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Paying the price for beauty


Recent proliferation of unlicensed beauty clinics has led to widespread use of generic imported skin treatments, which doctors warn can cause range of harmful side effects.

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Two skincare saleswomen speak to a potential customer at one of Phnom Penh's many unlicensed cosmetic shops.


Doctors say treating acne with expensive products might not be the best approach. In many cases, acne can be treated most effectively with soap and water. They say that oily skin, in particular, should not be treated with cosmetics. 

THE burgeoning skincare industry is too often guilty of aggressively marketing generic products that are largely ineffective, dermatologists and doctors say, and, in some cases, have the potential to harm consumers' skin. 

Toxic substances such as lead and mercury are commonly included in generic whitening products sold at unlicensed beauty clinics, said Dr Plong Panhchak Ritha, a physiology professor at the University of Health Sciences.

Steroids, moderate amounts of which can be used to effectively treat certain skin conditions when administered by trained physicians, are also often present in such products in concentrations high enough to cause harmful side effects, he said.

An increasing number of women are likely to use such products given the recent proliferation of unlicensed beauty clinics, said Dr Chan Vichet, director of the National Centre for HIV/Aids, Dermatology and STI Control. Though he could not provide an estimate of the number of new unlicensed beauty clinics, he and other experts said they have increased dramatically in recent years, primarily in the capital.

The case of Vong Phal Sreysros illustrates the pitfalls of this growing trend. Three years ago, when she first noticed acne on her face, the 29-year-old Phnom Penh-based sales representative went to a market stall to buy some lotion.

At first, it appeared to be working.

"It helped my face become white, and it removed some acne," she said in an interview with the Post last week. "But then my face became crispy, and I didn't know the reason why."

She then went to a beauty salon, she said, where she spent US$300 on treatment. But that hasn't helped either.

She has finally decided to consult a trained physician to treat her skin. 

"I've wasted my money," she said.

"This time I want a doctor to give me advice about my problem."

Unregulated growth

Lax enforcement of regulations targeting unlicensed shops has allowed their growth to go unchecked, said Plong Panhchak Ritha, who runs a licensed shop of his own called the Phnom Penh Laser and Skin Care Centre.

Unlicensed shops often sell lotions produced by mixing several different types of soap and acne medications together, he said, which can trigger bad reactions when applied.

Dr Ly Cheng Huy, director of the Khmer-language Health Magazine, said some of these lotions and powders are made of up to 20 different products, which are mixed together without regard as to how they will interact with one another.

As was the case with Vong Phal Sreysros, these products often seem to be working at first, generating some improvement in patients' complexions.

It helped my face become white ... but then my face became crispy.

Complications usually don't appear until later on, he said.

For example, products with steroids make faces whiter, he said, but also make the treated skin thinner, which leads to an altered complexion. Prolonged steroid use can also cause heart disease and kidney problems, he said.

Products that include mercury tend to yield similar short-term gains and long-term problems, he said.  

Ly Cheng Huy said many shoddy cosmetics products are imported from countries including Australia, India and Thailand.

He called on the government to take action to prevent these products from entering Cambodia, arguing that a subdecree passed last August banning their importation has not been enforced.

Dr Chan Vichet also acknowledged that growth in the unlicensed beauty industry has been rampant, blaming television and radio advertising for convincing women that they should go to unlicensed clinics instead of public hospitals to treat skin problems. 



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