Quite honestly, writing a summary of the events around the mythical, controversial, mostly disreputable beauty company Lime Crime feels like a Stefon skit from Saturday Night Live. This brand has everything: fake deaths, Nazi costumes, legal threats against 13 year-old girls, hacker attacks, class action lawsuits, FDA warnings, credit card fraud, cold sores, and questionably named eyeshadow palettes called "China Doll." The saying goes that beauty is only skin deep, but the crimes of and for beauty seem to be a lot more pervasive. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the top.
The year was 2008. Doe Deere, legally known as Xenia Vorotova, was new to her business name but not the cult of internet personality. She was a popular user on Livejournal, where the roots of her brand first took hold. By this time, she’d already made a few enemies by threatening legal action against a 13 year-old over photo credits, but Lime Crime launched in October without much of a hitch. It started off with a series of eyeshadows, glitters, a primer, and brushes.
Scandal broke out a few months later, early into 2009. This was the early days of beauty blogging (outside of long-running forums like MakeupAlley), and the community was small, intense, and devoted: bad reviews could spread like wildfire. For a small beauty company with little outside distribution, good reviews and press are essential for growth. It might come as little surprise then, that when critical reviews and questions about repackaging started popping up, the brand was proactive in their response. Bloggers were, at this point, buying and swapping Lime Crime products and swatching them to see how different they were from wholesale micas from TKB Cosmetics, a wholesale manufacturer of beauty supplies. The results weren’t easily dismissible — they do, admittedly, appear virtually identical. Several independent cosmetics companies (such as Beauty from the Earth) had, by this time, stated that they sold micas available through other suppliers. Lime Crime has never been one of them.
The first blogger to allege that Lime Crime repackaged wholesale pigments for a markup was Anastasia of the now-defunct blog Lipsticks and Lightsabers. More bloggers began comparing the products to wholesalers and asking Lime Crime to confirm or deny the rumor. Deere posted a video in response, showing production sample rejects and stating she was hands-on in the production of her brand from Day One — without showing the actual production process. The video has since been made private and is unviewable on YouTube. A representative from Lime Crime who reached out to me did not have a comment as to why.
To be fair, repackaging in the cosmetics industry is by no means an uncommon practice.
To be fair, repackaging in the cosmetics industry is by no means an uncommon practice. Cosmetic companies purchase formulas and supplies from private label manufacturers all of the time — in fact, you can do the same thing yourself using websites like Your Name Pro, or by purchasing from skincare companies like From the Lab. Brands under larger conglomerates like L’Oreal often go to the same factories, and therefore their formulas become proprietary to L’Oreal rather than stay exclusive. (That is not to say that companies bought by L’Oreal are forced to share their formulations within their private label sisterhood.) Formulations and suppliers are not just similar but are sometimes the same — and so the idea of a "dupe" is somewhat of a misnomer. In reality, product can be repackaged at a different price point within the same umbrella company. Even if it is not an exact replica, brands at all levels of distribution go to the same industry conferences, such as COSMOPROF, to speak with the same packaging suppliers and chemists and industry professionals; it is rare for a brand to purport that they produced everything in-house, simply because it would be financially unfeasible. Despite there being a seemingly endless parade of products, the industry itself has a core group of suppliers and formulations, which are both jealously guarded and constantly mimicked.
However, these facts don’t sway indie makeup aficionados from their distaste when smaller companies do the same thing as their larger competitors. For many indie makeup obsessives, they know all of this already. It is besides the point.
"There should be transparency," says Courtney, founder of the beauty blog Phyrra. "If it’s repackaged, it’s not a big deal. But let us know, because I feel like I’m wasting my money and being lied to. I don’t want to buy the same green three times. That is where the anger comes from. When I first got into indie makeup, I was excited. But people bought from TKB, did nothing to it, and I’d end up with the exact same colors, because little brands buy it and repackage, and jack the price up exponentially. In indie cosmetics, there’s this elitist streak. People feel like buying indie is better than anything else. So when you repackage, the anger is because it’s not any better if you’re doing this too."
