Cairo, March 2015 – Veto Newspaper – “When I bought that facial cream… I wanted to do like actresses/celebrities. I wish I’d never bought it!” recalls Nariman,20, touching her burnt skin.
Nariman says that she bought a “facial cleansing mask” in March 2014 in ‘Ataba’ market, in the heart of downtown Cairo, for L.E. 6 (less than US $1.) As soon as she began applying the yellowish-color cream to her face, she began to experience a burning sensation, after which, she could no longer expose her face to the sun.
She rushed to a dermatologist, Dr. Ahmad Abdel Baqi, in ‘al-Saff’- Giza governorate – where she lives. She was told that her face has multiple burns as a result of using this product- known to the public as “cleansing mask” or “facial exfoliating cream”. This product is prepared by illegal factories using ingredients such as caustic soda.
Nariman went through four days of treatment, similar to what thousands of girls and women who frequent ‘Ataba’ and other popular markets in Egypt, go through, as this reporter has discovered. The extent of the damage caused, depends on the degree of skin sensitivity. Dr. HanyNather, Professor of Dermatology and formerHead of the National Research Centrewarns that using such products could result in second degree burns (See fig. 1 for a definition of first, second and third degree burns)
The ministry of heath denies that such products exist in unlicensed factories. However, the ministry of interior is investigating ‘Beer el-Sillim’(basement) factories as well as other unlicensed factories producing beauty products. It confirms that 188 factories have been shut down in 2014 However,a large number of such factories are still operating under-cover.
In December 2014, Amina rushed to ‘al-Haud al-Marsoud’Dermatology hospital in Cairo, seeking treatment for her 7 year old daughter. The dermatologist discovered that the girl suffers from first degree burns, after having applied on her face an “exfoliating cream”, which her mother had bought in ‘Ataba’ market. The girl was treated by ‘Mebo’ cream for burns. She had to use it four times a day for two weeks, while avoiding any exposure to sunlight.
Islam, a hairdresser in ‘Helwan’, Cairo, says that his customers ask for this “exfoliating cream” because itscheap price. The cost of this facial treatment does not exceed L.E. 3 (Less than 50 cents), compared to L.E. 30 (US $4)- when using equivalent medically approved products.
In general, the owners of 17 out of 20 barber shops in Cairo and Giza Governorates – which this reporter visited- confirmed the use of such products, the source of which are unknown to them.
Mohammad Hamed, a barber in ‘BoulaqAbulEla’ area, says that the majority of people using such products are impoverished like construction workers, who frequent barber shops once every two months or so.
Mahmoud Hamed, 17, talks about the outcome of his experience after having used this exfoliating product. He also had to use a burns treatment cream twice daily for two weeks Again,EmadFathi, a labourer, asked the barber to stop applying that cream immediately; having felt a burning sensation on his face.
In ‘Ma’sara’, Cairo, MeenaAwad’s wedding day was totally spoilt after his barber recommended the use of the exfoliating cream. It caused his skin to burn. However, he could not even consult a doctor because of his wedding celebrations.
In ‘Embaba’, Giza governorate, SayyidNaser, a barber, recalls how some barber shops in popular areas add water to this product in order to dilute it; minimizing its harsh effects on the skin.
Ahmad Rashad, a driver from ‘Embaba’ says that he uses a soothing cream after each exfoliation treatment because of the burning sensation he experiences, which lasts 24 hours. This costs Rashad L.E. 5.
In 6th of October city, a suburb of Cairo, Hasan Ahmad, a beauty salon owner, says that he makes sure to obtain his beauty products form registered pharmacies, by the Ministry of Heath, adding that the cost of one exfoliating treatment is L.E. 30 (approx. US $4.)
It all started in ‘Ataba’- a busy commercial area in down town Cairo. This is where the journey of investigating the roots of this product began. A sixty year old skinny man standing on the fringes of ‘Ataba’ market calling on passers-by, in a loud voice: “Polish your face ….For only 6 pound.” (L.E.6)When the reporter asked him about the price of the product, the street seller said that he’d be willing to sell it for 2 pounds per container, the whole sale price that he charges beauty salons in popular areas.
Omar, the street seller, says that he sells approximately 50 containers every three days. He then contacts the dealer to put in his new order. “I’ve no idea where the products come from. I get the products and pay the delivery guy… I also don’t know how the products are made or what they’re made of”, he tells this reporter.
