Forever Flawless has two stores in Australia; one in the Sydney CBD and the other in Miranda, in Sydney's south. Recently we've received several emails from CHOICE members who say they've been pressured by Forever Flawless sales staff to buy expensive products and then refused a refund after their skin reacted badly.
To find out just how hard the sales spiel is, and to check the returns policy, we sent a shadow shopper to one of the Forever Flawless stores to get the full experience.
Our shadow shopper says:
"Forever Flawless in Sydney's CBD has a fit-out resembling that of a high-end designer, complete with a giant bottle of Moet, champagne glasses and leather couches.
I was greeted by an enthusiastic saleswoman who recommended I use the Forever Flawless Pink Diamond collection, sold for $1999 online. The saleswoman told me the Pink range is supposed to keep my skin looking young and help fight ageing, using highly potent collagen and diamonds, which help my skin absorb the ingredients.
The woman applied a collagen cream and serum over the left side of my smile line. I was told both the cream and serum combined would absorb into my nerves and epidermis. I instantly felt a tingling sensation and was told the product would begin to work immediately. She held a mirror up to my face so I could compare both sides and asked if I could see the difference. I couldn't.
I was told I needed to apply only a very small amount of cream to my face as it contains a very high dosage of collagen, much more than other creams.
The woman couldn't tell me exactly how the diamonds work to reduce lines and wrinkles and keep my skin young, just that they work and are good for it.
The products were usually $700 each to buy in-store, but I was offered a 'today only' special of two products for only $300 – if I made the purchase right then. I asked what the returns policy was and was told if I changed my mind I could simply return the product for a full refund.
After enduring a long sales pitch I managed to escape the store without buying any products."
Customers denied refunds
Unfortunately some of our members didn't get the same answer as our shadow shopper when they tried to seek a refund.
One member said she was pressured into buying more than $2000 worth of products, but her skin became sticky and broke out in a rash after using them. When she returned to the store to seek a refund, she was given a contact number instead. Upon calling the number she was told she needed to send an email. A response email from the company deemed her request a "change of mind" and only offered her a free upgrade to more expensive beauty products or a credit note, unless she could supply documentation from a dermatologist proving the reaction was caused by their product.
Another unhappy Forever Flawless customer told us she spent $600 on products and also had a bad skin reaction. She was also denied a refund.
What are their rights?
The Australian Consumer Law creates guarantees for Australian consumers when they purchase a product that is not suitable for its intended purpose.
Meredith Cridland, consumer rights advisor for CHOICE, says customers who buy cosmetics that are faulty or otherwise not fit for purpose should be able to return them to the retailer for a refund. "If the cosmetics cause a customer to suffer a skin reaction, the customer cannot use them as intended, so they are not fit for that customer's purpose."
Aside from that, if a retailer says that refunds are available if the cosmetics are unsuitable, the retailer should honour that promise.
How to ask for a refund
If you believe you're entitled to a refund or exchange, there are some simple steps you can take.
First, try to negotiate with the retailer and speak with the manager or owner of the store. Then follow up with an email. If that doesn't work, you can lodge a complaint with your state or territory fair trading or consumer affairs agency. If you're a CHOICE member you can also contact CHOICE Help. For more information on consumer rights and advice read our Consumer Complaints Checklist.
What do you really need to look for in good skincare?
We contacted two experts: Bryan Barron, co-author of The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here and researcher at Paula's Choice, a team dedicated to delivering expert beauty advice to consumers; and Dr Stephen Donoghue, dermatologist and fellow of the Australasian College of Dermatologists. Both experts considered the Forever Flawless claims and offered some advice of their own.
Can creams penetrate the deep layers of the skin?
The epidermis is the skin's top layer. It's several layers thick, like the skin of an onion, and forms a barrier against environmental changes. The inner layer is thicker and called the dermis. It consists of connective tissue and structural components including collagen (responsible for skin firmness) and elastic fibres (skin elasticity). Below this is a layer of subcutaneous fat. Cosmetic ingredients rarely penetrate into the dermis layer.
Creams containing alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs) will help to lift off the top layer of the epidermis to help with penetration.
Are there products that reverse wrinkles?
According to Dr Stephen Donoghue, vitamin A creams and creams containing AHAs are the only products that have been shown in clinical trials to promote collagen formation and help to reverse the signs of ageing, such as pigmentation and fine lines. More recently vitamin C creams have been suggested, but sufficient clinical evidence is still lacking.
Dr Donoghue says it's much easier to prevent wrinkles in the first place than to try to reverse them with creams. "Wear a daily sunscreen of SPF 30 (even in winter months) and reapply before going out to lunch," he suggests.
Can topical application of collagen reduce the appearance of wrinkles?
The best way to treat and prevent wrinkle formation is with a product that regenerates collagen, however there is no evidence that the collagen found in creams is absorbed, and it doesn't replace the collagen naturally produced by our skin.
"Lots of companies have been producing creams containing collagen to entice buyers to purchase them in the hope of reversing ageing and replacing volume and collagen in the skin," says Dr Donoghue. But he says clinical trials of collagen creams have failed to demonstrate any improvement to skin.
"Collagen molecules may be too big to penetrate the skin, and when collagen is kept at room temperature it becomes denatured and loses its triple helix structure, rendering it ineffective. You can't get the same effect by rubbing collagen all over your face as you would injecting it."
Are there benefits to using diamonds on your skin?
Not surprisingly neither of our experts were convinced of the benefits of creams containing diamond powder. "I think it sounds appealing to the consumer but in reality there is no evidence to show it works," says Dr Donoghue.
When diamonds are crushed into a powder, it's impossible to avoid pieces that have jagged or irregular edges. Using this material to scrub skin can cause micro-tears, potentially causing irritation that eventually makes skin more sensitive and likely to react to other products.
Dr Donoghue says he isn't aware of any studies or evidence proving diamonds to be good for the skin. There's been recent discussion of diamond fragments in microdermabrasion to remove the very top layers of the skin. "This has been shown to increase skin penetration by removing the outer layer of skin but the effect is said to be short-lived."
What should we use on our skin?
Both experts agreed that an AHA cream (available over the counter) is an effective option for all skin types.
"A well-formulated AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) or BHA (beta hydroxy acid) exfoliant in a base lotion, gel or liquid, suitable for your skin type, is a much better, gentler and ultimately more effective option for everyone's skin," says Bryan Barron. "Save the diamonds for your jewellery."
The team at Paula's Choice recommends a gentle soap-free cleanser, an AHA or BHA exfoliant, and a daytime moisturiser with sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater. At night, Dr Donoghue recommends an over-the-counter AHA-based moisturising cream.
Why do we fall for the hype?
High prices, glamorous stores, hard sells and promises – while plenty of us know it's almost impossible to turn back the clock using a bottle of, well, anything, how is it that companies like Forever Flawless still manage to convince shoppers to spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on beauty products?
We spoke to Dr Paul Harrison, consumer behaviour and communications specialist, to ask why shoppers make impulse decisions under pressure from sales tactics.
He says when we're in a shopping centre we've already made a commitment to the idea of buying something. "There's an effect in psychology called 'consistency theory' – we're already predisposed to buying because we want to be consistent with our thoughts and actions."
It's also easier to make a purchasing decision when the salesperson is being nice to us. "It's easy because we're social creatures. We blur the line between social, professional, and commercial."
There's also the 'contrast effect', which comes from comparing prices. When a salesperson offers two products for the price of one, shoppers feel like they're getting a special deal in contrast to what they thought the product would cost.