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Can we actually trust beauty reviews anymore?

As brands are named and shamed for creating fake feedback, we question who really benefits from these ‘customer’ responses and how to spot the real deal

TextSara RadinIllustrationCallum Abbott

It’s getting harder and harder to determine what’s real and what’s not real in the beauty world. Images are readily photoshopped, selfies are more often than not Facetuned and who hasn’t tried an Instagram filter or five. From the era of printed glossies to the rise of e-commerce websites, beauty reviews have served a simple yet critical function – to assist consumers in making informed buying decisions. Yet two brands, Kylie Skin and Sunday Riley, have recently come under fire for reportedly faking their online customer reviews, making us question their purpose and whether it’s possible to trust these kinds of reviews anymore. Are they still relevant in today’s age?

Beauty reviews give insights into products that are incredibly helpful for fellow consumers and the wider industry alike. “Broadly speaking, (beauty reviews) can be divided into two: customer reviews and influencer/media reviews. Customer reviews are meant to be raw, unedited user experiences, but professional reviews are often sponsored by brands and tend to be positive,” says Estee Laundry, the anonymous beauty collective and industry watchdog. “We live in an age where there are thousands of influencers recommending products they were paid to promote, so customers rely heavily on unbiased user reviews on websites like Sephora to make decisions. These reviews, therefore, do have a big impact on sales.” 

Customer reviews tend to live on the brand’s or a retailer’s website while an influencer/media review is one that appears on social media or via an online or print publication. Both help people answer questions like: ‘What kind of skin types or tones are certain products useful for?’ ‘How will this product impact my skin?’ An effusive review for the foaming face wash on by Carmella G reads: “This face wash ended up becoming my favorite face wash of all time. I love how foamy it gets, and when you put it on the face it’s super creamy on the skin. I feel my skin is clean without it feeling stripped. I highly recommend. I have sensitive and dry skin.” 

A 2018 Bazaarvoice survey found that “more than three in four US (77 per cent) and French (76 percent) online shoppers read product reviews before purchasing for more than half the products they buy.” This also includes in-store shoppers, with the company saying that 45 per cent of in-store shoppers read reviews before buying (there are surveys that show higher numbers as well). Elizabeth M. Donat, a New York and internationally licensed aesthetician says that these reviews boost customer confidence, giving them a platform to share firsthand experiences, product flaws and critiques.

So how can you identify a fake one? “Fake reviews are getting hard to spot and experts are not necessarily in agreement about what constitutes one. In fact, many have opposing views. They generally tend to be overwhelmingly positive, and they are often written by new accounts that don’t have other reviews,” says Estee Laundry. In Donat’s view, “Tell-tale signs of fake reviews are lengthy reviews that use industry jargon, reviews that focus on addressing or answering a problem with the product, reviews that contain repetitive buzz words or descriptors, reviews that come from all over the world with consistent spelling errors, and overly negative reviews that attack the brand as a whole instead of aspects of the product itself.”

“Fake reviews are usually on the shorter side and include red flags like ‘I don’t normally write reviews’, ‘life-changing’, ‘miracle in a bottle’, ‘worth the price,’ ‘holy grail product’, ‘I’ve tried everything’, ‘I never write reviews like this’, and ‘trust me’” – Mallory Huron, Fashion Snoops trend forecaster

Beauty editor and Fashion Snoops trend forecaster Mallory Huron believes that fake reviews are usually on the shorter side and include red flags like “I don’t normally write reviews”, “life-changing”, “miracle in a bottle”, “worth the price,” “holy grail product”, “I’ve tried everything”, “I never write reviews like this”, and “trust me”. Though not all reviews that have these phrases are fake, Huron says these common phrases are used to establish trust and legitimacy with the reader and increase interest in the product. Additionally, she reports that many fake reviews will just give the product five stars and one vague line such as “love this product,” “great product,” or “does what it says.” With skincare, beware of reviews that claim “immediate” or “overnight” results. A good hack Huron uses is reading two to four-star reviews for more honest, authentic feedback. 

