Retail vs. salon: Some products not what they seem, including test on Paul Mitchell shampoo

CLEVELAND - This is a 5 On Your Side consumer alert on hair care products that could be counterfeit or tampered with.

Experts at one well-known hair care company say you buy these products from big retail stores but they may not be what you think they are.

Some women will spend more than $40,000 on their hair in their lifetimes, according to a survey done by OnePoll. Whether that money is spent in the salon or the store, you hope what you're getting is as advertised.  We bought a Paul Mitchell shampoo bottle from a local CVS store. We assumed like Cleveland State University student Stephanie Wisniewski that it was as labeled.

"Whatever is being sold in the stores, that's what you want to get if you're paying the money for it," Wisniewski told us.

Paul Mitchell company reps say you just can't be sure.

"It's either counterfeit, tampered with or black market," said Robert Cromeans who is the Global Artistic Director for John Paul Mitchell Systems, commonly called Paul Mitchell.

"We don't sell to these outlets," said Cromeans. "We only sell to salons like mine or around the world," he added.

But Paul Mitchell products have been found in various stores including CVS, Walgreens, and Target.

"The fact of the matter is, they aren't buying directly from us," said Cromeans.

Paul Mitchell says it has contracts with distributors that are only in the professional hair care industry. The distributors then sell the products to the salons. Somewhere in that chain, Paul Mitchell says a wholesaler gets involved and buys the product in what the company calls a "back door" deal. The product then ends up on shelves in retail stores where company reps say it should never be.

"That product could be old. It could be tampered with. It could be counterfeit. The product is not going to be the first-quality," said Vikki Bresnahan, who is in charge of brand protection at the company. She said old products won't perform well. Counterfeit products could be dangerous. She points out a counterfeit case where the fake Paul Mitchell product had high levels of bacteria.

"And could that product have gotten in someone's eye or a cut, an infection could have occurred," said Bresnahan.

And while you might not be able to tell which one is guaranteed by the bottle, by the smell or even by the consistency, the company says there's usually one big difference and it might surprise you. 

"It usually costs more in a drug store or supermarket than it does in a professional salon," said Cromeans.

Bresnahan said the products in the stores cost between 50 cents and five dollars more. We did a quick check comparing one local salon with one bottle we bought at a local CVS store. Sure enough, the Paul Mitchell Original Shampoo One bottle cost us $11.33 at CVS and $8 at the salon. That's more than 3 dollars difference.

"It's more expensive from that mass market retailer because the product has to change hands so many times to get there and everyone needs a cut," said Bresnahan.

The company said the best way to protect your hair, health, and wallet is to buy from a certified salon.

If the Paul Mitchell company finds products in the stores, it will pull the products, track them back to the distributor and fine them per bottle, but it keeps happening.

Our Scripps sister station Team 10 contacted Target, CVS and Walgreens for this story.

A public relations firm for Target said, "It is Target's policy not to comment on speculation."

The director of public relations for CVS sent Team 10 the following statement:

All hair care products we offer for sale are purchased -- and are being sold -- lawfully under all applicable laws. These are genuine products in good and saleable condition.  CVS/pharmacy is committed to offering its customers one-stop beauty shopping -- for everything from high-performance skincare exclusives to seasonal color trends and salon-quality hair care -- all under the CVS Beauty Guarantee, which offers 100 percent money back refunds on all beauty products for any reason.

Walgreens sent an email stating, "The product we're selling is authentic and purchased legally on the open market from secondary source distributors."

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