With its in‑app marketplace TikTok Shop, launched in 2021, the entertainment app TikTok has also become a successful channel for online commerce. According to a survey by the market research company Savanta, the app is even more popular than Instagram or Facebook among users in the UK under the age of 26. Dubious providers of counterfeit and illegal cosmetics are trying to exploit this.
Increasingly often, counterfeit cosmetics and designer perfumes are being advertised on TikTok and sold directly via the platform, according to reporting by the British Guardian Media Group. Prescription products such as skin-lightening lotions, including products with banned ingredients, and strong acne creams are also openly offered. Most of these products come from China, and often exact details about the origin and manufacturing processes remain unknown. In addition, previous tests of seized counterfeit cosmetics by the UK Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) have shown that many could contain toxic levels of arsenic, mercury, and lead.
Influencers in particular are driving demand for such products. This is one reason for the increasing sales of counterfeits on social media in recent years, according to Gavin Terry, senior intellectual property officer at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI). Back in 2021, a report by the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) had already highlighted the role of influencers: According to that, around 13% of 1,000 surveyed women aged 13‑60 said they had already been enticed to buy counterfeit products by recommendations on social media.
// The influencers are the soft face of it. Behind that there’s a criminal organisation. And the social media platform is an intermediary – they create the conduit.
Gavin Terry, lead officer for intellectual property, Chartered Trading Standards Institute
TikTok receives a 5% commission on all sales done through the platform. However, the social network, which is operated by the Chinese company ByteDance states that there are strict rules for selling via TikTok Shop: For example, offering counterfeit products is prohibited, as is selling prescription drugs. In fact, following a tip-off from the journalists, TikTok disabled an option to search for products with prescription ingredients and removed listings for skin whitening creams containing banned ingredients.
According to its own information, TikTok has already removed hundreds of products and merchants from TikTok Shop this year. An intellectual property protection centre had been set up in 2022, which is supposed to help brands identify offers that violate their IP rights.