“While a consumer might pause for a moment to scan reviews before making an impulse buy, hundreds of glowing, fake five-star reviews will quickly convince that consumer to click ‘Complete Order,’” Huron continues. Beauty consumer Meg shares, “I love a review, but I cross-index across multiple sites if I can, and disregard the most glowing and the most critical.” Reading review after review of how a product ‘changed someone’s skin’ or is a ‘must-have lip colour’ works on your mind just like marketing according to the beauty editor. It gets into your head, convincing you that a product is not only the best but that it will also somehow make your life better. “It’s insidious marketing masked as a genuine consumer experience,” Huron says.

Kristen says she looks at the whole picture when buying products: “Why people rate something highly or lowly. What do influencers I trust say about the product? I’m a sample queen, so I rarely buy anything on reviews alone.” Others look to YouTube: “I honestly love YouTube for beauty reviews because I can hear their honest opinion on a product and often they will disclose if they are sponsored by the company,” adds Alexis.

But what about the scandals? “While we’ve seen strong social media backlash and brand-shunning for brand image missteps (see: Kat Von D), there hasn’t been much lasting damage for review fakers,” offers Huron. “Even Sunday Riley managed to weather the storm of a flagrant, public, egregious scandal, receiving merely a slap-on-the-wrist punishment and choosing to simply ignore the flood of shaming comments on their social media.” Sunday Riley may have been temporarily hurt by the fake reviews (it was put under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission but has since settled), but fans like Sheila are still using products. She says she loves them, telling us that if she hadn’t tried any of its products before the reports of fake reviews came out, she may have decided against it. “I honestly don’t know why Sunday Riley even needed the boost of fake reviews. A lot of my skincare ladies on IG/YouTube legit used her products.”

Estee Laundry explains that “(Kylie Jenner’s) brand has disrupted the industry because of her strong celebrity status and the fact that she constantly has tension in her inventory.” The brand’s issue was that they were filtering out negative reviews, and they stopped doing that after the platform called them out for it. “They never acknowledged it or apologised for it, and they are hoping it will just blow over.” Huron doesn’t think there will be any retribution at all. “Both of these brands have massive, hyper-loyal followings (with Kylie’s being a majority of fairly impressionable young teens/tweens and Gen-Zers), and people who already love their products just aren’t going to stop (buying them).”

“I’m not touching anything with Kylie Jenner’s name on it. I learned my lesson from her lip kit that didn’t actually work on my real full lips,” says Justine. Lauren says she’s always been skeptical of Kylie Skin’s reviews, expressing, “I remember reading reviews on (Kylie’s) skincare and was like ‘Pfffft these are either by teens with no actual skin issues or it’s total BS’.” Katherine  believes every brand and product purchases fake reviews, some just get caught, while Lindsay even knows a lot of actors that write fake beauty reviews as a side hustle.

Donat believes “consumers see this behavior as a natural result of the culture of online beauty sales and market competition. It’s the new normal and it’s here to stay.” Although it appears that we definitely can’t trust beauty reviews anymore, we can be more discerning customers when purchasing products by paying attention to signs that indicate a review might be fake.

“Although it appears that we definitely can’t trust beauty reviews anymore, we can be more discerning customers when purchasing products by paying attention to signs that indicate a review might be fake” 

For brands that do care about their reviews – including luxury brands attempting to reach more educated or informed demographics – and how customers view them, Huron says it’s important to be transparent with consumers. “Be open with customers about how reviews are monitored, what terms and conditions they give to influencers receiving the product for free to review, and, most importantly, follow up with all negative reviews.” If a brand takes time to respond to one or two stars with a simple: “We’re so sorry it didn’t work for you! Please DM us for a refund and let us know what happened,” it displays trust and accountability, and proves they’re monitoring negative reviews instead of deleting them. “Honesty and sincerity is the best policy, especially when people are deciding what products to put on their face.”

Moving forward, Meg says, “I wonder if there’s a way to do (carefully monitored) video reviews of a product so you can see someone’s enthusiasm for a product in a very real way, you can tell they’re an actual person and not a bot that’s put up 100 reviews in a day. You can tell if that person’s aesthetic and interests are similar to your own.” Another suggestion is that sites provide the ability to filter out the verified purchaser reviews. “I realise Amazon has issues with this, but I would love to see this as an easy filter on Sephora, Ulta, Blue Mercury, etc. It behooves the stores to have real reviews, whether they are positive or negative, too,” one beauty consumer concludes. “There should also be a filter to remove reviews of people who got the product for free, via Influenster and other programs like that. I really don’t trust those reviews.”