Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 January 2011
Issue No. 1032
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sudan's beauty revolution

Ismail Kushkush meets Saba El-Musharaf, founder of a Sudanese company specialising in safe and natural products for women with coloured skin

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Naomi Campbell and Beyonce are stark examples of black beauty

For years women in the Arab world, South Asia and Africa have used beauty products designed for fair-skinned European and American women. Unfortunately, many of these products are made from chemicals that can be harmful in the long run, and while coloured- skinned women in the United States and Europe have found alternative products over the past few years, their counterparts in Africa and Asia still lag behind. Research on new beauty products is also often geared towards Caucasian or white women.

"This urged me to introduce a new concept in terms of aesthetic treatment," says 23-year- old Saba El-Musharaf, founder of Sabamedica, a beauty company in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

Coloured women sometimes have hyper- pigmentation, or an imbalance in pigment production, and this can affect the skin and make it uneven or blotchy, especially post pregnancy. "Dark skin even heals slower than Caucasian," says El-Musharaf.

Hair is another problem that many coloured women face, she adds. It can be dry and brittle and tend to break easily. To fix this problem, El-Musharaf explains, coloured women should use products that are hydrating and strengthening.

However, the problem is that most products on the market are not designed to solve these problems in a safe way for coloured women, being designed to meet the needs of white Caucasian women. "They fail to give the desired result, and they can also be harmful for dark-skinned women," she adds.

El-Musharaf has been keen to find quality and safe alternatives that suit the needs of coloured skin and hair. Such products have found their ways onto markets in the United States and Europe, she points out. Why should they still be so hard to find in Africa?

Some 20 years ago, there was a revolution in cosmetics elsewhere in the world, with brands launched by Fashion Fair, Ebony, Black Opal and Iman that catered specifically for coloured women. El-Musharaf wants to bring that revolution to her native Sudan and to other regional countries including Egypt.

She lived in the United Kingdom from 1992 onwards, where she studied pharmacy at the University of London and worked in hospitals and clinics. Her interest in cosmetic sciences began some seven years ago, pushing her also to obtain a diploma in the subject. "I decided to focus on developing new treatments, ingredients and the raw materials involved," she says.

At first, she tried to interest her family and friends in the new products, and then she started dealing with darker-skinned clients in London, as well as with women from Arab, Asian and other mixed-race backgrounds. She decided to start her own company during one of her visits to Khartoum.

"There was a need for good-quality, safe products to meet women's needs in Sudan," El-Musharaf explains, causing her to set up her own company, Sabamedica, in 2003, and to open a retail outlet in downtown Khartoum in 2006. In addition to Sudan and the UK, the company also has a modest distribution chain in Dubai in the UAE.

El-Musharaf's products, she emphasises, seek to achieve the right balance between natural ingredients and synthetic ones with health and efficacy as her goals. Many of her products are a fusion of natural ingredients and synthetic ones. They are "what we call cosmeceuticals", or cosmetic chemicals, she adds.

El-Musharaf uses vitamin C, considered a natural ingredient, and glycolic and kojic acids, considered cosmeceuticals, in her products. "These are mild chemicals derived from plant extracts," she explains.

Other ingredients El-Musharaf uses include yeast, vitamin B, olive oil, almond oil, panthenol in hair products, ginseng, green tea in anti- ageing creams, and licorice and mulberry to fade away dark circles under the eyes.

"It's very important to pick the right ingredients for the right skin types," she clarifies.

Another important aspect of El-Musharaf's work is choosing the right "delivery system" for treatments. Is the cosmetic more effective in the form of a liquid, a cream, a spray or a gel? Choosing the right delivery system depends on a proper understanding of the chemical components of each ingredient used in skin-care products, as well as a proper awareness of which are the active ingredients.

"Once this has been analysed, the product can be formulated to produce the most efficient result," she affirms. "My clients are both male and female. Men go through these issues too," she says with a laugh.

El-Musharaf's beauty advice consists of giving her clients information about their skin type, which sometimes contradicts their own opinions. Then the client starts using the products. "They are pleased because the results are striking, and they can compare them with those of their old skin- care routines," she says.

Her best-selling products are her face-peeling cream and her hair cream.

Jehan El-Tijani, 41, is a doctor who has long suffered from her skin being prone to acne when working under pressure. She used to use top-of-the- range products to combat this, but never achieved the desired result.

However, she has been using El-Musharaf's products for two years now and is very happy with them. "I use a face cream, and it has helped to tone my complexion," she says.

Nancy Gasim, 30, an interior designer who has a skin that is sensitive to perfume is also happy with the new products because they are additive and perfume free. Gasim says that skin- care products with perfumes have caused her in the past to break out in a rash. She also likes the hair-care products, which are hydrating, she adds.

El-Musharaf is proud that her products have received attention from clients outside Sudan in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ethiopia and Nigeria via her company's Facebook page. "My current products are mostly hair and skin creams, but I am looking into launching cleansers for different skin types and shampoos, as well as body firming creams for cellulite and stretch marks." She is also thinking of producing a lotion that may interest many men.

In Sudan and neighbouring countries fair skin tones are sometimes viewed as being "more beautiful" than darker ones. Amal Fadlalla of the department of women's studies at the University of Michigan in the United States is critical of this view, since, she says, "women are using products to alter their skin colour, and some of these products put women at risk of getting cancer or other diseases."

"Perhaps an alternative message that "dark skin is beautiful" or "black is power" is needed at the moment," she adds.

Certainly, such a message is what El-Musharaf intends to send, hoping to alter what she also believes are misconceptions of beauty. Inspired by the 1960s' slogan "black is beautiful" that first appeared in the United States among African-Americans, El-Musharaf believes that we now need to make this thought grow.

Some clients heading for her shop are hoping to acquire a fairer skin. But El-Musharaf is keen to emphasise that what she is offering them is the possibility of "polishing" the skin they already have and not changing it.

If clients insist on changing their skin tone, El-Musharaf is not hesitant about making her position clear. "On many occasions I have refused to give treatment to a client because I sensed that all she or he wanted was a lighter shade of skin, and that's not what we're about," she recalls.

El-Musharaf explains that her work is about correcting imperfections and maintaining and nourishing what you already have. Building her clients' self-esteem is part of her approach to beauty. She believes that people should be proud of what they have been blessed with. She takes a relaxed approach with first-time customers, building their confidence. A common response she gets is, "oh really, do you think my shade or my complexion is beautiful?"

With hair products, the story is not very different. While many coloured women prefer straight hair, El-Musharaf is not a fan of hair relaxers. On the contrary, she encourages women to accept what they have and make it more manageable.

Fadlalla believes that such products can help women with coloured skin understand that there are better external models of beauty than those projected by the expensive and harmful products they may use.

Love your skin. Look after it carefully. Feel blessed. These are the messages El-Musharaf gives to women with coloured skin.

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