How To Spot Fake Salon Products At The Drugstore

All about the gray market--and four ways to avoid buying into it.

Halloween may be over, but the dark side of beauty--the gray market--is very much alive.

Imagine this: you’ve got a fabulous new cut and color--and with any new style, new products are necessary. But instead of purchasing them from the salon directly, you visit your local drugstore or grocery, or a site like Amazon or Beauty.com.

Here’s the thing: professional products are only guaranteed genuine when sold in salons.

Do you really want to spend your cash on a possibly inauthentic product? Shouldn’t there be a standard for what one puts on their skin and hair? Before we judge, let’s level: we’ve ALL done this. Why? Because, sometimes that deal for Moroccanoil on Hautelook is so grand our little hair-loving hearts skip a beat. And why shouldn’t they? Everyone stocks the same products, right? The sad truth is no, they do not.

Perhaps drugstore or online-purchased products have worked (kind of), perhaps they’ve been lackluster, and maybe you thought the sub-par performance was due to your own styling abilities... Either way, as an intelligent consumer, you deserve to know about the gray market.

So, What Is The Gray Market?

The gray market includes counterfeit, stolen, compromised, diverted, or outdated products that are legally sold without guaranteed authenticity.

I’m talking about any professional products: Paul Mitchell, Bumble and bumble, Redken, Aveda, Big Sexy Hair, Schwartzkopf, Matrix, Sebastian--the list could go on and on.

How Does It Work?

Companies sell bulk product to a distributor like CVS, Target, or Walgreens and let products sit within improper conditions until bar codes have expired. Once expired, retailers slap new bar codes onto products, regardless of the products' sensitivity to environment and temperature. Other times, products purchased in one country will be up-sold to another country.

Worse, an estimated 10% of failing salons sell unsold merchandise or old containers, which may then be recycled, reprinted, or diluted with alcohol or water, and sold for full price.

But don’t take my word for it. I asked friends in Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago, and New York to conduct a mini sample survey. Participants went to random local drugstores and took photos of professional hair products without knowing why I wanted the information.

Then I cross-referenced each price with an authorized salon. EVERY drugstore retailer marked up their prices by a maximum of $6, making them more expensive than any professional salon. Amazon was a close second, on average $4 more than any salon. Add in the shipping, and, well….enough said.

How To Tell If A Product Is Authentic

  1. Check differences in logo, ingredients, and instructions. Protect yourself by printing necessary criteria prior to purchase.
  2. Counterfeit products have a sticker on top of the printed bar code. Also, if a batch code is missing or scratched off the bottom, it’s a fake.
  3. Distributors care how product appears to the general public: if part of the line is missing, damaged, dirty, or un-replenished, look elsewhere.
  4. Super high or deeply discounted prices. Sellers either want to move this product or up-charge it make it worth their while.

Who Does the Gray Market Actually Hurt?

First, the gray market hurts your hairstylist. A great hairdresser goes above and beyond for each of their clients, and recommends professional products when necessary. I’m known for making creative colors last FOREVER--so, of course I recommend sulfate-free, color-depositing product (and for the most creative clients--I hand-make them). I’d hate for any clients’ hard-earned color to fade quickly due to a knockoff product.

Last, you deserve the best price and quality. When it comes down to it, protect your health, wallet, and hair by only purchasing professional products from a salon or professional hairdresser. Period.

  • Have you bought a salon product outside of the salon and been burned?
  • Which pharmacies and big box stores have you spotted gray market products at?
  • What tips do you have for spotting a fake?