Beautician Chhim Vuttey (left and inset) applies whitener to Somreappe Ney.
An increase in personal income and leisure time means that more Cambodian men and
women are focusing on their looks.
"Since I don't work and I am a housewife, every morning when my kids go to school
I go shopping for not only food but also for powder for whitening my face,"
says Ung Phally, who shops at her local market.
Chhim Vuttey, a beauty parlor owner, says that the popularity of beauty products
is definitely on the rise: the number of products she imports has doubled over the
past five years.
"The number of boxes I order every month has increased from one to two - and
each box has about 2,000 products," she says, adding that she now spends almost
$40,000 a year importing them.
However, Vuttey says that anxiety over color and clearness of the skin is not just
a female concern - in common with their western counterparts, men are spending more
on beauty products. She says that 60 percent of her clients are men - most in their
early twenties - and that many suffer from severe redness and breakouts due to the
use of cheap products.
"Men and women come to me and most of them have used these products that are
imported from Thailand and Vietnam," she says. "When they get sick they
come to me for help."
However, imported products, particularly those from the United States and France,
are extremely expensive and out of the reach of most ordinary Cambodians. Vuttey
says that most Cambodians who can afford to, buy French products because they are
known to be safe and of a high quality.
She ascribes the trust Khmer people have for French products to the influence the
former colonial power had in Cambodia.
"When I was growing up, before the time of the Khmer Rouge, I would see my mother,
grandmother and aunts use these French moisturizers and face creams. They looked
beautiful," Vuttey says.
After seeing poor results from countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, Vuttey says
she will only stock French imported beauty products. That is not the case in the
city's markets, where quality is generally poor, but price is more important.
"I tell people to stop using cheap products that they buy from the small shops
in the markets. Most of the sellers do not know what they are selling and some cannot
even read the labels on the products because they are written in another language,"
She adds that people would be better off throwing away market cosmetics.
One woman who knows too well the problems of cheap market beauty products is 53-year-old
Chea Vuthtee. She says that before she had her first child her neighbor recommended
a particular skin lightening powder available at the market.
"I used this product, but then my skin broke out badly. I threw away the
product and went back to see the sales lady, but she refused to refund me,"
Vuthtee says. "Do not go to the local market to buy beauty products, because
they are not mixed properly."
She recommends that young people use natural products such as orange pulp or carrot
slices to treat faces.
More commonly used, though, are skin-whitening products. Beauticians know well that
with many of these products the best advice is buyer beware.
"I tell my daughters not to use skin-whitening cream, because it will destroy
their skin," says Vuthtee.
She explains that culturally, Khmer people prefer lighter skin. Girls with light
skin are considered more beautiful, which makes it easier to find a husband. This
explains the experience of one bride-to-be.
Thirty-year-old Somreappe Ney, who wanted lighter skin for her wedding next year,
had an allergic reaction to whitening cream she bought from the market.
"My face broke out and looked as red as rouge," she says.
She has now spent more than $100 at a professional beauticians to rid herself of
the resultant acne and dark spots.
In a bid to regulate the increased trade in beauty products, the Council of Ministers
is considering a law to raise the standards on cosmetics imports to Asean specifications,
say government officials.
"Right now companies are bringing cosmetics into the country without our control,
so how can we be sure about the safety of the product?" says an official at
the Ministry of Health. "Our goal is the safety of the consumer."
The sub-decree would empower the Ministry of Health to check the safety of imported
cosmetics, part of the requirements of Asean's Mutual Agreement Recognition (MAR).
This requires that all imported cosmetics be registered, have a proof of manufacturing
license, and contain a list of ingredients. The official says that the legislation
must be in place by 2003, to comply with Asean's standards.
Although the pre-occupation with lighter skin continues, not everyone is too concerned.
"Here in Cambodia, the sun is too hot and it makes the skin darker, says Central
Market vendor Chhun Lon. "Lighter skin is more attractive - but I don't use
any kind of cream on my face. I'm too old for that stuff."