Courtney is one of the few outspoken Lime Crime bloggers who has not fled the conversation over the years. Many people have gone silent, leaving ghost blogs and abandoned instagrams in their wake. It’s not for nothing — it’s public knowledge that Deere has pursued litigation against bloggers based in the U.S who have written negative reviews of the brand. She sued the founder of the first Lime Crime-critical blog, Doe Deere Lies, Michelle Jascynski, for damages to her reputation, lost sales, and more. Lime Crime alleged that Jascynski's posts cost the company sales totaling just under $250,000. In an interview with Jascynski, she was under the impression it was based primarily on the copyright, although defamation was also alleged.
"In my understanding, their lawyer was trying to make an argument that I was writing this stuff for profit because I had ads on the site," Jascynski says. "I think they thought if I were the owner of another company, that me having the blog [that had] ads on it, because it was being written in their perspective for profit, that they could make a legal argument that I was having financial gain by saying what I was saying. I think they thought if I could’ve been perceived as indicting their business for the sake of benefitting my own." In her recollections of the proceedings, Jascynski sounded bewildered about how it went down. She had never owned a beauty company. "I worked for an attorney at the time, and I had them look over the paperwork that was sent to me in a blank email. Everyone was like, 'We don’t know how this was allowed to be filed.' Because there wasn’t enough — at least in normal civil procedures in Georgia, the court would’ve said, 'There’s nothing here; this is just interpersonal issues. And we’re not gonna waste time on it.'" The case was voluntarily dismissed a month into the proceedings. According to Jascynski, they never stepped into court together or spoke directly, at all.
Deere’s suit against Jascynski is the only legal documentation on public record, given that cease-and-desist letters don’t have to be publicly filed — but there are many accounts of those being sent to bloggers, too. After publishing a review critical of Lime Crime, the blogger known as Grey from Le Gothique was sent a letter threatening legal action for libel and slander if she did not delete her review and replace it with an apology, provided verbatim by Lime Crime itself.
Here’s where it gets tricky, though. That letter is difficult to verify because that blogger, Grey, faked her death and was subsequently doxed from the internet once before — by the online knitting community. There is, I have found, a dramatic community for everything. Grey also failed to launch an independent monthly subscription box — allegedly keeping the donated products and much of the money sent. Internet commenters upset with her misrepresentation on the internet leaked her personal information and CPS were allegedly sent to her house. Those who knew her before she abandoned her indie cosmetics persona believe that the letter she received was an authentic demand by Lime Crime, regardless of her character flaws. We have no evidence to prove one way or the other. I suppose it doesn't matter — it worked. Grey took the post down, and others still consider it evidence of Lime Crime’s drama.
If having Grey post that public retraction was meant to intimidate beauty bloggers to avoid the fray, it didn’t quite work out as planned. By 2009, hating Lime Crime became practically a politic of the beauty blogosphere. When Doe Deere Lies was taken down, more blogs sprung up to take its place, and instagram accounts, too. The owner of one of the accounts — @RIPLimeGrime, goes by the alias Quinn — describes the movement as a hydra. "Cut one head off, two more spring up." The tags dedicated to the destruction of the brand's beauty products are at 8,000 posts and counting: sledgehammers to lipstick tubes, blow torches to lip gloss.
The accounts that are dedicated to recording Lime Crime’s struggles full time, however, are now primarily based internationally — and therefore out of the brand’s legal purview. Jasczyn suspects that this is why they haven’t disappeared. It’s not for a lack of trying, though. Oh Dear, Doe Deere! was sent a cease-and-desist a few months back. When the popular makeup blogger Christine of Temptalia — considered by WWD to be one of the most influential beauty bloggers in the world — reviewed their products unfavorably, Lime Crime wasn’t pleased. Christine recalled the scenario over email. "I wasn't impressed with a lot of shades, so it wasn't a glowing review. Lime Crime sent out an email to their customers and gave out my personal email address and asked customers to email me and tell me how great their lipsticks were." Christine’s brand is too big for an email leak to influence her reviews; this is a blogger who has had Revlon proudly display her blog badge on their products after they’ve won her approval.
