Iran found to be the Middle East's second largest market for cosmetics.
Veiled and to some degree hidden from public life, many in the West assume that Iranian women lead largely self-effacing lives.
But according to a recent study by an Iranian economics think tank, it turns out Iranian women are some of the world’s top consumers of cosmetics and – together with men – have made Iran the Middle East’s second-largest market for makeup.
Tose'e Mohandesi Bazaargostaran Ati (Future Development of Market Engineering) found that 14 million Iranians collectively spend upwards of $2 billion annually on various beauty products, accounting for 29 percent of the $7.2 billion cosmetics market in the Middle East, second only to Saudi Arabia. This makes Iran the world's seventh-largest consumer of cosmetics.
The report's findings indicate Iranian women and girls, generally urban and between the ages of 15 and 45, spend a per capita average of about $7 each month on cosmetics. The average monthly salary in Iran is $600 to $700.
The results, first published earlier this month in Faslnameh Tose’e Mohandesi Bazar (The Marketing Magazine), are based on estimates derived from a survey, not exact figures.
"Iran's consumption may be high, but I doubt that we have precise statistics on such goods," Dr Seyed Marandi, a lecturer at the University of Tehran, told The Media Line. "These sort of goods are very easy to bring in while avoiding customs so it's very difficult to gauge the level of consumption."
"Cosmetics are easy to bring across the border without being discovered," he said, pointing out that while Iran produces cosmetics, a significant portion of the cosmetics in the country are imported. "Tariffs in Iran are relatively high - 20 or 30 percent - so there is a huge incentive to go around customs."
"However, the general impression seems to be that Iranian, Arab, and Turkish women have traditionally used more cosmetics than women in western countries and that this trend continues today," Dr Marandi said. "It seems that it's something much more a part of our culture."
On an official level, makeup is forbidden in Iranian government offices and the the Islamic Republic's religious establishment considers the public wearing of makeup to be contrary to hijab, which requires women to wear loose-fitting clothing covering the entire body and something covering the hair. Some Iranian women completely cover their hair, but most do not.
But despite religious police attempting to enforce the hijab, Iran's urban centers are full of elaborately made-up women and teenage girls. Furthermore, products like face masks, anti-wrinkle creams, and high-quality shaving creams are increasingly popular among men.
While Iran has a domestic cosmetics industry, the majority of the cosmetics on the market are imported from China, Korea and Turkey. More expensive Western cosmetics such as Clinique and Estée Lauder are also popular among Iranian elites.
And the trend is not just skin deep. Iran has been named among the leading 'nose-job capitals' in the world and cosmetic surgery is a popular and growing industry in the country.
Dr Eldad Pardo, an expert on Iranian gender issues and a professor at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, said a heightened cultural appreciation for beauty is nothing new in Iran.
"I'm not at all surprised there is this interest in cosmetics in Iran," he told The Media Line. "Iranian culture and particularly Persian culture have always been exceptional in their emphasis of beauty, aesthetics, art, fashion, design and poetry, much more than anywhere else in the Middle East. The tendency to embellish, to adorn, the appreciation of things that are aesthetically dazzling and the good things in life, all this has been found in Persian culture for hundreds of years."
"There is an age-old tension between simplicity on the one hand and open society, beauty, and a globalized world on the other," he said. "You have a populist, anti-Western tradition represented today by [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, in which the women are depicted as simple. But Iranian culture is much richer than that, and you have a tradition of refinement, etiquette, beauty and nobility, so when you had a beauty revolution in the West in the 1920s and 30s, all these products were imported into Iran and enthusiastically accepted by the Iranian elites."