Buying discounted sunscreen online? You might be getting a fake
Counterfeit sunscreen products sold online may lack a sunscreen filter, raising the risk of UV damage and skin cancer, doctors say.
SINGAPORE: Lured by discounts offered on an e-commerce platform, Mr Yen Feng decided to stock up on his favourite sunscreen online.
But after he received his order of the Biore UV Aqua Rich Essence, he found that the sunscreen's texture and colour were different from the same product he bought previously at official retailers.
While the yoga teacher initially wrote off the changes to different production batches, a video he came across comparing the different versions of the same product heightened his suspicions.
"Everything the woman said in the video was true for me. From the packaging to the font," Mr Feng, 42, told CNA.
Mr Feng, who also took to his Facebook page to share his findings, said: "A search on Google and several videos later, I went out to buy another tube from Guardian at full retail at S$18.90 to compare the two tubes.
"Suffice to say I am pretty convinced I’ve been applying fake sunscreen over the past six months."
A CNA check of the product listing on the Shopee e-commerce platform where Mr Feng bought his sunscreen from found that the majority of customers' reviews were positive. Only a handful of customers complained that the sunscreen was different from the ones they bought at retail shops.
As of Friday (Oct 21), the listing was no longer available. In a statement to CNA, Shopee said: "In line with our standard protocols we removed this listing from our platform as soon as it was flagged to us, and we are conducting a review of this listing with the seller."
The seller, who has a "preferred" label, remains on the platform with other skincare products listed for sale.
Mr Feng is not alone in his experience. Customers who have turned to e-commerce platforms hoping to snag a good deal for skincare products have also encountered what they believe to be fakes.
A housewife who wanted to be known as Ms Teo said she purchased skincare products under The Ordinary brand from an online platform. They were 30 per cent cheaper than the originals that her husband bought from the US.
She had been convinced by the online listing, which she said was “full of original images, convincing images, write-ups in the descriptions, good ratings”.
“Everything seemed legit,” she said. But the colour, consistency and smell of the products turned out different from the originals.
“I only used once and felt they were very 'off'. Luckily, I didn’t experience adverse reactions. But I also felt they did nothing for my skin,” the 30-year-old said.
Another user who went by the name Mary Ang took to Facebook last month to complain about counterfeit Kiehl's products that she bought online. She told CNA that she had ordered three Kiehl’s items from a local seller on Shopee.
Initially, Ms Ang said she was suspicious as the price was about 30 per cent cheaper than Kiehl’s official store, but decided to trust the platform and the seller, who had a high rating.
“On Aug 25, 2022, I received my order from Shopee and I found it is a fake product right after first use as I have been using Kiehl’s for very long time,” she said.
In reply to queries from CNA, Kiehl’s said it advises customers to buy directly from official stores and that it "cannot guarantee the authenticity and efficacy" of products bought from other online sites or unauthorised retailers.
SELLERS HAVE TO COMPLY WITH REGULATIONS: SHOPEE, HSA
CNA asked Shopee and rival e-commerce platform Lazada for the number of fraud complaints they have received and safeguards to prevent counterfeit products from being sold. Lazada declined to comment, while Shopee said the sale of such items was "strictly prohibited".
In a statement, Shopee said it requires sellers to comply with local regulations and its policies on prohibited items.
Shopee did not provide the number of fraud complaints it has received about skincare or sunscreen products being sold on its platform. But it said: "We take pre-emptive measures to intercept offending products from being listed on the platform, and we cooperate with local governments and health authorities to take down listings of products that are flagged.
Shopee added it has processes in place to encourage sellers to maintain high levels of customer satisfaction. Likewise, a seller penalty point system discourages them from violating policies.
"We would also like to encourage users to reach out to Shopee if they encounter similar listings on our platform,” it added. Users can report products they suspect to be counterfeit directly from any product listing's page.
The platform also offers the Shopee Mall and preferred sellers programmes.
The Shopee Mall label is reserved for brand owners and authorised distributors, where products are guaranteed to be authentic. A seller has to submit relevant documents, such as an authorisation letter from the brand. Lazada's equivalent is the LazMall programme.
The preferred sellers programme, on the other hand, is for sellers who are deemed to have provided an "enhanced shopping experience", according to the Shopee website. This is based on ratings, customer service quality and track record in shipping orders quickly and efficiently. Lazada has a similar programme.