In parallel with the rumors of repackaging and legal pressures, trouble came around again when Lime Crime launched the China Doll palette in 2012. You can imagine the reactions they received when they used a white model to portray a fantasy of Chinese beauty — particularly given that the model is wearing Japanese garments rather than traditional Chinese qipao. The palette description read:
"Don't let her milky skin, pouty mouth and flushed cheeks fool you, underneath the poised facade, there lies a heart of a tigress."
The owner of @RIPLimeGrime describes the movement as a hydra. "Cut one head off, two more spring up."
The brand described it as a fantasy based on China, which launched conversations about orientalism and cultural appropriation immediately thereafter. Lime Crime did acknowledge the criticisms, and published a (now deleted) blog post in response to the criticisms. They did not issue an apology for their Asian fantasy — they apologized that people were offended by it. Which is not precisely the same thing as apologizing for their mistake. In the post, Deere describes cultural appropriation as "cultural exchange," and says it is vital to ending racism, bigotry, and misanthropy, and that "what really matters is intent." One of the bloggers outspoken against this palette — an Asian American beauty blogger named Mai — sounded resigned when I recalled the post to her over the phone. After speaking to Doe and reaching no conclusion, she wrote in a post, "They still haven’t learned anything at all."
According to the history of the brand, she’d be right. This wasn’t even the first time Doe landed in hot water regarding cultural history. A month into Lime Crime’s launch, Deere blogged a photo of her dressed as Hitler for Halloween. The image has since been removed from the blog post, but the cached photo is viewable and continues to float around. A few years later, she removed comments from her blog in what some former customers have described as censorship. But you can still viewed the cached comments on the post. Most are actually incredibly supportive and compliment her commitment to the Hitler aesthetic. They are nowhere to be found on her blogazine now.
Regardless of these controversies, things have barreled on for the brand. They were briefly stocked at Sephora (though pulled within a month), and at one point were being stocked at all the favorite deep-Internet fashion retailers: Nasty Gal, ModCloth, Dolls Kill, Urban Outfitters. Like a poorly applied long-wear lipstick, Lime Crime survived, with only the occasional flake on the brand’s image on Instagram — they were still allegedly deleting comments critical of the brand on every platform. This went on until late 2014.
Like a poorly applied long-wear lipstick, Lime Crime survived, with only the occasional flake on the brand’s image on Instagram.
That’s when money started disappearing. Their website had been hacked by people exploiting their SSL certificate (which allows a secure connection from a web server to a browser — as long as it isn't compromised), and customer information was used for months to make purchases elsewhere. Customers reported fraud of up to $10,000, but most people lost more like two or three hundred dollars over international purchases they hadn’t authorized. Despite mounting complaints, the brand insisted that their certificate had not been compromised. Lime Crime initially did not send out an email to their customers about the breach. Instead, they posted about it on Instagram, illustrating the post with rainbow tiles, and notifying consumers via the comment section of the (now deleted) posts.
While they did eventually reach out to the customers impacted by letter and email, there are still customers spinning from the breach. Abby White is one of the victims who was not reimbursed — either by her bank or the companies involved. "I purchased Salem [a liquid lipstick] in January. I was super excited, despite all the awful things I heard. . . but I wasn’t thrilled. It wasn’t true to the swatch, and my lips were almost always raw and splitting after wearing it. Eventually I threw it away and went about my business; I went on vacation to Florida. On my way home I had my card declined — I had $7,000 in checking the week before. I found a letter from Lime Crime sitting on my desk when I got home, offering fraud protection. That would have been great if my money wasn’t already gone. So I went into my transactions and right off the bat, from the morning I bought that lipstick, I noticed seven or eight transactions that weren’t mine. I tried to ask for compensation for at least the blatant out of country transactions, only to be told there was nothing my bank could do."
Her story isn’t unique or uncommon to the brand; enough people became victims of the credit card breach that there’s currently a class-action lawsuit in the early stages of investigation by the firm Abington Cole + Ellery. In an email obtained by a victim of the breach who is participating in the lawsuit, there are apparently hundreds of victims who have come forward. On their website, in a page dedicated to the situation, they disclaim any necessity to offer refunds and direct victims to their bank and to Paypal.