This reporter observed that street seller for 3 days in April 2014, in an attempt to track down the source of these products. On the third day, at 11:00 a.m., a private car arrives, carrying a big load of the beauty products. The seller greets the driver, takes from him two boxes and pays the bill.
The reporter followed the car, from ‘Ataba’ until it reached a residential building in ‘Dar al-Salam’ – an area in old Cairo. The driver went into an apartment on the ground floor. Shortly afterwards, he left the building with a number of workers, carrying cartons of the same products that the driver had delivered to the street seller in ‘Ataba’. The workers placed the cartons in the car boot. A man in his forties, wearing a ‘galabeyya’ (a local attire), followed them.
The car took off and the process of distributing the products began. When the reporter approached one of the workers, asking him if there were a job opportunity for him, the guy said “ask Mr.Gamalo… the owner of the factory.”
The reporter informed the worker that he came from a village in ‘Suhag’- southern Egypt-and needed a job to support his family. The man looked at him and said: “Go carry those barrels with the others- you’ll get L.E. 50 per day (US $ 6 approx.)
The factory is in a 4 bedroom apartment. The barrels that contain the raw material are stored in two rooms, while the other two rooms are used to make the products. There are five workers, in their twenties. One is assigned to buy the raw material from ‘Ataba’ and ‘el-Hussein’ neighborhoods, while the job of the other three is to prepare the “exfoliating cream”. The fourth worker is the driver,whose responsibility is to distribute the products.
The workers use the barrels to mix the ingredients of the “exfoliating cream”. One ingredient is Sodium Hydroxide or caustic soda- as known to the workers. They cover their hands with plastic bags, while mixing the ingredients with a wooden stick, throughout their working hours- from morning till 6:00 p.m. They have a lunch break.
The reporter worked with them for two days; cleaning the factory, moving barrels and filling small containers with that product.
Initially, the workers pour eight gallons of a material called “saxpone” which renders a golden colour to the product. Six more gallons of Sodium Hydroxide are added in addition to another ingredient, known as ‘maghlath’, in Arabic- (a thickener). This is a powder that gives the product a slimy texture. The workers then add 8 gallons of caustic soda. The ingredients are mixed in the barrels. When the mixture is cold – after having stirred all ingredients for 45 minutes — it becomes a paste, with a slimy texture.
During the working hours, the reporter asked the factory owner why caustic soda is added despite its negative effects on the skin. The owner replied: “This is the most important ingredient in the exfoliating process. According to him, it removes the dead layer of the skin and therefore, gives the skin its glow.
At another meeting with the factory owner, he defends his product, saying that it causes no harm and that the proportions of the ingredients are suitable. He says. “All those who work in that field, use the same ingredients, not just me. No one has ever complained about the product.” He refused to continue the interview.
All windows are shut. All curtains are drawn, to avoid anyone looking into what’s going on in the unlicensed factory. The amount produced daily is 1600 containers, 500 grams each. This is distributed to wholesale dealers as well as individual buyers in greater Cairo.
Every now and then, the owner of the factory supervises the workers, asking them to stay quiet and not to get into any arguments with anyone in the building nor the neighborhood. The owner spends most of his day at a nearby café, to make sure all is going fine.
The next day, the reporter got hold of an exfoliating cream container and took it to a reputable lab affiliated to Cairo University, for analysis. The results showed that the percentage of Sodium Hydroxide or caustic soda, in the sample, varies between 18% – 20%. This percentage causes second degree burns, as confirmed by Dr. Hani al-Nather- a dermatology professor and former head of the National Research Centre.
Dr. Nathersays, “Diluting the product with water does not minimize its harmful effects. In fact, the extent of the damage and burns caused, depends on how sensitive and allergy-prone the skin is.”
Dr. Madiha Ahmad, director of the Pharmaceutical Inspection unit at the Ministry of Health, confirms that caustic soda is not an ingredient that is ever used in beauty products. Standard approved ingredients, used in beauty products forbid the use of any allergy-causing component. This contradicts the presence of Sodium Hydroxide in that product. (See fig 1)
She confirms that the ministry carried out unannounced inspection campaigns to check on pharmacies, in order to make sure that they do not carry beauty products- the source of which is unknown. However, the pharmaceutical inspection unit is assigned to inspect licensed pharmacies only, which are registered at the Ministry of Health. There are 63,000 licensed pharmacies in Egypt; while there are only 2,000 inspectors. In other words, each inspector is responsible for checking 30 pharmacies. The ministry has issued approximately 3,000 fines, related to beauty products in 2014, which resulted in the closure of 27 pharmacies whose owners had to be charged in court.
