Counterfeit perfumes - how to smell a fake

CHOICE sniffs out the facts on the counterfeit perfume business.
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  • Updated:21 Nov 2007

01 .Counterfeit perfumes


While it’s more likely you’ll come across a counterfeit perfume while browsing flea market stalls or buying products online, most consumers are unaware that highly sophisticated knock-offs are also finding their way onto retail shelves. It's easy to be fooled — some counterfeits look almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

It's estimated that counterfeits account for around 2 to 3% of the Australian trade in cosmetics and fragrances, and this figure is increasing. Besides the loss of income to legitimate sellers, there are also potential health risks to the consumer.

Counterfeit perfumes haven’t been rigorously tested and can contain a whole host of unknown chemicals, meaning they're unlikely to comply with the regulations set by the Australian cosmetics regulator (NICNAS). This creates the potential for all sorts of nasty surprises, such as:

  • causing a rash on people with sensitive skin
  • burning the skin
  • staining clothes
  • respiratory problems.

What's more, tests on some fake fragrances have allegedly found traces of urine, which gives a whole new meaning to 'eau de toilette'! Others have been revealed as a simple combination of fragrance and pond water.

The scent of a counterfeit may have a similar 'top note' to the original, but otherwise won’t usually smell anything like it. If you’re buying the perfume for the first time, you’re unlikely to realise this, of course.

A counterfeit may have a sour or bitter smell, and its fragrance may last only a short period of time on the skin. One expert told CHOICE that a perfume should linger at least six hours, so if it lasts 30 minutes, it’s probably a dud.

Please note: this information was current as of November 2007 but is still a useful guide today.

Key findings

  • To the untrained eye, a sophisticated fake could easily pass for the real thing.
  • Parallel importing (where a store buys directly from a wholesaler overseas, rather than from the perfume’s authorised distributor) has paved the way for more competitive pricing — but could be allowing fakes to end up on retail shelves.
  • It's likely you won’t know it’s fake until you get it home. Most fake perfumes come packaged and wrapped in plastic, and look like the real thing, but don’t smell like it.

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02.How to avoid a fake


If you’re not buying a fragrance from a major retailer (who purchased it from the authorised distributor), here are some things to look out for, to reduce your chance of buying a fake:

  • What does it cost? If the price seems too low, chances are it’s not the genuine article.
  • Where is it being sold? Street corner, flea market, suspect online website? If it looks dodgy, it probably is.
  • Look at the packaging. Are there any misspellings? Does the country of origin match the country usually on the product? Is the printing or cardboard of poor quality? If you’ve got an old box, take it shopping with you, for comparison.
  • If you can, look at the contents. Are there differences in colour or consistency from the normal product? It should be clear and not overly oily.
  • How does the product smell? It shouldn’t be bitter or sour. Spray some on a piece of cardboard, then go away for half an hour. Does the fragrance last?
  • Ensure the seller guarantees the perfume is 100% genuine (some offer a certificate of authenticity) and has a return policy if you’re not happy with the product.

How's it getting in?

The Australian Customs Service told CHOICE that since February 2006, over 31,500 counterfeit fragrances have been seized by officials. The fake goods are arriving in Australia as air or sea cargo commercial shipments as well as through the post and in the possession of travellers. The ones that make it through undetected are likely to be sold cheaply at discount stores, markets and online.

According to authorised Australian importers, counterfeit goods are also finding their way in among shipments of ‘parallel imports’. Parallel imports are goods that have been legitimately purchased directly from wholesalers overseas, rather than from the official distributor or manufacturer in Australia. This generally allows them to be sold for a lower price.

Parallel importing has been legal since 2000, and has had a significant impact on the perfume market in Australia, accounting for approximately 35% of fragrance sales. It helps explain why you can now readily find discounted perfumes, both online and in some retail outlets.

While this is a plus for the consumer, some industry experts say that with it comes a higher risk of picking up a counterfeit. However, some online retailers CHOICE spoke to that rely on parallel importing assured us they only purchase their perfumes from large, reputable distributors and check their products for signs of counterfeit.

Counterfeiting of all kinds is estimated to be a $600 billion a year problem worldwide, and according to the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition in the United States, the profits have been linked to funding organised crime, drug trafficking and even global terrorism.

03.Careful where you buy


PerfumesThe lure of a bargain is hard to resist, but is it worth the risk? The experts we spoke to were all in agreement on one thing: "If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is." Even if it’s a genuine product, a lower price may indicate that it’s passed its use-by date or has been stored incorrectly or for too long.

