Just as he did every morning, Diwaniya man Mohammed Jameel took a look in the mirror as he was getting ready to go to work. The view was unexpectedly shocking: his face was covered in blisters and red spots and looked as though it had been burned.
And it was then that he remembered how his barber had encouraged him to use a “magical mixture” the day before. While they mostly shave at home Iraqi men, especially from the middle classes, will tend to go their local barber at least once a week for a close, manual shave, often with a straight razor.
In Jameel’s case, his barber had told him that the mixture he had concocted himself, would make his skin brighter and more youthful. The barber also told Jameel that many of his other customers had tried the cream and that they’d all been more than satisfied with the results.
“But this so-called magical mixture burnt my skin,” Jameel complained to NIQASH. “My doctor told me I was actually allergic to the ingredients in the potion.”
Local woman, Nada Kamal, 30, is another victim of a “magic mixture” that was given to her by a local beauty salon. The results: a swollen, red and itchy face.
“I don’t even know how they convinced me to use the mixture,” Kamal said. “I am a chemistry graduate! But I was told that my neighbour had also used this mixture and because I was convinced that it made a difference to her looks, I decided to use it too.”
And Kamal and Jameel are only two of the victims of the so-called magic potions. It’s a growing trend for beauty therapists and barbers to make up their own cosmetics and they speak with pride about their original recipes, using them to attract customers. Some practitioners even consider themselves competition for cosmetic surgery.
According to Diwaniya authorities, there are around 800 hair and beauty salons in the city, catering to both sexes. Among these, they estimate, are around 200 unlicensed premises.
Talk to local barber Bilal al-Husseini and he’ll spend a fair bit of time describing the magical results of his mixtures. He says the people that use it start to notice significant results after two weeks of use and that his mixture contains only harmless, efficacious ingredients bought from reputable stores.
“I trust the person who sells the ingredients,” al-Husseini explains. “He’s a pharmacist and he knows what skin needs.”
No two magic mixtures are the same and usually a homemade potion will contain more than 12 ingredients.
One of the main and commonly used ingredients for customers with allergic reactions or skin conditions is Betnosam cream, an Iraqi product, that contains some betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory steroid. Another commonly used ingredient is Dermodrin, an international brand name antihistamine which also reduces allergic itchiness and rashes.
Other creams are produced for whitening the skin and lightening freckles. While a handsome Arab man is often described as having darker olive skin, Arab women have joined females in Asia and Africa seeking paler skin. As one Egyptian sociology professor told news agency, AFP: “What is rare is expensive. Since in Egypt, like in the rest of the Arab world, olive skin is the most common, we prefer white skin.”
Lightening or whitening creams for sale in Iraq come from a variety of different sources and manufacturers, including China, Lebanon and Syria. Among them al-Tufaha, Bint al-Arab, Top Shirley, Super Rose and Zahrat Lubnan. There are also the private blends made by local beauticians and hairdressers.
Prices for the home blends range from around US$15 to US$30, depending on what sort of ingredients went into them.
For example, in order to compete on what appeared to be a burgeoning market, another Diwaniya barber, who wanted to be known only as Ammar, said he’d bought ingredients himself from a local pharmacy and the used his mother’s juice blender to mix everything together. The final result looked good, he explains, and he was able to sell his cream at a cheaper price than some name brands.
Dermatologist Raad al-Muhja warned against the use of creams that contained chemicals which might have unknown effects. Facial skin was sensitive, he explained, and could react easily to strange combinations. Additionally, prolonged use of certain ingredients could cause skin cancer. At the very least, the magical potions were highly unlikely to have any kind of beneficial effect.
Pharmacist Sarmad Ulwan commented on the use of creams like Dermodrin and Betnosam: “They are used as anti-allergy creams and for eczema, psoriasis and other dermatological disorders. Only specialized physicians can determine the use of these materials.”
Ulwan also said it could be dangerous to mix cosmetic creams because they were not as strictly controlled as other medications, because they were part of the beauty industry.
In Iraq, the law on pharmaceuticals prohibits the sale of any mixtures without the express permission of a physician, such as a prescription. In fact, as the head of inspections at Diwaniya’s department of health, Hamid Kareem, says, the use and sale of these kinds of ingredients at beauty salons and barber shops is actually illegal.
Some action had been taken against those preparing magical mixtures and some of the salons and barber shops involved had been closed down, Kareem told NIQASH.
“But we think that the use of these kinds of materials has almost become normal for the owners of these beauty centres,” Kareem noted. “The owners are unqualified yet they think they are specialized cosmetic doctors.”
As a result, it seems, the people of Diwaniya, who are seeking to look better, have simply become guinea pigs for amateur cosmeticians trying to make a fast profit.