Cover Story: Fake or Real: Can You Tell the Difference?

By Qistina Izfarina

The number of fake products is on the increase in Malaysia. Common ones are branded sneakers such as Adidas, Fila and Nike. Top range perfumes and bags such as Guess, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, Issey Miyake are easily available in the market. These items, incidentally, have no negative effects on end-users and thus are relatively safe. But there are those that may impact users’ health when applied or consumed. Ipoh Echo takes a look at fake products that are harmful to our health. 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines product counterfeiting as a form of fraud. A product, purporting to be something that it is not, is sold to unsuspecting buyers. It is an organised group activity because the manufacturing of goods takes people and time, and the goal is invariably to profit. These products are produced based on similar designs as the originals. They are packaged and branded to make them indistinguishable from the genuine stuffs. These manufacturing countries are generally poorer and so have lower capacity for finesse. 

According to Seth Hays, Asia Pacific chief representative from International Trademark Association (INTA), approximately RM5.43 trillion (US$1.3 trillion) of counterfeit goods are traded globally every year. 

Fake Beauty Products

The number of fake beauty products bearing popular names such as Nars, ColourPop, Huda Beauty, Kylie Cosmetics, NYX Cosmetics and some of the big names are readily available here in Ipoh. 

This scribe visited a few night markets and malls around the city recently and was shocked by what was discovered. You can buy these imitations for a fraction of the original prices. Some for less if one is prepared to haggle. For instance, Kylie lipstick which costs over RM100 a piece is sold for just RM5. 

The price is a giveaway and a warning too. It makes you wonder whether the products sold are safe for general use, especially cosmetics which you need to dab onto your face and limbs. Will exposure to the cream and liquid harm your skin which, being the largest organ in the body, is one of the easiest ways for chemicals and pollutants to get inside the body and cause long-term insidious damage.  

We checked with the authorities concerned. The first was the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperative and Consumerism branch in Ipoh. The lady on the phone told us to raise the matter with the Perak Health Department instead. According to her, actions could only be taken if the owners themselves lodge a report with them. In other words, owners of the highly-acclaimed brand names have to come to Malaysia and file a complaint with the department, only then will action be taken. 

We then called the Perak Health Department, and here is another bombshell. They would only act if it is proven, clinically, that the ingredients used in the products are harmful. The onus is on the consumers, not the authorities. We have to do the groundwork, ourselves. 

“I used the fake products for three months even though I knew that it was fake. I loved the colour of the eyeshadow, lipstick and foundation which resembled the original. Furthermore, it is much cheaper. However, after months of using it, my lips became drier than usual and started to flake off. I realised that something was wrong, so I stopped using it before it worsened. I’ll never buy fake products anymore and I urge everyone to do the same no matter how cheap or attractive the packaging is. Some of my friends have to seek medication as the products affected their skin. The authorities should do more to eradicate this issue,” said Yana, 22. 

According to Dr Terry Lee Lean Hiap, an aesthetic skin care specialist at Terry Lee Clinic Ipoh, one common disease caused by fake products is Irritant Contact Dermatitis (ICD). Allergic dermatitis is a form of exogenous dermatitis or eczema. The eczema is well demarcated with a glazed reddish surface. The affected area itches and swells. 

“The worst disease is skin  from the effect of hydroquinone. Hydroquinone which is used for hyperpigmentation, must only be prescribed by doctors. The permissible usage is only four per cent but fake products contain up to 10 per cent of this chemical. Other harmful ingredients are mercury and steroid,” he added. 

Ways to Avoid 

The first step is to be an informed consumer. Before buying a product you must ensure that the product is a longstanding brand in the market. Avoid new products. Secondly, check trustworthy testimonials and reviews. If you are unsure, try the sample before you buy the products. Thirdly, check the ingredients label. Fake products, normally, have no information label of ingredients on the packaging. 

“The common reason given by my patients who used fake products is the price. The price has been reduced tremendously. Be sure you buy from trusted stores such as Watson or Guardian,” urged Dr Terry.

Fake Milk Formula 

In February, three traders were charged at the Sessions Court for selling fake infant formula in Johor Bahru. Yap Kai Chai, 59, Ling Mei Nar, 42, and Yap Chang Hong, 26 are joint-owners of several branches of TCM Yong Thye Lian, Chinese medical shop. 

Yap Kai Chai (son) and Yap Chang Hong (father) were charged for selling 208 packets of fake milk powder Enfalac A+ Step 1 (1.8kg). Both father and son were charged under Section 8 (2) (c) while Ling Mei Nar (sister-in-law) was indicted under Section 8 (2) (b) of the Trade Descriptions Act 2011. Upon conviction, they may face a fine of up to RM10,000 for the first offence, RM20,000 for subsequent offences and a maximum five-year jail term. 

The bogus infant formula packets were placed along with the originals on the shelves. They were sold at the same price of about RM200 each. 

Mead Johnson Nutrition Malaysia has set up a Product Replacement Programme Hotline for consumers who, unknowingly, have bought the tainted product – opened or unopened. Affected consumers can call 1-800-88-3585 (Monday to Sunday, 9am to 11pm) or complete an online form at to get more details on product return and replacement instructions.

Fake Braces 

On October 17, the Department of Dental Health in Sabah shared a video of a patient who lost all of her teeth except one tooth due to fake braces. The video, unfortunately, received only 145,000 views on Facebook and 945 views on YouTube. Not many people are aware of this impropriety. In Thailand, two deaths were reported due to the swallowing of fake braces. 

“My first encounter with this case was on 2013, during my first year in government clinic in Kuantan. So far, I’ve handled 40 cases relating to fake braces,” said Dr Khairul Aizat Zamri, a dentist at Dr White Clinic, Meru, Ipoh. 

