BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Keeping up with the latest beauty trends is rarely a wallet-friendly endeavour, but you may want to think twice before spending your hard-earned money on cheap knockoffs.

Counterfeit cosmetics contain dangerous chemicals that cause adverse reactions to the skin and organs. Quite often it contains infection-causing bacteria that can lead to scarring, burning and disfigurement, and even fecal matter.

It’s fairly common to find local vendors selling imitation products in Brunei, which are commonly sourced from online marketplaces like AliExpress. These shady beauty deals are “posing a serious health risk”, said dermatologist Hanna Liew.

“We need to raise more awareness and find effective ways [to curb the popularity of imitation products] since new makeup trends are rising by the minute.”

A 2015 report by the European Union’s law enforcement agency found that 86 per cent of fake cosmetics are produced in mainland China and Hong Kong – with more than 90,000 ‘fakeups’ seized at a Chinese port in 2017.

In 2017 alone, Brunei’s Ministry of Health confiscated over 15,000 medicinal, health and beauty products.

Fakeup or makeup? Use At Your Own Risk

“Makeup. Definitely [buy] makeup,” said Anina Idaris, a government officer who learnt the hard way after trying a Kylie Jenner liquid lipstick knockoff a few years ago.

“I honestly wanted one because the colour looked so nice but it was, in my opinion, just too expensive. So when I saw a fake one, I thought, why not? The colour was gorgeous, so I thought I’d give it a try and see if I really like how it looks on my lips.”

After days of using the product, her lips were swollen and turned crusty.

When I woke up, my lips felt weird. I looked into the mirror and screamed. I cried and immediately wanted to see a doctor but I was too ashamed.

Another user of fake cosmetics, who asked not to be named, said she wears ‘fakeup’ products because they are much cheaper.

“I am aware of the chemicals that are put into these [counterfeit] products. I’ve used them for years and haven’t had any reactions,” said the 29-year old, who spends at least $100 every few months on knockoffs.

“With that amount, I can get a full range of products instead of just one or two items. One day, when I’m earning more, I’ll start purchasing authentic products. For now, just to keep up with the latest trends, I’ll [keep] purchasing fakes so I can look great.”

Some of these customers are young women who are unaware of the dangers and consequences of using counterfeit cosmetics.

High school student Aizzah Ali, a fan of imitation beauty products, said using them helps her keep up with the trends and fit in.

“I’m not earning any money yet and only receive a small allowance from my parents, so it’s the only way I can afford makeup.”

The 16-year old admitted she is unsure what counterfeits contain, and is just following what everybody else seems to be doing.

Politeknik Brunei student Alya Nabilah Hadi wants the latest products, but is only willing to get them at a fraction of the price.

“To be honest, my friends and I don’t really think about the side effects or what’s in these products. We want to look good. But now that I’m informed, it feels sickening to think that we’re putting feces or urine on our lips and faces.”

Customers looking through some counterfeit products. Photo: Hazimul Harun/The Scoop

‘Worrying Trend’

Patients are usually afraid to approach doctors when they experience adverse reactions to imitation products, according to Liew. “They’re ashamed to go out and prefer not to see or talk to anyone about it.”

Young girls are easily influenced and most are unaware of the dangers that lurk inside fake cosmetics, Liew added. “They see the latest trends and just want to get their hands on it. So when they see such cheap prices they may not think twice about its authenticity.”

Cosmetics vendor Bella — who only wanted to be identified by her first name — has been selling counterfeits “for years” and orders the goods online through websites such as AliExpress. She initially started buying them for her own use because authentic products too costly.

“When my family members heard about it, they wanted me to order for them too and eventually someone suggested I turn it into a business.”

A few months later Bella started selling imitation products and received an overwhelming response from customers, mainly teenagers.

“I wasn’t expecting such a huge demand at first and nowadays my customers ask me to order certain brands.”

Bella acknowledges the dangers of using fake cosmetics and said she warns her customers beforehand. “I myself wear some of the products and they haven’t had any effect on me. I haven’t received any complaints so I assume no one is affected as well.”

“Just like me, not everyone can afford the real thing. So I’ll [continue to] provide them with a cheaper alternative,” she said.

In 2017, the Ministry of Health confiscated over 15,000 medicinal, health and beauty products.

Cube stores have also proven to be a popular places to buy counterfeit cosmetics. Some owners have reported the sale of counterfeits to the authorities, unaware that they were being sold at their establishments.

“I only noticed when I did rounds to check what customers were offering and that’s when I saw them,” said cube store owner Chris, who requested his store to not be named.

“Honestly I’m not happy with it because I myself don’t believe in putting yourself at risk, particularly your health.”

“I wasn’t sure what to do at first because they are my customers and this is my business,” he said, adding that he hoped immediate action was taken after reporting the products to the relevant authorities.

Eve, a cube store owner from Tutong, has a strict ban on the sale of fake products at her establishment. “My store policy is to sell authentic and genuine products so I always make sure to monitor what my vendors bring in. I want customers to come in knowing they don’t have to question the authenticity of the products.”

“I would never want to bring in items that can harm or affect people’s health or wellbeing. We ourselves don’t want to be affected. This is a serious matter and shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Authentic products may cost more but contain ingredients that have been tested and declared safe for use. Photo: Hazimul Harun/The Scoop

Under the Medicines Order, it is compulsory for businesses, including online sellers, to register their products for testing before making them available for public sale. Those without a legal permit face a $5,000 fine and/or up to two years of imprisonment, although according to a 2018 news report, the Ministry of Health has yet to issue fines to any offender.

Stricter Rules Needed

Liew is calling for stricter rules to curb the import of counterfeit products. “With the influx of makeup trends, there’s no stopping the production of ‘fakeups’. There’s also no stopping impressionable young users or those unwilling to spend on authentic goods from buying these counterfeit products,” she said.

Liew said the fight against counterfeits should also extend to luxury goods. “If we contribute to this business, we’re not only hurting ourselves, but we’re also contributing to the black market, and that is another big issue.”

“Beauty trends come and go, but counterfeit makeup should never be in style.”

The Pharmaceutical Department under the Ministry of Health declined to comment on this story.