Online marketplaces – shopping websites that allow you to buy from multiple third-party sellers – do not have the same responsibilities as high street or regular online retailers for the safety of the products sold on their sites. Unfortunately, we’ve seen unsafe products appearing on these platforms time and time again.
We’re pushing for the government to do more to end dangerous products, but in the meantime it’s important to be aware of the risks and the ways you can mitigate these when shopping online.
Three quick tips to help avoid dangerous products when shopping online
It can be tricky to work out whether a product is safe or not before you buy it. Often, we don’t know for sure until we’ve put it through a full lab test. However, we have seen patterns that mean we can offer some helpful, general advice, especially when you're buying a product with safety or security considerations.
Deals that look too good to be true often are Many of the dangerous safety issues we found were discovered on cheap products bought online. It’s worth spending a little more for peace of mind.
Stick to known brands The majority of problems we’ve found come from unknown brands, or unbranded products.
Do your research It pays to put the time in before you buy, and don’t just rely on high customer review scores on the marketplaces.
Check the brand
The popularity of online marketplaces has coincided with the rise of the ‘unknown brand’. Marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay are filled with tantalisingly cheap options that may be boosted by hundreds or thousands of positive reviews, but many of these are on brands you might not recognise.
We’ve highlighted the dangers of fake reviews many times over the past few years, but a pattern we’ve found in our product safety work is that the vast majority of issues are with products from brands we’d never heard of.
Sometimes brand considerations will only get you so far – our investigations have revealed counterfeit products and misleading listings that may look like an official product, only to end up being a cheap clone.
These will likely be of inferior quality but can also be dangerous, particularly if there is a safety element involved.
Counterfeits can be difficult or even impossible to identify from the listings themselves, especially when they use official photography from the real brand.
Our investigation into eBay product reviews revealed hundreds of listings for counterfeit recalled chargers displaying positive product reviews that may have been inherited from the original, genuine, product.
Any product designed for babies or children can adhere to a specific safety standard and have a CE mark that indicates the product has met EU health, safety and environmental concerns. You may also see the Lion Mark on toys, which indicates toy safety and is used by the British Toy and Hobby Association and Toy Retailers Association.
However, the only mandatory safety requirements are actually for child car seats, where the law states that only EU-approved seats can be used or sold in the UK.
These have a clear orange approval label with either R129 or R44.04 on them indicating they can be sold in the UK market.
All others are voluntary standards, but big brands tend to comply because many major retailers won't stock products if the seller can't prove they are safe and have been tested externally.
For example, the EN50291 standard for CO alarms is voluntary, but all of the recognisable brands will have passed these standard tests, and you should see this Kitemark on the packaging.
If in doubt, follow the advice on this page: stick to known, reputable brands that meet current safety standards.
Be wary of health and beauty products
You can find a whole raft of health and beauty products available on online marketplaces, but our investigations show that you could potentially be putting yourself in harm's way.
Our lab tests of alcohol-based hand sanitisers found some contain a fraction of the alcohol content they claim to, leaving those who buy them unknowingly unprotected from the bacteria and viruses these products are supposed to kill.
Buying teeth whitening products, including gel-coated whitening strips, gel-filled syringes and pens with brush tips used to paint on whitening fluid, from online marketplaces is risky. Out of 36 teeth whitening products we tested, 21 contained more than the legal amount of hydrogen peroxide (0.1%) permitted for home use in teeth whitening kits and six had more than 100 times too much hydrogen peroxide to be legally sold.
It’s not just safety you need to consider when shopping online: security is a more recent concern, particularly given the rise of smart, connected devices. Marketplaces are full of cheap alternatives to well-known brands, but we’ve found that unless you choose carefully, you could end up putting your data and your home network at risk.
We’ve continually found issues with cheap, wireless cameras on marketplaces, including more than 100,000 indoor security cameras in the UK homes that could have critical security flaws that would put them at risk of hacking.
Sometimes safety and security concerns marry up. Our investigation into cheap smart plugs shows how they could be dangerous enough to start a fire, as well as compromising your personal data.