The Fragrance Foundation Australia says there’s only one way to be 100% sure a perfume is genuine, and that’s by buying from outlets that purchase products from the authorised distributors, such as Myer, David Jones, certain pharmacies, speciality stores and websites like

An example of a major company that has taken steps to protect itself and consumers from counterfeits is Coty Australia, distributor of fragrances such as Calvin Klein, Jennifer Lopez and JOOP!. It has established a network of authorised stockists, including online retailers, which only stock legitimate perfumes purchased directly from the company.

If you do come across a fake, contact the store you purchased it from, or the Australian company that distributes the product. If it’s determined to be fake, it’s up to the trademark owner to launch civil legal action against the seller of the item.

If you’ve bought a perfume from other than an authorised stockist, you may not get your money back if it turns out to be fake, which is why it’s wise to check their return policy before buying. The online perfume store offers a $40 verification service of your perfume if you’re unsure whether you’ve bought the real thing.

Buying online

If you’re after a bargain, you’re almost certain to think you’ve found one online, but this may not be true. According to intellectual property lawyer Stephen Stern, "These days, there’s probably more counterfeit on the internet than genuine product."

To minimise the risk of buying a shonky perfume, look for the following when purchasing from an Australian online store:

  • An Australian Business Number (ABN). It’s often displayed with the company address.
  • Contact details, including a contact phone number for customers, email address, street address (not a post office box) and mailing address.
  • A returns policy. If the product’s faulty or not genuine, you’ll want to know how the store intends to deal with it. Australian-based stores have to comply with the Trade Practices Act, but they may also have provisions for situations the law doesn’t cover, or details on how they’d prefer to be contacted to ensure you get the best service.
  • Be aware that you may have to pay postage when returning goods, even within Australia.
  • If you’re buying a perfume from eBay, investigate the seller’s feedback by clicking on the feedback link, and beware of new sellers selling prestige fragrances — look for established retailers with a good reputation.
  • Also check that they’re PayPal-verified, as sellers of counterfeit goods may not disclose their contact information to PayPal.

Note: overseas stores will be governed by their country’s consumer laws (if they exist), which may not offer the same protection as Australian laws.

04.Spot the difference


Spot the Davidoff difference

One of these bottles of Cool Water is real and the other is fake. Can you tell which is which? CHOICE couldn’t. The two bottles are nearly Davidoff cool wateridentical apart from some subtle differences.

It wasn’t until both perfumes were sprayed onto cardboard that the big difference became apparent. "The top note is vaguely Cool Water but… it doesn’t last, and it’s sour ..." said Coty’s Managing Director about the counterfeit version.

And the answer? The one on the right is the real Davidoff Cool Water.

Echo Woman

Here is the packing from two bottles of Echo Woman — one real, one fake. Once the packaging has been openEcho womaned, you can immediately see the difference between the two.

The counterfeit perfume sits inside an empty box, while the legitimate perfume is padded with extra packaging — though you wouldn’t be able to check this if the perfume was sealed in cellophane.

Market buyers beware

Vivien from Sydney got less than she bargained for when she bought a prestige perfume from a market stall.

"It was probably about two years ago that I bought a fragrance from the market. The stallholders said it was original when I asked, and it certainly looked legitimate. It was sealed in cellophane and it even had 'Made in France' on it. It really looked quite authentic.

"I was suspicious, of course, because of the price — it was $20 at the market and $100 in the shops, but still I thought, 'it’s worth a try'. But it was really quite obvious when I got home that it wasn’t the right perfume.

"After the first fragrance started to wear off, it had this really bad smell — like cat’s wee! I knew what the perfume should have smelt like and it wasn’t that. I didn’t bother to take it back to the market. I just put it down to experience."

Jargon buster

A fragrance, just like a wine, has different layers: the top, middle and base notes. Here's what they mean:

  • Top note: The first part of the fragrance to hit your nose — the initial 'impact', which is composed of more volatile materials.
  • Middle note: The second part — the 'heart' of the fragrance that defines its character.
  • Base notes: The last part of the fragrance that lingers on the skin, made from lasting materials.

It's also useful to understand the naming conventions for perfume:

  • Eau de Cologne contains 3 to 6% perfume oils.
  • Eau de toilette contains 6 to 15% perfume oils.
  • Eau de parfum contains 15 to 25% perfume oils.