The Daily Mail has a big story today warning of the risks of counterfeit cosmetics. This is the paper that disgracefully talked up the MMR story until a substantial proportion of the population were failing to get their vaccinated against a very nasty and sometimes fatal disease. Their journalistic standards are so low that I would advise not so much taking what they say with a pinch of salt as ignoring it altogether. But unfortunately on this issue they almost have a point.
First off, what they have got wrong. In general there are no risks of counterfeit cosmetics to the consumer. The counterfeiters are stealing the intellectual property of the brand holders. This has been built up with great expenditure of time and money and is a thoroughly wrong thing to do. The standards that the counterfeiters apply to their production is also a worry – though there is no particular incentive for the people producing the counterfeits to do anything dangerous. Indeed, the less they deviate from industry standard techniques the more likely they are to get away with it for longer.
As the objective is to pocket undeserved cash, this is what they generally do.
But there are small companies, and even individuals, who operate on a very small scale in inadequate facilities who don’t trouble to make things properly and in all likelihood wouldn’t even know how to in the first place. This is a very small proportion of the overall counterfeit market, but it does exist and much as I hate to say it the Daily Mail is right to highlight the risks this poses. The presence of toxic ingredients like cyanide and arsenic is a bit of a red herring. If you are making stuff in a small unit with poor ventilation next to a metal foundry you might get some contamination. But this is not even then very likely to reach the kind of level that might pose a risk to end users. Contamination with rat droppings is much more likely, and frankly bad enough.
The other risks of counterfeit cosmetics is lack of control of ingredients that should only be used at a low level. Preservatives are the big danger here. Exposure to high levels of these could induce allergic reactions, which is pretty bad.
The point to bear in mind though is that the problem here is the small scale of operation and the ignorance of the operators. As Terry Pratchett used to say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but a complete lack of knowledge is no picnic either. This doesn’t apply just to counterfeiting, but also to very small brands. Some people set themselves up in this business with not the slightest clue as to what they should do to make sure their products are safe for the end users. If you have never heard of a company before and they seem to have a very low profile, it is probably a good idea to be cautious.