Ugly side of beauty business: Some products not what they seem, experts say

SAN DIEGO, Calif. - Consumers should watch out for diverted or black market hair care products that have the potential to be dangerous and will cost more, said experts at one company.

John Paul Mitchell Systems, whose products are commonly called Paul Mitchell, told Scripps sister station Team 10 in San Diego there is a problem with how its products appear in retail stores.

"It's either counterfeit, tampered with or black market," said Robert Cromeans, the company's global artistic director and a salon owner. "We don't sell to these outlets. We only sell to salons like mine or around the world."

But Team 10 found Paul Mitchell products sold in Target, CVS and Walgreens.

"The product is not going to be first-quality," said Vikki Bresnahan, the company's director of brand protection.

Bresnahan said Paul Mitchell contracts with distributors that only work within the professional hair care industry. The distributors then sell the products to salons.

Somewhere in the chain, Bresnahan said a wholesaler gets involved and buys the product in what the company calls a "back door deal." The product then ends up on shelves in retail stores, where it should never be, Bresnahan said.

If the company's retail investigators keep finding bottles in a store, they will track it back to the distributor and fine the distributor.

Bresnahan said there are 25 distributors in North America, and 90 percent of them have been fined. Over the last eight years, she said there have been thousands of fines, and hundreds of thousands of dollars paid.

There also is a chance the product could be counterfeit if not bought at a salon. Bresnahan pointed to a case that got some publicity in Florida in 2003, when a counterfeit product was found to have high levels of bacteria.

"Could that product have gotten into a cut or someone's eye, and infection could have occurred," Bresnahan said. "The levels of bacteria (in the counterfeit product) were considered too numerous to count."

Some women will spend more than $40,000 on hair care in their lifetimes, according to one study by OnePoll. And sometimes women may think they are saving money by buying Paul Mitchell products in places other than salons, but that is not the case, Bresnahan said.

"It's more expensive from that mass market retailer because the product has to change hands so many times to get there, and everyone needs a cut," Bresnahan said. She added it could cost between 50 cents and $5 more at retail stores than at certified salons.

Team 10 did a test on that statement to compare prices. The Paul Mitchell Color Protect Shampoo cost $21.89 at a certified salon, while it cost nearly a dollar more at a retail store.

Team 10 talked to shoppers who said they thought products at retail stores were legitimate.

"It's the Paul Mitchell brand, because it has the trademark on it and everything," said one shopper.

Bresnahan and Cromeans said the best way to protect your hair, health and wallet is to buy their company's product from a certified salon.

Team 10 contacted Target, CVS and Walgreens for this story.

A public relations firm for Target said, "It is Target's policy not to comment on speculation."

The director of public relations for CVS sent 10News the following statement:

All hair care products we offer for sale are purchased -- and are being sold -- lawfully under all applicable laws. These are genuine products in good and saleable condition.  CVS/pharmacy is committed to offering its customers one-stop beauty shopping -- for everything from high-performance skincare exclusives to seasonal color trends and salon-quality hair care -- all under the CVS Beauty Guarantee, which offers 100 percent money back refunds on all beauty products for any reason.

Walgreens sent an email to 10News stating, "The product we're selling is authentic and purchased legally on the open market from secondary source distributors."

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