While on vacation, I realized I had forgotten one of my nightly skincare products at home. I quickly jumped online and it arrived two days later. Easy peasy, right?
However, when I used the cream, the texture was different. Despite that I did not like how this product now felt on my face, I didn’t give it much thought and assumed that the company must have changed their formula slightly. But a few days after returning home, I had a facial and mentioned the formula change to my aesthetician. She promptly told me that no changes had been made to the formulation and asked if I bought it directly from the company’s website. When I told her that I bought it from whichever online seller had offered it for the least amount of money (duh!), she cautioned me against doing that and informed me about the fraudulent skincare products being sold online. Furthermore, she told me that the same was happening with nutritional supplements—something that I was completely unaware of!
My first experience with fraudulent online purchases happened about a year ago, just before the Solar Eclipse. Like most of us in Boulder, I had gone online to purchase the NASA approved glasses for our family. But only a few days before the Eclipse, I received an email from Amazon stating that my money had been refunded because they had reason to believe that our glasses were not actually NASA certified and could cause damage to our eyes if we looked directly at the sun during the Eclipse. YIKES! That is scary!
And now I was learning that the same thing was happening to the products we apply to our skin and the supplements we ingest to better our heath! By buying online, we are opening ourselves up to a huge market of potentially fraudulent and dangerous products that are being sold as if they are the products that we know and trust.
As someone who LOVES to shop—and does more than her fair share of shopping online—I needed to understand what I should and should not continue to purchase online. I am sharing this information here with you in the hopes that it will allow you to make the best decisions for yourself and your family as well.
Although it appears from my research that nearly ANYTHING can be made counterfeit and sold as the real thing (see this story as an example of the lengths counterfeiters will go to), it seems to me that we should be most concerned about the products that we put on and in our bodies. Is anything really gonna happen if my TOMS shoes are actually a knockoff and I sport them without knowing so? Of course not. But does it worry me to swallow a supplement that may not actually contain what I believe it does. You betcha!
As far as fraudulent supplements are concerned, they can show up in several forms:
- Counterfeit Products
- Expired Products
- Stolen Products
Counterfeit supplements are those that masquerade as respected products but usually at a grossly discounted cost. Manufacturers often accomplish this by copying trusted companies’ branding and packaging.
This means that you are purchasing an unknown product with a fake label that was designed to look exactly like the professional-quality product you were expecting to receive.
While these supplements may look just like their more expensive counterparts, what you’ll get for the cheaper price tag is far from worth what you’ll risk by taking it. At best, you’ll buy a sub-par product or one with too little of the ingredient you’re seeking. At worst, you’ll end up ingesting a combination of unidentified ingredients that could cause you harm.
Some respectable brands will host bulk sales of products that are nearing expiration with the intention of moving out product before newer batches come in. However, those who capitalize on expired products may purchase them, repackage them, and assign “new” (fake) expiration dates to them.
In another scenario, when expired products (generally expensive ones) are thrown out by a respected company, they may get stolen (from the trash!) by people with the intent to do just this.
This means that you think you are getting a good deal on a reputable supplement, but instead you are getting a discarded and/or expired version of that product.
In this scenario, product is actually stolen from reputable brands. This takes place in much the same way it does in other industries – maybe a truck gets ransacked while in transport, a warehouse gets broken into, or a deceitful employee swipes product from their employer’s shelves.
This means that even good products that started from honest beginnings are now at risk, since they are no longer being monitored for safety and quality.
Former special agent and forensic investigator for the U.S. FDA, Gary Collins, has made it his mission to unearth the intricacies of these fraudulent activities and he goes into even greater detail in his article that you can access here.
We’ve all heard the term “buyer beware”. Now more than ever, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are informed consumers. The more research I did on this topic, the more I realized what a serious issue this really has become. As an inherently trusting and honest person, I became saddened by the fact that there are people “out there” who make money by deceiving, misleading, and potentially harming others. But most of all, I realized how confusing this could be for the average consumer who is purchasing supplements. My goal is to help you understand (as best as I can understand it myself) where the biggest potential risks are.
- Beware of Buying from Websites that Sell Supplements Fulfilled by Third-Party Sellers. Let’s start with Amazon. Now, I LOVE Amazon and while Amazon is great for many things, I would caution you from purchasing most supplements from Amazon after doing my research (there is one caveat to this, mentioned below). The fact is, Amazon is not intending or willingly allowing fraudulent supplement sales to happen. It is simply impossible for them to police every third-party seller’s products. It is such a massive industry that there is no regulation in place for them to prevent fake products (counterfeit, expired, stolen) from being sold, and even fake reviews from being posted. In addition, even if you are getting the “real” product, you don’t know the regulation these sellers follow regarding storage and transport. Are the supplements stored in a hot and humid warehouse? Are they following the companies recommended shipping times and procedures? There are just too many unknowns.
What about other online sites such as VitaCost.com, iHerb.com and PureFormulas.com? According to sources (such as here and here) , it is risky to purchase from these online sites for many of the same reasons as Amazon. They are not guaranteeing that they purchase their supplements directly from the manufacturer, but seem to purchase from unregulated third-parties as well.
