PSA: Don't Buy Professional Beauty Products From Retail Stores. Just Don't.

by Sara Farrell Baker
Originally Published: 
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“Sold Only in Professional Salons” is a phrase commonly printed on the labels of high-end beauty products. Some brands — whether it’s hair care, skin care, or makeup — manufacture their products to be sold to consumers in an environment where they will have access to licensed professionals ready to answer any questions or concerns about individual products. But sometimes, these products can be found in the aisles of big-box retailers like Target, online on Amazon, or on the shelves of pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS. And in these cases it is, indeed, buyer beware.

This is the practice of diversion, otherwise known as gray-market sales, and it happens when a retailer obtains product for resale from someone other than the intended distributor. Because the manufacturer’s distributor is not selling the product, they cannot guarantee its performance. Often, consumers are purchasing old, damaged, or even counterfeit goods. And in the end, the consumer suffers.

Kathryn LaRusso, Design Team Member for Wella Professionals and recent winner of their award for Best Educator in North America, is passionate about educating customers and clients on what they are giving up when they purchase diverted products.

“They are sacrificing a professional recommendation from their knowledgeable technician,” says LaRusso. “A licensed technician can accurately recommend the best products for their guest, and this happens during the consultation when open-ended questions are asked to discover any ‘problems’ the guest may be experiencing, whether that’s color fading, scalp sensitivities, lack of volume, etc. When consumers purchase products at a discount store, they are forgoing a customized hair care regimen that is best suited for their needs.”

Because the retailers aren’t getting the product direct from the manufacturer, LaRusso says there’s a risk that a diverted product is a contaminated product. Old or expired products are breeding grounds for bacteria, and believe me, you do not want to slather your face with a scrub of nastiness and germs. Just google “bacterial skin infection” if you don’t believe me.

“Quite often salon products that are diverted are past their expiration, or empty bottles are being refilled with a cheaper product, which all can be contaminated. These contaminated products may contain bacteria which can cause infection and irritation or even hair loss.” Just imagine one day returning to the same retailer to pick up your antibiotic prescription for a skin infection. Oh, the irony.

Expiration dates are extremely important when it comes to hair and skin care products. I cringe when a friend giggles over how long she has used the same tube of mascara. Then I smack it out of her hand because I’m a good friend and friends don’t let friends risk blindness from crumbs of 4-year-old mascara flaking off into their eye.

LaRusso warns of the risks associated with expired products, reminding us that most will have a shelf life printed on the bottle in the form of a small icon with a number and the letter M inside. For example, a product with a 3M label means the consumer has three months before the product is expired. “This icon starts as soon as the consumer uses the product (not when purchased). Makeup ranges from three months to two years depending on the product,” LaRusso says.

When you, the consumer, spot your favorite salon-quality shampoo while you’re picking up milk and tampons, you may automatically assume you are getting the product at a discount. But LaRusso stresses that this is not the case. In fact, the markup tends to be even higher at retailers than a professional salon because the discount stores are buying the products as a third party. Consumer Affairs conducted an experiment in 2008, buying several professional products from Target and then comparing their prices and condition to the same products sold in licensed salons. They found that each of the products purchased at Target was more expensive by as much as 40%.

Diverted products can also have physical signs of their expiration or contamination, as well. These can include dirty or dented packaging, old packaging the manufacturer no longer uses, sticker barcodes over the original barcodes that are normally printed directly on the packaging, and missing batch codes. The latter can be the most harmful to the consumer in the case of a recall since you wouldn’t be able to look up the batch of your product to see if it’s included.

Even a short foray into diverted or expired products can do long-lasting damage to your hair and skin, especially in cases where infection occurs. Do yourself a few big favors and shop smart, speak with a salon professional when picking out products, and take note of when you open new products so you can toss them at the appropriate time.

Your skin and hair, along with your pocketbook, will thank me.

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