This advice didn’t help Abby White or other people whose bank and credit card companies disavowed responsibility, though. It did however help Liz, a victim of the security breach whose bank reversed the fraudulent charges almost immediately. Now she has something more to worry about: banned ingredients. The purchases she made during the breach were the same products the latest FDA letter mentioned in theirwarning letter to Lime Crime, asking the brand to explain the inclusion of potentially toxic materials.
"I didn’t want to give them my money, but there were no dupes of the product at the time. Now the FDA warning has come out and I'm stuck with a lipstick that may or may not contain harmful chemicals — the harmful ingredients are listed on my box, which I still have. I’m done with this company," Liz wrote over email.
The ingredients listed: ferric ferrocyanide and ultramarine, are not, cosmetic chemists have assured me, all that harmful. In writing this piece I received panicked emails about alleged warts, rashes, sores and even miscarriage that angry customers linked to the company. Perry Romanowski, an independent cosmetic chemist at The Beauty Brains, explains these reactions likely have nothing to do with the ingredients mentioned. "Ferric Ferrocyanide is an inorganic pigment used in cosmetics and personal care products. It gives a dark blue color and is found in makeup, hair coloring products, nail polish and some skin care products. The ingredient is safe for external use, which is why you find it in skin care products. There is no evidence that it is harmful when ingested but it has never been approved for use in products that would come in contact with the mucous membranes on the body (such as in the mouth). It would be incredibly rare that anyone would have a sensitivity to an FDA approved colorant. It is highly unlikely that people have gotten sores on their lips due to the colorant. But if they were sensitive, then yes, there would need to be a minimum exposure level before a reaction takes place."
So what even brought the brand to the attention of the FDA in the first place? Customer complaints. According to FDA press agent Megan McSeveney, they received six customer complaints in the past six months about the packaging. In a Reddit thread dedicated to the FDA letter, customers confirm they’ve been trying to gain the attention of the brand for the possible mislabeling for months before the letter went out. Most were outright ignored, if not blocked from the company’s social media. When news of the letter broke, Lime Crime didn’t send out an email, either — they once again chose to address the news in Instagram comments, responding individually rather than releasing a public statement immediately. They did, eventually, release a statement a few days later, which they had a representative email me before (becoming unreachable for further comment). In customer follow ups regarding the letter, they said the FDA has already received their response and evidence that it was a product mislabeling mistake. The FDA could not confirm or deny this when asked for comment.
So: what does this mean for the brand and its customers — is this finally the too-literal proof of their former brand slogan: "So bright, it’s illegal!"?
Despite the mounting proof and growing line of dissatisfied customers: probably not. That’s simply not how the beauty industry works, or consumer guilt. The FDA doesn’t have legal authority to force a recall on a brand, nor are brands legally obligated to even test their products before offering them for retail. The onus is, as ever, on the consumer to be aware, alert, and subsequently report products to the FDA to investigate if a brand slips up.
Is this finally the too-literal proof of their former brand slogan: "So bright, it’s illegal!"?
Bloggers who have witnessed the brand from the beginning are skeptical too, and a bit resigned. They’ve noted a shift in the brand’s target audience, but not a shift in brand ethics. "I think now they market to younger and younger crowds who are not as knowledgeable and are ignorant as to what is going on," Mai theorized over the phone. It would stand to reason that this is a way for them to gain an audience when they’ve lost the support of other independent makeup brands and much of Youtube’s BeautyGuru Population. Jeffree Star has spoken out against Lime Crime, and the brand was not at the popular makeup convention IMATS LA last year, either, after years of showing. There had been a petition against them showing up.
While some retailers have pulled Lime Crime from their shelves, based on the history of the brand, this won’t stop it from growing in different ways. If the skeptics are a hydra of negativity and bad press for the brand, the brand itself isn’t much different. Just days after the FDA letter was released, they launched a new lip color: a bright blue shade, in that same cute pink, holographic packaging that shines. It’s called Cry Baby.
I imagine many of their future customers will heavily identify with the shade someday soon.
Correction: This piece initially listed Michelle Jascynski's name as Michelle Jasczyn and stated that Jascynski was sued only for copyright and not for defamation. These errors have been corrected. The post has also been updated to specify that Lime Crime did not attend IMATS LA.