These websites also sell products that are only supposed to be sold through healthcare professionals—specifically brands that only allow healthcare professionals to sell their products online to their clients through a password-protected website (more on this below). The fact that these supplement brands are being sold to anyone on these websites makes the products questionable. Do your research and decide how comfortable you feel with these practices.
- Question the Cost. We all love a great deal. But if a supplement costs half the price that the manufacturer themselves lists it for, there is probably a reason. Most sellers purchase supplements at a 25-45% discount from the manufacturer, so when things are being sold for 25- 45% off, that could be a red flag. Essentially that would mean the seller is making no money (or almost no money) at all…
- Read Reviews. The truth is, reviews can be tricky with supplements. Supplements may take weeks to months to create a change in one’s heath and it’s therefore possible to be taking something fake for a while without someone noticing. Or maybe one simply concludes that the product didn’t work for them—not knowing that was actually because it was expired, for example. Or maybe the seller hired people to write fake reviews, making them appear like a trusted seller. It’s really quite crazy what is being done out there!
In addition, most of us swallow our supplements whole, and therefore we don’t have factors like smell or texture for comparison like we would with other products, such as skincare. After my aesthetician opened my eyes to this topic, I actually read the Amazon reviews on one of my products and was shocked. As you can see here, about 50% of the reviews are great and 50% actually question if the product is a sham! My guess is this is because different sellers fulfill each purchase. Some people may receive the real product, while others seem to be certain that they did not!
What You Can Do to Ensure You are Purchasing Safe Supplements
- Buy Directly from Reputable Supplement Companies. You can purchase from reputable supplement manufacturers directly through their own individual websites. In this scenario, you ensure that you are getting the manufacturer’s own product.
- Buy Online from Amazon ONLY IF the Manufacturer is the Seller. For example, with this Dr Schultze product, Dr Schultze is the manufacturer and the seller. Whereas with this Thorne product, Thorne is the manufacturer but it is being sold by iServe, an unknown third-party, which may or may not be legitimate.
- Buy from Small, Local Stores. In the writing of this blog post, we called Pharmaca and Natural Grocers and were openly given the information that they purchase their supplements direct from the manufacturer or from their local Denver distributor.
What is a distributor? To help you understand how this works, a distributor is a larger company that stocks multiple supplement brands, which they purchase from each manufacturer directly. As an authorized reseller, a distributor may carry several professional brands such as Klaire Labs, Designs for Health, Vital Nutrients and Integrative Therapeutics, for example. An analogy for a supplement distributor would be sort-of like buying from Nordstrom. Nordstrom sells various brands such as Lucky Brand, Free People, Joes, Nike, etc. You can buy all of these brands from their individual stores–or from Nordstrom, who carries many brands but also buys them directly from each manufacturer.
The important part of buying locally is understanding that not all brick-and-mortar stores are safe places to buy from. Whole Foods would not speak with us about this, so I am unsure of their policies. (Does anyone know?) You can read here about the problems found with supplements sold at Walmart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens stores.
- Buy from Your Healthcare Professionals. Although what I am about to say is likely true for many health professionals, I can only speak for our office. Any supplement we stock at our office has come from the product’s manufacturer—either directly from the company themselves or from one of our trusted distributors, as explained above. Furthermore, we go the extra mile of ordering to ensure that supplements are never sitting in a hot truck over a weekend (for example) and we follow the manufacturers shipping recommendations for each product’s potency and viability (shipping on ice, overnight etc.).
- Buy from Your Health Professionals Online Store. We have two online stores that allow you to purchase safe supplements and I will explain each below.
Our Fullscript Online store is a distributor, as explained above. They supply multiple brands so that our clients can purchase from several companies at once (usually saving shipping fees) and they get each brand that they sell from the manufacturer directly.
Our Online Xymogen e-store works a bit differently. Xymogen only sells their own products and our e-store will direct you back to Xymogen’s own website, so you always know that your supplements come directly from them. Xymogen is so rigorous with their supplement standards that you will be asked for a practitioner referral code when you set up your account and they track the healthcare practitioner who is selling to their clients. So, if you ever see Xymogen being sold on another website, you can guarantee it is fake—or being illegally sold. If Xymogen sees their products being sold on other websites, they personally purchase them, track them, and shut them down.
- Purchase from Healthcare Practitioners who Private Label Supplements. This essentially means that a practitioner sells a specific supplement line, but with their own product names and personalized label. While there are many out there and I cannot vouch for all of them, I have many practitioner friends who do this and sell safe private-labeled supplements from one or two trusted manufacturers.
What Do You Do if You Suspect That You’ve Bought an Unsafe Supplement?
If you are skeptical about a dietary supplement you’ve taken or come across, don’t hesitate to speak up. The FDA encourages consumers (and industry professionals) to report any suspicious activity or questionable products via their Safety Reporting Portal.
Additionally, the FDA keeps a current list of known Tainted Dietary Supplements.
Now, we’d love to hear from you! Please share what you know and what your experience has been….
- Were you aware about this issue with many online supplement retailers?
- Have you ever purchased a product that you believe was fraudulent?
- Are you familiar with some of these “riskier websites”?
- Do you know of other things that consumers should look out for… or other ways they can protect themselves?
Sources and Further Reading