Brazilians' longtime devotion to the body beautiful -- whether it be spending fortunes on perfumes and cosmetics, slimming down to fit into minuscule swimsuits or revealing body waxing -- is paying off.
Exports of beauty products have been rising quickly in the last few years. In 2006, Brazilian companies exported US$484 million of cosmetics, toiletries and fragrances, said Joao Carlos Basilio da Silva, president of the Brazilian Toiletry, Perfumery and Cosmetic Association. That was up 152 percent from 2001, he said.
In a retail market keen on the word "natural," the country's abundant supply of natural oils, fruits and plant extracts has played a crucial role, too, in the increase in sales.
The Brazilian Amazon has around 13,000 plant species, according to the agricultural research agency Embrapa. Only a tiny fraction of those plants have been comprehensively analyzed and less than 1 percent currently provide active ingredients for cosmetics, according to experts.
For years, Amazonia's indigenous peoples have celebrated fruits for their special qualities. The guarana berry, for example, is known as a stimulant. The fruit of the cupuacu tree is a source of oil celebrated for its moisturizing qualities. Acai, another berry, is high in antioxidants and rich in energy. And passion fruit is used throughout Brazil to calm nerves. All are now used in making cosmetics.
Brazilian producers do not claim that those ingredients are better or healthier than those found in species growing elsewhere or that their ingredients are superior to traditional components like animal fats. But they do believe their "Brazilianness" is a major factor in the rising sales.
Industry executives in Brazil say that the country's products are seen as somehow purer than ones from other parts of the world.
"If you pick a rose from the Amazon and a rose from the middle of France, the Brazilian one will be a lot less polluted," said Eduardo Rauen, commercial director of Amazonia Natural, a company whose exports are expected to grow 35 to 50 percent this year. "Amazonia is more natural and that is our selling point."
The executives also say sales have been helped by Brazilians' image as a healthy, attractive people who go all out to look good.
"Here in Brazil we associate beauty with sensuality, spice," said Artur Grynbaum, the executive vice president of Boticario, the beauty world's biggest franchise operation and one with overseas sales growing by an average of 20 percent a year.
Another equally important factor is Brazil's rich history of miscegenation. The mix of European, indigenous, African and Japanese blood has created a nation with every conceivable skin tone, hair type and body shape. Manufacturers of beauty products must cater to them all, meaning that no matter which overseas market is the target, they have a product to suit.
The main destination for Brazilian beauty products is still South America, accounting for 61 percent of Brazil's exports. With a domestic market of 188 million people, economies of scale enable Brazil to produce beauty products for significantly less than its neighbors. That has prompted some companies to close their operations in places like Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia and move production to Brazil, Basilio da Silva said.
Under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil, however, has expanded its export horizons. Russia, Cuba and Angola have emerged as important customers.