In Search of Beauty, Afghan Women Pay a Toxic Price

By Salima Ghafari

KABUL, Afghanistan, November 8, 2005 (ENS) - Roqia, 30, is a sad-faced young woman in a grey dress and long white scarf. The head covering conceals the cause of her misery: she is almost completely bald, her head covered with coarse stubble. She has come to a central Kabul hospital to see a doctor.

"One month ago I had a permanent wave at a beauty salon in Shahr-e-Naw. It was okay at first, but after 10 days my hair started to fall out. Whenever I combed my hair, I lost thousands of strands," she said, crying. "Then the rest of my hair just broke off."

When Roqia went back to the beauty shop to complain, they told her that they buy their hair products from the local bazaar, and have no guarantee of quality, she said.

With the fall of the Taleban and the easing of at least some restrictions, Afghan women are starting to come out of the shell of fear and isolation imposed on them by the fundamentalist regime. Now that the ban on movies and television has been lifted, they are exposed to a wide variety of images, and many are trying to conform to the Bollywood standard of glamour they can now see nightly in their living rooms.


Young Afghan women are less restricted than in the past, but consumer protections are inadequate. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
But the Afghan market is not yet ready to satisfy these womenís demands for quality cosmetics. In fact, the mixtures on offer from even high-end shops can sometimes be toxic, causing disfigurement or disease.

Zaiba, 25, has also come to the hospital to consult a doctor about dark blotches that now cover more than half of her face. She is dressed all in black, with a black scarf covering her head and part of her face.

"Three months ago I bought some make-up from a shop in the city. My face was sensitive to it, but after an hour or so the blotches disappeared. So I used it again. That time the blotches did not disappear. That was two months ago. I am so depressed."

Cosmetics sold in Kabul bazaars may be expired, fake, or contain ingredients that are harmful to the skin or hair, say medical experts. The Ministry of Health, which has the responsibility for certifying cosmetic products, appears to be failing to do its job properly.

Doctor Mahmood Kohdamani, head of the Maiwand Hospital, one of only two medical establishments in the capital with a special section for skin diseases, thinks that the use of cosmetics can seriously damage the skin, particularly on the face. Cosmetics clog the pores, he said, which results in red spots and blotches.

Various chemical compounds in the cosmetics can also increase photosensitivity, he added, which makes the skin more susceptible to sunlight - and the prevalence of expired or fake cosmetics on the market makes the risk substantially higher.

"The number of incidents of skin damage with fake or expired cosmetics is 10 times higher than with normal products," he said.

Hair coloring and permanent wave solutions are a particular problem. "I now have dozens of patients who have come to me 24 to 48 hours after or curling or dyeing their hair," he said. The solution enters the bloodstream through the head, he added, and can cause skin problems in other areas of the body. It can also increase the risk of cancer.

Dr. Abdul Wakil Parwani is a skin care specialist at the Ibne Cina emergency hospital said those who import poor quality, substandard cosmetics into the country are completely irresponsible. "Some products can be toxic, causing severe skin disease. This, in turn, can affect the central nervous system, the digestive system and the heart," he said.

Dr. Parwani added that he now sees dozens of patients whose skin and hair show damage from poor quality products Ė and warned that women should not use any cosmetics they buy in the bazaar. In addition, he went on, they should test all cosmetics on a small patch behind the ear or on their arms before they use them.


Afghan women wait in line for health care. (Photo by Nitin Madhav courtesy USAID)
The Ministry of Health declined to be interviewed, but an official there admitted privately that cosmetics were not being tested.

"The Ministry of Health does not have any plan for testing cosmetics, although there is a laboratory for this kind of thing," said the source.

Adul Alim, a shopkeeper in Kabulís fashionable Shar-e-Naw district, admits that the quality of cosmetics is quite low.

"The government is taking taxes from businessmen and allowing them to bring these goods into the country without checking them for quality," he said.

Alimís own shop had cosmetics that bore the stamp of Germany, or other countries, but were in reality cheap knock-offs from China and Pakistan, he admitted.

"I have some different of types of fake powders which businessmen have brought me and I have to sell them to people," he said.

Yusuf, 30, is a cosmetics importer with a shop in central Kabul. He hotly disputed the charge that businessmen were importing low-quality cosmetics.

"I import all my goods from Dubai, which gets them from Germany, Japan and Denmark. It is a lie when shopkeepers say that businessmen are importing fake goods. All our goods are checked, and we never import fake or expired goods to sell to people."

This, however, conflicts with reports from the Customs Department, which says that it is not involved in checking cosmetics. One official, who did not want to be named, said that since taxes on cosmetics are so high, businessmen prefer to smuggle them in, mostly from Iran and Pakistan.

Regardless of the risks, some women will continue to use cosmetics.

Hamida, a 26-year-old government employee, said that she spends a fifth of her 50 dollar monthly salary on cosmetics.

"If I donít use make-up I feel very sad, as if I have lost something," she said.

Hamida has also had skin problems, but she treated them and is now fine, she said. She is willing to run the risk.

"Even though fashion is not good for the skin it has become a habit with me. I want to look good," she laughed.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}