Sanctions on Iran are out, and cosmetics makers are in, with a huge market opening up as Iran comes in from the cold after a landmark nuclear deal. While cosmetics weren’t barred from entering the Islamic republic under the sanctions regime, restrictions on banking transactions made it hard to do business there.

An Iranian woman checks make up at a cosmetics shop in northern Tehran. ©...

An Iranian woman checks make up at a cosmetics shop in northern Tehran. © AFP Photo / Atta Kenare

For several months however, as anticipation mounted around a nuclear agreement, "we were approached more and more by people" who were keen to break into the Iranian market, said Virginie d’Enfert, economic affairs director at the French trade association for cosmetic and personal care products (FEBEA). “Made in France gives (brands) a real competitive edge” in Iran, she said, adding that cosmetics companies nonetheless have a lot of work to do to win over the country.

Second-biggest cosmetics market in the Middle East

Despite years of sanctions and a conservative Islamic regime, Iran’s cosmetics market is still the second-biggest in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia, grossing some US$3.5 billion in 2014 — and that’s without counting perfumes. Now, as Iran opens up to the world economy, that figure is expected to triple by 2019, Euromonitor says.

Iranian women, who are still required to wear at least a loose headscarf, are forcing a gradual change in the dress code. Many women, particularly in the cities, wear stylish and colourful coats and headscarves and often trousers.

"Facial appearance is very important for women in Iran, because that’s the only part of the body that can be seen when they go out wearing the veil," said Sahar Jamali, director of Aria Chic, an Iranian distributor of foreign perfumes, make-up and cosmetics.

It takes cosmetic products some four to eight months to be approved by the Iranian health ministry, FEBEA’s d’Enfert said. "Your choice of an exclusive local partner is key because that’s who’ll be taking charge of developing your brand in Iran," she said.

Learning culturally-sensitive etiquette also plays a role, says Zahra Azmoudeh-Giacomini, founder of the France-Iran Business Club and president of Cosmopolistan agency, which seeks to help French companies work in Iran. "Iranians are very sentimental," she said.
Before talking about business, "you first need to win their hearts."