TAMPA, Fla. -- It may seem more convenient to grab your salon brand shampoo when you are out at your favorite grocery or drug store. You may even be able to get a great deal on some online.
But the I-Team has discovered some pretty serious downsides to that convenience.
Salon brand shampoos can cost more per ounce than top-shelf liquors.
They're supposed to be sold only in salons, but are increasingly found in discount stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, and online.
Typically, high-end manufacturers don't sell their salon products directly to stores, so stores buy from third-party companies that find the products in other ways.
“They have like a whole list of products that they want. The numbers, the quantities that they want…everything specifically,” said salon owner Brandon Laxton. “They say: ‘Hey, I'll give you a hundred dollars if you place this order for me. Don't even open it. I'll come pick it up right at your back door when it arrives.'"
It's not illegal, but diversion violates salons' contracts with suppliers, so buyers and sellers keep deals a secret.
Reporters learned that Elite Beauty International sells millions of dollars a year in salon products from manufacturers like Paul Mitchell, Redken and other brands.
Documents found in a dumpster, showed Elite bought and sold from a variety of sources, from small salons to major licensed distributors.
An email, also found in Elite’s dumpster, said a “pallet of American Crew” would be shipped from the site of a New York State mini-warehouse after a wire transfer arrived.
Wire transfer receipts showed Elite wired up to $46,000 to vendors in several states for products.
Because the products change hands so many times before they end up on store shelves, the prices in retail stores are often higher than their prices in salons.
“Because it's changed hands so many times, the price goes up and up and up,” said Tanya Ozmendez, who is a national trainer for Paul Mitchell.
The I-Team also found evidence that some of the products Elite sold to grocery stores were returned because they were damaged or out of date.
“This bottle is from 2008,” Laxton said, looking at a bottle of hairspray reporters found in Elite’s dumpster.
“The shelf life of it can't be that long, and they're paying extra on top of what we would normally sell it for--for an old product,” Laxton said.
University of South Florida Chemistry professor Dr. Jim Leahy says beauty products can break down in time and heat.
“It might sit in a warehouse where it gets to 150 degrees and it might be sitting there for longer than five years,” he said.
We showed him shampoo purchased from a grocery store that appeared quite different in appearance and fragrance from the same product from a salon.
Leahy pointed out that the batch number had been removed from the bottom of the grocery store shampoo. The product inside was quite different too.
“You see white solid clumps,” Leahy said, after pouring the grocery store brand in a beaker. “If it's solidified like that, now you're gonna have those chunks of whatever it is in your hair.”
Experts say old shampoo can acidify, making hair more likely to tangle and tear.
And Leahy said that if liquids evaporate over time, “They might leave behind some sort of residue that could irritate some people.”
Shampoo tested by Paul Mitchell obtained from a source other than a salon tested positive for bacteria, which could cause infections.
Salon brand diverters also typically will remove batch numbers from bottles, making it difficult for manufacturers to track diverted shampoo.
At the same time, this prevents consumers from recognizing which products are affected in the case of a recall.
Counterfeit goods can also make their way into the gray market.
On the Chinese commerce site Alibaba, multiple vendors offered to sell bottles of fake salon brand shampoo by the thousand, at a fraction of the cost of the real thing.
We received a quote for 1,000 bottles of a liter of Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Shampoo for $1.95 per unit. The suggested retail price of that item is $32.50.
“The images you are seeing, in most cases, are pulled from our website, but then the product that you ordered comes and it looks nothing like it. It doesn't perform like it. It doesn't smell like it,” said Tanya Ozmendez.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol seized 2,200 shipments of counterfeit personal care products, including salon brand beauty products, last year.
The I-Team bought two Paul Mitchell shampoo/conditioner sets from different vendors on eBay. But after paying for them, eBay deactivated the sellers' accounts and the shampoo never arrived.
One document we recovered from Elite Beauty’s dumpster showed Amazon suspended the company’s account for selling suspected counterfeit products.
The I-Team also spotted professional beauty products advertised on Craigslist.
A reporter called the person advertising Biolage shampoo for $10 a bottle and arranged a meeting at a gas station, where we bought $100 worth of salon shampoo for $40.
The seller gave us several different stories when we asked him where he got the shampoo.
He told us he could get us, “As many as (we) need.”
Salon brands may be fighting a losing battle against diversion.
“They're gonna purchase it where it's convenient for them. It's still on their grocery list many times,” said Ozmendez.
Salon employees say they can only insure their customers are getting what they’re paying for when they can guarantee where it came from.