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Buying cosmetics online can be risky because the industry isn’t as strictly regulated as other businesses. Getty Images
  • A California woman was hospitalized earlier this month after using contaminated skin cream she purchased online.
  • Experts say cosmetics can pose health risks because they aren’t as strictly regulated as other products.
  • They add that online cosmetics can contain contaminants due to substandard manufacturing processes.
  • Experts recommend consumers purchase cosmetics from a company website or other reputable vendor.

Online cosmetics is big business.

Americans spend more than $12 billion per year on beauty and personal care products on the internet, according to global measurement company Nielsen.

But with the ease in finding cheaper skin care products and cosmetics online comes the dangers of a less regulated marketplace than your traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores.

Earlier this month, a California woman was hospitalized after being exposed to methylmercury in a Ponds-branded skin cream purchased online and imported from Mexico.

The skin cream, a knockoff of the actual Ponds-brand cream, contained more than 500 times the allowable level of mercury in a skin product.

This is not the first incident of a seemingly innocuous online purchase that was labeled with a reputable brand that has landed consumers in dangerous water.

A 2018 raid by the Los Angeles Police Department turned up $700,000 in counterfeit cosmetics that were contaminated with animal waste and known carcinogenic compounds such as arsenic — all labeled as popular brands like Urban Decay and Kylie Cosmetics.

Why cosmetics?

One problem is that “the cosmetic industry is less likely to be regulated because those products do not necessarily go through federal drug screening and approval,” Dr. Wendy Ng, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Orange County, California, told Healthline.

In addition, “online products can contain harmful contaminants, [since] the processes for manufacturing and packaging are not standardized nor reported,” she said.

Cosmetics can be expensive, so it might make sense that the ease of not leaving the house and scoring a deal on a supposedly name-brand product can tempt even the most stalwart consumers.

But the online marketplace is something of a Wild West of lesser-known purveyors of creams and cosmetics from all over the world that often lack the quality control that bigger name brands.

That’s before you get into the problem of counterfeits.

To put a finer point on it, the top 20 cosmetic brands accounted for 96 percent of all dollars spent at brick-and-mortar retailers in 2017 while those same brands only won a 14 percent share of online sales, according to Nielsen.

That speaks to a marketplace rife with a large volume of sellers and manufacturers not facing the same scrutiny top manufacturers do.

In the absence of strong federal regulations on all cosmetics, lesser known manufacturers can theoretically get away with more on a product-by-product basis.

One person familiar with the dangers and discrepancies among online health products is Meg Kramer, managing editor of CBD Hacker, a website covering cannabidiol news, science, and reviews.

CBD products have come under scrutiny recently as the marketplace has exploded with creams, oils, and tinctures containing the cannabis-derived product in an “essentially unregulated market,” she said.

“The main dangers when buying cosmetics or health products online are fraudulent products, counterfeit products, and adulterated products,” Kramer told Healthline.

“When there is a discrepancy between what’s on the label and what’s in the product, there’s always going to be a risk to consumers,” Kramer added. “The best-case scenario is that a consumer ends up paying too much for an inferior product. But the possible risks include anything from an allergic reaction to an unlisted ingredient to intoxication from an adulterant.”

“To avoid counterfeit or adulterated products online, consumers should buy health products or cosmetics directly from the manufacturer whenever possible,” Kramer advised. “Alternatively, they can purchase the products from a reputable vendor. Avoid purchasing cosmetics and health products from unregulated online marketplaces like auction sites.”

Here are a few additional pointers Kramer suggested:

  • Avoid companies that make outlandish claims about their products’ success.
  • Compare the product’s price to similar items from other manufacturers — much lower or higher could be a red flag.
  • If you try to contact the company’s customer service representatives, are they easy to reach? Are they pushy or impatient, or professional and helpful? Are they forthcoming with information, or are they vague and evasive?
  • Look at user reviews on other websites, not just the company’s product page. If there are negative reviews, look at how the company responds.

When it comes to skin creams, it also doesn’t hurt to consult your dermatologist or plastic surgeon before buying, Ng said. They can even help you source the product.

If you feel like you have purchased and used a faulty cosmetic product, call your doctor and alert the government, said Calloway Cook, founder of Illuminate Labs, a supplement company dedicated to rigorous testing and reporting of its supplement products through the U.S. Botanical Safety Laboratory.

“The very first thing a consumer should do if they feel they’ve been harmed by a health product is to report that product to MedWatch, the arm of the FDA dealing with consumer health complaints,” Cook told Healthline. “This will hopefully help prevent other consumers from being harmed in the near future.”

Those affected should seek medical attention.

“If they feel ill they should go do their doctor or the hospital for blood testing — heavy metal poisoning in the event of an acute consumption incident will be covered by most insurance,” Cook said.