Amazon is the insider secret for global beauty fanatics

The world is your Sephora.
The world is your Sephora.
Image: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won
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Less than two decades ago, if you lived in North America and wanted to buy a French skincare product—say, Bioderma micellar water, a favorite of Gwyneth Paltrow’s—you had to ask a friend, probably a close one, to bring back a few bottles from Paris. This was no small favor to request, as the Bioderma bottles were heavy and risked bursting during transatlantic flights. Was it worth risking your friendships for beauty products? Maybe.

But you don’t have to do that anymore. In 2000, Amazon launched Amazon Marketplace, an e-commerce platform that allows independent vendors to sell their goods to anyone with an Amazon account. Vendors get access to the customer base, and Amazon gets to expand its offerings without expanding its inventory space. It took a while (and a lot of tweaks on Amazon’s part) to catch on, but now, you can buy your favorite international beauty products online, including ones that aren’t sold in the United States due to market competition or the grey area that is cosmetics regulation.

Beauty products are one of Amazing Marketplace’s strongest points and sunscreens are a good place to begin. No one likes putting on sunscreen. It makes your skin look ashy, stains your clothes, smells bad, melts off in a milky mess in the heat, and it requires reapplication every two hours. But in a ranking of slightly inconvenient but important responsibilities, it lands below fastening your seatbelt and above trimming the hedges in importance. It won’t kill you immediately if you don’t do it, but it will eventually.

If you live in the United States and you’re still buying your sun products from the corner drugstore, you’re missing out. Yes, excellent dermatologist-endorsed French brands like La-Roche Posay are now selling their sunscreens stateside, but the formulas are noticeably different. “Americans have fewer choices and notably poorer protection from ultraviolet A rays in their sunscreen options than Europeans,” the Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains.

In Europe, where sunscreen is regulated by the European Union, there are seven legal ingredients which offer strong UVA protection. Only two of these ingredients, avobenzone and zinc oxide, are legal in the United States, under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—and as the EWG notes, these two ingredients are not the top two, performance-wise.

Zinc oxide, for example, is the basis for Zinka, the opaque sunscreen that was famous in the ’80s for the white noses on bleach-haired lifeguards. Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX, and Mexoryl XL are sun-filtering chemicals that are not permitted according to the FDA, even though they are more effective than avobenzone, the most popular sun filter ingredient in American sunscreens. Another American sunscreen staple ingredient that is allowed, oxybenzone, is known to cause allergic reactions.

Interestingly, my personal favorite sunscreen that you can purchase from Amazon Marketplace is Japanese, not French. The Nivea Japan Perfect Water Gel SPF 35 is basically Glossier’s cult-favorite sheer sunscreen that you can use for the entire body. (At approximately $10 for 6.4 ounces—the price fluctuates because it’s from a third-party seller—it’s so much cheaper than Glossier’s $34 for 1 ounce formula.) The gel formula melts into a watery texture and doesn’t leave an oily residue, and the pump bottle is great when you’re trying to cover large areas of your body. Have I convinced you yet? Good—because Japanese sunscreens have the same legal regulations as EU sunscreens, just in different concentrations—which makes them hard to come by on US shores. Now go add it to your cart.

Strangely, the FDA is much more relaxed when it comes to other personal care and cosmetic products. EU law has banned 1,328 ingredients from cosmetics that are known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, genetic mutation, or reproductive harm. In contrast, the FDA has only banned 11 of these chemicals. “The other 1,317 ingredients were never on the market in the US, or haven’t been for years,” Sejal Shah, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist, explained on the phone. And in the EU, new cosmetic products must pass pre-market safety inspection. In the United States, you could, theoretically, whip up some lip gloss in your kitchen and go straight to market—and that’s what a lot of bootstrapped indie brands start off doing, using Instagram as their marketing platform.

You do have to be careful for two reasons when shopping for beauty products on Amazon, though: First, skincare ingredients that are technically legal and even considered safe might have harmful effects when you use it. “Hydroquinone was removed off the European market and not really removed off the US market,” Shah said. You may not have heard of it, but it is a common ingredient in skin bleaching topicals, which are recommended by some dermatologist for lightening acne scars and hyperpigmentation on the face.

Hydroquinone, for example, can cause severe skin dryness or blisters, and if you are a person of color—like me—the side effect may be the exact opposite of what you wanted from a bleaching cream. In some cases, it may cause black or blue discoloration of the skin—in my case an $80 bottle of hydroquinone-rich Obagi burned off my already sensitive skin back in middle school.

Secondly, you risk receiving counterfeit or expired products. Amazon has a well-known knockoff problem, and the only guarantee that you will receive the product that you bought—or you get your money back—is if you buy via the “Fulfilled by Amazon” designation. Most of us don’t, though—we just assume Amazon is safe because it’s so streamlined. We also don’t check the prices on Amazon, which are oftentimes more expensive due to third-party markups, due to the convenience and the assumption of a good deal. “

“There’s a bit of buyer beware involved,” Shah said, though she, a cautious doctor who enjoys citing medical journals in interviews, admits to buying beauty products on Amazon, too. She points out that nowadays, you can avoid third party purchases altogether and buy French pharmacy brands like Bioderma from reputable e-commerce brands like Jet.

.But I’m not letting go of my Japanese-made Nivea sunscreen, which is a cheap drugstore product but definitely still marked up at $10 per bottle, takes three weeks to arrive across the Pacific Ocean, and has no guarantee of being the real thing. I’m finally reapplying sunscreen every two hours like I’m supposed to, and this habit is cheaper than booking a trip to Tokyo.