act to protect the community against bad users.”

“In general, we cooperate with regulatory and enforcement agencies when needed, so that Carousell remains a safe environment for our community."