Fake braces (fixed orthodontic appliances) are fixed to the teeth. They look similar. However, they do not function like the real ones. 

What Are the Differences? 

Genuine braces are prescribed and fixed by licensed dentists or orthodontists but fake braces can be bought online (Instagram, Facebook or Twitter). They are also sold illegally in salons and by unregistered dental clinics. 

A thorough full mouth examination needs to be done to access the health of the teeth and other dental treatment will be done such as scaling, restoration, extraction if needed before fixing the braces. You should be suspicious when the ‘fake’ dentist asks you to have the extraction done at either government or private clinics. 

For real braces, an X-ray needs to be taken to determine bone level or any abnormality which cannot be accessed during physical examination. Regular follow-up takes place once every six weeks for two months depending on the type of braces. Upon the completion of treatment, a retainer will be given to the patients to wear at least for six to 12 months to prevent relapse. For fake braces, no X-ray, follow up or retainer will be given. 


A patient with fake braces


What Are the Effects 

Fake braces may seem harmless but it can cause various complications to the patients in the long term. 

The stain from the glue can erode the tooth surfaces. Dental cavities, bleeding gum and tooth decay can occur because there is no explanation on ways to take care of the teeth after the fitting. Oral hygiene instructions are not given to the fake braces buyers. 

If care is not taken in the diagnosis, treatment planning and management of any orthodontic case, the patient may suffer dire consequences, such as damage to the teeth, gums and supporting bone, which may be irreversible. 

The scariest part is a virus or bacterial infection. Since the instruments and materials used to fix the fake braces are not sterilised, cross infection can happen. Patients may contract Hepatitis B, HIV and Syphilis. 

Gum inflammation and bleeding
Occlusion and tooth angulation

When There Is a Demand 

You must have wondered where they learn to be a “fake dentist”. Guess what? They learned it from YouTube. 

Nur Farahanis Ezzaty Adli, 20, who was jailed after being convicted of offering unregulated dental services. She admitted she started fixing braces after helping a friend to fix her braces based on what she learned on YouTube. She operated her “dental” business from a hotel room. 

Price is the common denominator. Genuine braces are priced between RM3500 and RM7000. Fake ones will only cost between RM300 and RM2000. 

“However, there are patients who are willing to buy real braces but because of their eagerness and lack of information, they opt for the fake one. They don’t seek advice from dentists but either follow their instinct or listen to their friends,” Dr Khairul told Ipoh

Our Local Brands

Even local celebrity entrepreneurs such as Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor and Datin Vivy Sofinas Yusof got hoodwinked by counterfeit scarves and shawls. They lost significantly, as some of their customers were deceived by these products. They raised their concerns during a meeting with the Council of Eminent Persons on June 18 this year.

“Although we’ve worked closely with the Domestic Trade Cooperative and Consumerism Ministry and the Customs Department, the problem continues to bug us,” said Neelofa, television personality and founder of the much-sought-after scarf, Naelofar Hijab.

She hoped after lodging a report with the authorities, the Registrar of Companies will act on those selling imitation items.

Co-founder of FashionValet and the Duck Group, Datin Vivy Sofinas Yusof said that local brands are affected by counterfeits from Vietnam and China.

“We asked the Customs what they can do about it. Now anybody can bring imitation goods into the country,” said Vivy.

Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister, Datuk Saifuddin Nasution Ismail said the selling of fake products is impacting the country’s revenue. All products should go through a registration process for purposes of authentication. Non-genuine products
do not undergo such a process but they are available in the market.

Fake Drugs

The World of Health Organisation (WHO) defines counterfeit medicines as medicines that are deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled with respect to identity and/or source. Both branded and generic products are subject to counterfeiting. Counterfeit medicines
may include products with the correct ingredients or with the wrong ingredients, without active ingredients, with insufficient or too many active ingredients or with fake packaging.

A fake drug can be identified when it has no/false registration number, registration number belonging to other products or has been cancelled, no safety label hologram Meditag or false hologram Meditag. Be careful of the products that have a mixture of two registered products. If you are unsure, confirm with the sellers. You have the right as a consumer to know of all these details.

National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agencies director, Dr Salmah Bahri stated that counterfeit medicines claimed about one million lives globally every year.

“The Pharmaceutical Association of Malaysia found that approximately five per cent of prescription medicines are fake, including eye drops, inhalers and medicines for erectile dysfunction,” she added.

Ane Meng Chuah, Retail Pharmacist Manager at Hovid Pharmacy said, “We always advise our customers to buy the innovator brand if they can afford it.”

What Are the Solutions?

The problem can only be resolved if the authorities are prepared to nip the problem in the bud. The government should adopt a top-down approach. Actions must be consistent by the relevant enforcement agencies. There are laws to fall back on.

Trade Description Act 2011 provides a leeway called, “Trade description order” whereby the court can pronounce a specific offending mark as a false-trade description if it resembles the registered proprietor’s trademark. The Act enables the registered owner to lodge a complaint with the ministry.

Where an infringing mark is identical to a registered mark, the owner can file a complaint with the ministry, which is vested with the power of arrest and seizure without a warrant. The ministry can prosecute the suspected counterfeiters upon advice by the
attorney general.

Past cases involving fake sports shoes and electronic gadgets were acted upon by the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperative and Consumerism. Unfortunately, action against other fake products is few and far between. And this is worrying, as consumers are exposed to irresponsible traders who care little for ethics and health.

For consumers, prevention is better than cure. Make a report if you have been affected by any fake products and be an informed consumer.

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