Why does it take so long for some beauty products to make it to Australia?

There are some beauty products we see on US or European influencers that give us serious FOMO. I asked Michelle Wong, aka Lab Muffin, why this is.

Sophie Hanson spends a lot of time thinking about weird things. And she’s pretty sure you do, too. In her new column, Serious Question, Soph will explore the health questions you’ve always wanted to know the answer to, but never knew how to ask.

You know how you see all those selfies on Instagram about the latest product from, say, Glossier, Drunk Elephant or The Ordinary? I know, I’ve experienced the same FOMO you do.

I’ve vented my frustration along with legions of others on skincare-related Facebook groups. I’ve trawled through websites that will ship internationally, even considered forking out for a forwarding address, like my My US Address, which costs a small fortune, for the latest and greatest in skincare and cosmetics.

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So why does Australia miss out on so much and why do some products just take AGES to make it to our shores? I asked Michelle Wong, aka Lab Muffin, a Sydney-based skinfluencer with a PhD in chemistry, and was surprised to hear just how self-regulated the beauty industry is in Australia.

First of all, it’s important to understand that there is a difference between the definition of ‘cosmetic’ and ‘therapeutic’ products. Most skincare—cleansers, toners, moisturizers, serums, etc.—are deemed cosmetics because they’re created with the sole purpose of cleansing and maintaining the skin.

“For anything that doesn’t have an SPF label, there is basically zero process [for getting approved for sale in Australia],” she explains.

“There is a register of all the ingredients (the Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances) of all the chemicals that are allowed into Australia, and this applies to everything, from skincare to fertilizer… In general, most things in skincare are boring and basic, so they’re on that list already.”

It means a brand just must decide to sell to Australia and that’s about it. Considering how expensive shipping is, it’s understandable why some small brands wouldn’t want to take that risk.

Sunscreens, however, can only be sold in Australia if they are compliant with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods and this is a notoriously stringent regulatory body. The manufacturing facility must be approved in person by the TGA.

“La Roche Posay sunscreens, for example, took 12 years to get into Australia,” Wong explains, “and that only happened after L’Oreal took over the brand.”

It gets even more complicated when you’re talking about things like tinted moisturisers that contain SPF because they’re considered “secondary sunscreen”, meaning not intended to be the only kind of sun protection you use.

What about products like Drunk Elephant’s Baby Facial or The Ordinary’s AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution? The one that looks like blood and has the potential to burn peoples’ skin off?

These fall under products only approved for use in a professional setting, like by a facialist or dermatologist, according to The Poisons Standard, so it’s just not worth it for the brand to launch those products here. Will this change any time soon, does Wong think? Unfortunately, not.

“These rules have been in place for a long time, and I don’t think stuff regularly gets taken off the poisons list, stuff usually gets put on rather than off,” she says.

As for Glossier? I think founder Emily Weiss is having a laugh at this point.