Dr. Madiha Ahmad adds that one of the reasons that led to the closure of these pharmacies is selling the product in question, in addition to other illegal practices which these pharmacies have committed- be it selling drugs with a past expiry dates or carrying unauthentic brands of medicines. At the same time, she clarifies that she does not have detailed information regarding the closure of each and every pharmacy- at present.
Adding caustic soda lends the makers of these products and barber shops using them responsible under article 2 /no 48 of 1941 law of “combating deception and fraud.” The punishment of which could reach no less than 1 year imprisonment, with a maximum of 5 years, in addition to a minimum of L.E.10,000 and a maximum of L.E. 30,000 in penalties- or the equivalent of the value of the sold illegal products. CounselorZakariaShalash, head of Giza Criminal Court says that the punishment is strict and quite appropriate. However, the pending problem is bringing these criminals to court.
General Hany Abdel Latif, Interior Ministry spokesman, says that the campaigns on “Beer el-Sillim” factories have contributed to a large extent, to limiting their activities/production. However, he also confirms that a number of these factories are still in operation. He adds that the ministry has shut down approximately 5,000 unlicensed factories in 2013; 122 of which deal in beauty products. The number of closed down factories has reached 188, in 2014.
Mr Mohammad al-Bahey, head of the ‘Beauty Products’ section at the Chamber of Commerce says that the values of unknown beauty products’ trade is approximately 2 billion Egyptian pounds- pointing out that the yearly value of beauty products trade reaches US $500 million.
Between the painful experience of Nariman, the messed up wedding of Meena, Egyptians remain victims to traders with no conscience, who use ingredients that cause skin burns, in order to make money off the poor. The efforts of the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Health are unable to protect people from those unknown beauty products.
This report has been completed with support from ARIJ – Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism www.arij.net
First degree burns: This is the mildest form of burns whose effects are limited to the outer layer of the skin only. The symptoms are redness as well as pain on touching the skin, with a possible inflammation.
Examples: sun burns, primary burns, resulting from exposure to hot vapor, and primary burns when touching hot liquids.
Second degree burns:This affects internal skin veins, so its affect go deeper than the outer layer of the skin. These burns are more extreme in the pain they cause and result in ulcers as well as inflammation.
Examples: touching hot metal such as an iron, a stove or being exposed to strong chemical substance. Other examples include spilled hot water on the skin as well as some severe sun burns.
Third degree burns: These are the most dangerous types. The outer as well as the inner skin are severely affected. The skin might turn dark brown or black or it could turn white/ off-white. These burns cause inflammations, permanent ulcers. However, they do not cause any pain because of the loss of nerve sensation. This type of burns calls for the patient’s immediate transfer to a hospital. If not treated straightaway, it could be fatal.
Examples:Exposure to chemical substances, electric shocks, direct fire burns, touching hot metal for a long time, boiling water or extremely hot oil
General Description of Beauty Products as per Standardized Egyptian Prescriptions
1- The product should be of a homogenous form.
2- It has to have an agreeable scent.
3- The components of the product should abide by the conditions of European recommendations.
4- The percentage of hydrocinon should not exceed 2 percent.
5- Use of HexahydrateStranium chloride should not exceed 2.1/ percent
6- He product should be free of any heavy metals or their components such as lead, cadimium, tar.
7- The use of Citric Ratinok and its components is prohibited.
8- It should be free of any bacteria.
9- It should be free of any fungus.
10- Bacterial count should not exceed 100/gram
11- It should be attractive to the naked eye
12- It should be tested for allergies- not causing any.
13-It should withstand heat- temperature stability test.
Caustic Soda: Its Uses
Sodium Hydroxide (Caustic soda) has a burning effect on the skin. It is easily dissolved in water and quickly reduces to a liquid form. It is sold in ‘Ataba’, and ‘Muski’ markets in central Cairo as one of the materials produced by chemical industrial companies. Salt (Sodium Chloride) is a main component in its production. Caustic soda is used in:
– Manufacturing paper
– Making soap
– Petrol purification
– Aluminum production
– Surface cleaning
– Restoration of leaded glass