In response to CNA's queries, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA), which regulates sunscreen as cosmetic products, said it has not received complaints or feedback about this in the past two years.
The agency said it will work with product owners to investigate any complaints and take action if there are safety concerns.
"When deemed necessary, HSA may direct sellers or suppliers to remove the cosmetic product from the market and members of the public will also be alerted on harmful products," a spokesperson said.
COMPLAINTS OF SUNBURNS AFTER USING COUNTERFEIT PRODUCTS
Kao Singapore, which manages the Biore brand here, told CNA that counterfeit Biore UV Aqua Rich Essence products cost the company an estimated S$85,000 in lost sales in Singapore this year alone.
"We have received consumer enquiries to confirm if the products they purchased are original or counterfeit and confirmed that they are counterfeit," said Biore brand manager Ray Lim.
"Some of these consumers have (given) feedback that they experienced sunburn after using the counterfeit products.”
Mr Lim said that some customers buy fake products thinking they are parallel imports.
"Kao Singapore is monitoring counterfeit products in the market, and taking appropriate actions in cooperation with headquarters in Japan when it detects and receives enquiries," he said.
The company is also considering legal action against these copyright infringements, he added.
Asked if it was possible to identify fakes by their batch number, Mr Lim said that both real and counterfeit products had such codes on the tube's edge.
The best way to avoid counterfeits, according to Mr Lim, was to buy from authorised distributors and official stores, rather than resellers.
However, even this requires some vigilance on the consumer’s part. Some resellers use the same images as official stores, so customers need to check the store's name instead of relying on photos, Mr Lim said.
Neoasia, an authorised distributor of Heliocare in Singapore, said users can identify if the products they have purchased are authentic.
Heliocare products come with a unique QR code that users can scan to verify their authenticity. The brand specialises in sunscreen products.
A Neoasia spokesperson said that consumers should purchase from authorised sources as there were other factors to consider even if the product appeared identical, such as how the product was stored or handled.
DOCTORS WEIGH IN
Those who apply fake sunscreen are not only at risk of having unapproved ingredients on their skin, counterfeit sunscreen may well lack the sun protection that genuine products provide.
Doctors whom CNA spoke to said there were no sure ways to tell the authenticity of the product even after it is applied.
Over the past two years, aesthetic doctor Rachel Ho has seen three female patients who used fake sunscreen. Two of them had unwittingly purchased counterfeits from online third-party retailers.
Some patients realised the products were counterfeit after noticing that the sunscreen or its packaging had a different colour, consistency or smell, Dr Ho said. Others found they had sunburns or their hyperpigmentation worsened despite using the products.
"Counterfeit, imitations of sunscreens by recognised brands are becoming more accessible," said Dr Ho, who is the medical director of La Clinic. “For consumers shopping online, it can be difficult for them to verify the authenticity of these products, and they may be lured by the comparatively lower prices of these counterfeit products."
Dr Ho, who runs an educational blog on the science behind skincare and related trends, said that counterfeit products may lack a sunscreen filter, raising the risk of UV damage and skin cancer.
Fake products may also contain harmful ingredients such as mercury.
"Counterfeit skincare is unlikely to have undergone safety tests, and the true ingredients may be obscured in the ingredient list that’s printed on the product packaging," added Dr Ho.
Dr Angeline Yong, medical director at Angeline Yong Dermatology, said that users of fake sunscreen may be lulled into a "false sense of protection" while not receiving adequate protection.
Differentiating real and fake sunscreen by outcome alone can be challenging, noted Dr Yong, who is also a consultant dermatologist. While users of fake sunscreen may get sunburns, the same could happen to those who use authentic sunscreen incorrectly or inadequately.
Users who fail to reapply sunscreen every two to three hours while in the sun, use sunscreen that washes off during watersports or apply an insufficient layer of sunscreen could similarly suffer the sun's ill effects.
Another dermatologist advised users to look at a sunscreen's ingredients, sun protection factor, UVA protection rating – known as PA on most packaging – as well as manufacturing and expiry dates.
The information section should have clear instructions for usage and no grammatical mistakes, said Dr Lynn Chiam of the Children & Adult Skin Hair Laser Clinic.
All three doctors pointed to buying from reputable sources as the best way to avoid fakes.
And that is what Mr Feng intends to do. He plans to skip the online deals and only buy from official retailers from now on.
"I will wait for Guardian and Watsons to have sale," he said.