Mongolian Women Grab Their Slice of the Beauty Industry

The country’s fledgling beauty industry is starting to take off, as local companies band together to export their products to Europe.

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Mongolian Women Grab Their Slice of the Beauty Industry

Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia

Tuuvee Dash, founder of Mongolian skin care brand Gobi Goo, arranges organic soap on a drying rack.

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DALANZADGAD, UMNUGOVI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — At a small organic beauty workshop, Tuuvee Dash lays out skin care products — hand and body soaps, moisturizing creams, shampoos and lip balms — all infused with ingredients native to the southern Gobi region of Mongolia: camel milk, sheep’s tail oil, herbs such as thyme, nettle and tsulkhir, a plant with edible seeds that grows in sandy soil. Many of these have long been used by Mongolians as traditional remedies for a vast array of conditions. Now, they are being introduced to the world by a new generation of Mongolian businesswomen.

A beautician by training, Tuuvee opened a yoga center in 2018. When the coronavirus pandemic forced it to shut down, she decided to throw herself into producing cosmetics that capitalized on Mongolia’s natural abundance.

Organic skin care is a relatively new sector for Mongolia: The country only produced a single type of soap until 1990, when it transitioned to a free market economy. Today, mining-related products dominate, accounting for more than 80% of all exports and a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. But while small, the beauty industry is growing at a brisk pace: In the past five years, on average, its size has increased by 21% each year. As of 2022, there were around 40 local companies authorized to manufacture beauty products. Many have come together under the Mongolia Cosmetics Cluster, a business association aimed at facilitating close cooperation.

Gobi Goo, as Tuuvee’s brand is known, is one of them.

“Since they’re rivals within the same industry, there were a lot of challenges, such as hiding information from one another, refusing to assist each other, and quarreling over unfair market competition,” says Battsetseg Chagdgaa, board chair for the cluster and founder of skin care brand Gilgerem. Collectively, the cluster — which was formed in 2019 with the support of a European Union-funded project — exports over 20 products, with Europe as the primary market. “We have shown that we can unite forces to export value-added products.”

The main ingredients in the exported cosmetics — marketed under an export-only name, Out of the Green — are sea buckthorn oil, Siberian cedar nut oil and camel milk, Battsetseg says. “Mongolians have been using sea buckthorn in folk medicine since ancient times to relieve pain, prevent dehydration, compensate for vitamin deficiencies and improve cardiovascular function,” she says. “When pure sea buckthorn oil is applied to a burn, it heals with its natural color.” As for cedar nuts, many Mongolians regard them as immunity boosters as well as sources of protein, she says, adding that they are exported to China for a very low price. “So, we decided to make a value-added hair care product based on cedar nut oil.”

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Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia

Hand and body soaps, moisturizing creams, shampoos and lip balms — all infused with ingredients native to the southern Gobi region of Mongolia — are laid out for display at a Gobi Goo retail outlet in Dalanzadgad.

Many of Gobi Goo’s products contain milk from the Bactrian camel, the two-humped animal native to the steppes of Central Asia, and sheep’s tail oil. Mongolians traditionally drink the milk or apply it orally to fight skin allergies, says Tuuvee, whereas “when a woman’s nipples crack for the first time, sheep’s tail oil is heated and applied.”

To obtain the ingredients, Tuuvee works with local herders such as Munkhzul Chuluun, of Noyon soum, who supplies Gobi Goo with animal fat, oil and dairy products. Munkhzul’s own wife and children roast camel milk and use the powder as a facial moisturizer, he says. “It’s something to be proud of that [local companies] make beauty products out of camel milk and sell them to the world,” he says, adding that if the products gain sufficient traction locally and internationally, he may be able to cut down on rearing smaller animals and focus exclusively on herding camels instead.

The fledgling industry needs to clear some crucial hurdles before then. The local market for cosmetics in Mongolia is estimated at 200 billion Mongolian togrogs ($57.9 million), but more than 95% of this is met by imports, says Batkhuyag Dorjpalam, in charge of beauty and household chemicals at the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry. Many of the imports enter the country without any quality control. Although exports must meet standards set by the European Union, there is no law that regulates the safety of beauty products in Mongolia, whether manufactured locally or abroad.

Dolgormaa Shatar, head of the women entrepreneurs council at the Umnugovi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, attributes this to continued gender imbalance in the corridors of power, given that the industry largely caters to women. “Policies and decisions for women are poor because the proportion of women in government, especially among those who could initiate laws, is very poor.”

Batkhuyag notes that the sector not only caters to but also largely employs women. Its expansion, therefore, could help bridge the gender gap in the labor force, a gap that widened during the pandemic. He suggests establishing “a working group to determine the legal environment and develop policy documents,” and stresses the need for gathering more statistical information on the burgeoning industry to better assess its needs.

Despite these hurdles, local entrepreneurs are upbeat. Not long ago, selling Mongolian cosmetics to the world was a distant dream. “We thought, ‘Who would want to buy our products when there are big French and German brands?’” says Battsetseg. Now, they are an inspiration to other small businesses.

“Our sector managed to open a door,” she says proudly.

Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mongolia.


Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this article from Mongolian.