Beauty and lies

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The Independent Culture
They used to be called `old wives' tales'. Susanna Cohen investigates some enduring beliefs about the beauty business, and comes up with a surprising list of half-truths and outright falsehoods

In every age, and every culture, human beings have worshipped at the altars of youth and beauty. And, as with any religion, a web of fairy tales, myths and warnings have grown up around these two gods.

In the desperate pursuit of physical perfection, each generation has produced its own theories, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Just as eating too many carrots is more likely to turn you orange than to help you see in the dark, so shaving your legs will not make the hair thicker, cutting your hair will not make it grow faster and (more frighteningly, yet increasingly fashionable) applying haemorrhoid creams to the face will not eradicate wrinkles. Here are some of the more common beauty misconceptions.

NEVER SQUEEZE A SPOT

As long as certain rules are followed, and precautions are taken, it will rarely cause great harm to squeeze a spot. The best way of extracting at home is with the aid of a small stainless-steel instrument known as a blackhead remover . This is simply pressed, gently but firmly, over the offending protrusion until the clog emerges. Try one that has been designed for professional use, such as that sold by the surgical department of John Bell & Croyden, E12 (mail order, 0171 935-5555).

In the event of an important occasion, remember that blemishes are easier to conceal if they have been squeezed at least two hours earlier. Noella Gabrielle, International Technical Training Manager for Elemis, advises against letting the fingers come into contact with the skin. Covering the fingers with a tissue protects from nail-inflicted damage, as well as infection. Treat the area immediately with a solution such as Remede Spot Detox, pounds 45, which contains an inhibitor to prevent the spot (and the squeeze) from causing scarring. (Available from Space NK. mail order 0171-636 2523)

When it is imperative to get rid of a pimple at lightning speed, a dermatologist may agree either to drain it, or to inject it with cortisone. This will get rid of whiteheads immediately, and a boil within 24-48 hours.

STAY OUT OF THE SUN

There is no doubt that over-exposure to the sun is bad for the skin, but that is not the whole story, and avoiding the sun completely can pose just as much of a health risk.

Ultraviolet light is essential for a healthy level of vitamin D, which is important in women to facilitate the calcium absorption needed to protect bones from becoming brittle with osteoporosis. Also, according to studies carried out by the Harvard Medical School, beta endorphins (our brain's natural "happy drug") are released in direct response to UV light, guarding against depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The National Institute of Mental Health states that "winter depression" is the most widely undiagnosed of the depressive disorders; the symptoms are so common that we have come to accept them as normal. To support this, there is a proven higher rate of suicide in northern countries that receive fewer hours of sunlight.

While sun exposure is widely blamed for most skin ageing, such as wrinkles and roughness, no amount of sun avoidance will protect from what is genetically determined. When bones stop growing they start to shrink, and skin loses elasticity with age. Protect noses, eyelids, jowls and other areas of the body from sagging by avoiding dramatic weight fluctuations and exercising the muscles and bones.

MOISTURISE THE SKIN

The skincare guru Bharti Vyas advises that there is a tendency to over- moisturise the skin. Not all skin types benefit from a moisturiser, and it is more important to tap into the body's ability to work for itself. A New York dermatologist, Dr Cipollaro, believes that the most common skincare misconception is that moisturising will help prevent ageing; the truth is that over-moisturisation can undermine the skin's capacity to keep itself taut.

Even very white, flaky skin will not necessarily benefit from a slathering of moisturiser. Often confused with dry skin, the flakiness that appears in patches on the face is likely to be an allergic reaction, or seborrhoeic dermatitis. This occurs most commonly in people with overactive oil-glands, and can be triggered by stress. Patches around the nose and eyebrow area will often clear up on their own. If not, hydrocortisone cream may be of help.

DRINK LOADS OF WATER

Ask any model for her skincare secret, and you can bet she will produce a bottle of mineral water. However, while eight or so glasses a day will go a long way towards flushing the body of toxins, and hydrating the skin, there is always a temptation to overdo it on days where the skin is looking below par. Dr David S Myers warns that any more than three litres a day can bring the body close to "drowning". The kidneys work to lose or hold on to enough water to keep the body healthy, but if overloaded they will cease to function effectively. This kind of water saturation strains the system and produces unpleasant side effects such as causing the body to swell.

GET LOADS OF SLEEP

While a good night's sleep has many health benefits (such as stepping up cell renewal in the skin) there is a case for too much of a good thing. A sleep overdose can leave us with low energy levels and, according to Elemis's Noella Gabrielle, it will slow down circulation, starving the skin of oxygen and making the face puffy and the skin pale.

Susanna Cohen writes monthly for the beauty section of `Marie Claire'.

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