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In Beauty Salons, a Rising Danger

Srey Mom lies on a bed, covered in white tissue, in a room of a Phnom Penh cosmetic salon. The 50-year-old keeps still, as a beautician anesthetizes old tattoo marks under both eyebrows. And then the beautician begins her work, with an electric tattoo gun, its sharp needle darting.

The needle quickly pricks the skin, and small droplets of blood arise from the brows. Tears fall as Srey Mom struggles to remain patient.

This is just one example of procedures undertaken by more Cambodian women, as they seek beauty in a time of wealth.

Such procedures, including cosmetic surgery and breast enhancements, have especially come in vogue over the past year. But they are not always safe, health officials say.

"Because I want to be beautiful, and because I'm getting older," Srey Mom gives as explanation, once the procedure is done. "My eyes were drooping, so I wanted to have an operation. And my natural nose was too big. And I want these to be more beautiful."

Srey Mom, who comes from Siem Reap, says she has had to run from one salon to another, because the first two did a bad job. This is her third attempt.

Some salon owners see these operations as a sign of Cambodia's emergence into the modern world. But such practices by unskilled beauticians can be dangerous, health officials say.

Sunn Sary, a doctor and head of the department of hospitals at the Ministry of Health, said recently more and more salons have opened in Cambodia, though the ministry does not keep a registry.

Only some of these shops have trained beauticians or surgeons, and unskilled operations can lead to long-term problems, he said, including cancer.

The Ministry of Health, meanwhile, is seeking to get a better handle on the practice and will begin enforcing restrictions on salons by the end of 2008.

"People don't have enough awareness about beautification, and they don't learn about the dangers of the practice," Sunn Sary said. "These people cannot see the danger of the present moment, so they are eager to follow, one person after the other. But the consequence is in the future."