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Getting under a man's skin

Cosmetics firms have been trying to entice men into the heady - and pricey - world of skincare for years. And now they think they've got the products to do it. Belinda Morris reports on a revolution
I was at a footwear industry function recently, placed as far from the top table as it was possible to be, when the man next to me asked what I wrote about. Now, shoes not being my specialist subject - and not wanting to get into a lengthy discussion about lasts and uppers - I said that I occasionally wrote about beauty and waited for his eyes to glaze over.

Oddly enough, they didn't. He perked up, leant towards me and said earnestly: "I've been concerned recently about wrinkles and wonder whether I ought to do something about them - my skin seems to be looking tired." Or words to that effect. I was amazed. Here was a man who, while not quite old enough to be my father, had definite conservative, fatherly qualities - what was he doing worrying about his skin? Still, we had a nice chat about shaving routines, new products and the like, and I marvelled at how times had changed.

But the changes have not gone unnoticed by the cosmetics industry, which has been beavering away for years to get men to step bravely beyond the soap and water stage of grooming and into the heady world of cleansers and moisturisers. "Females have always led the way, but the gap is closing," says Kris Court, of Aramis, "and men now are more open to the idea of skincare - we know there's an interest in it."

Which is why the American-based company has just taken the potentially risky step of introducing an anti-ageing cream for men into its Lab Series range. Not that they've called it anything that girly. "The name had to be strong and easy to remember, symbolic of changing the ageing process," explains Kris. So what it says on the box is: "Lab Series for Men ... U- Turn ... Age-Defying Formula." To the point. No messing. A bit like a tin of Ronseal Wood Varnish really.

What men really want to know about this skincare stuff is the basics, according to Louisa Dunson, the Aramis counter manager in Selfridges, London. "The two most asked questions are: `Does it work?'and `Will I look different?'. But, unlike many women, men tend to believe you once you start to talk about the product, even if they were sceptical to begin with," she says. It helps that U-Turn comes with heaps of clinical data (required by US law) to back up any claims. So, when it says that skin will be 28 per cent firmer, with 25 per cent reduction in wrinkles after eight weeks of use, you can be sure that they're not fibbing. And men like that.

Take Dan, aged 30, who works in House of Fraser's marketing department. As an ex-eyeliner-wearing Goth, he's quite happy for it to be known that he's no stranger to face packs and exfoliators and will even discuss the various merits of one brand against another with mates down the pub. "I probably know more about skincare than the average guy in the street, but what I really care about is whether it works," he says. "It's not really vital to know about the scientific stuff, the ingredients that go into a particular cream." He is, however, pretty clued up about vitamin E and its healing properties.

Put simply, U-Turn does its thing by encouraging the production of collagen (the stuff that keeps skin firm and elastic), which, with age, tends to slow down, causing skin to sag, an effect accelerated by environmental damage and gravity. It achieves this with something called whey extract. Then, to protect against dark sun spots and freckles, there's green tea extract and vitamin C; a sea coral extract to protect against irritation from the sun; and various other good things to guard against the effects of no-nos like smoking.

The result is a small bottle of innocuous-looking, non-greasy, non-smelly gel-like cream (pounds 22/50ml) that goes on after shaving and before a regular moisturiser - sorry, rehydrator.

Never forget the importance of the right name. Which is why the new anti- ageing potion in Marks and Spencer's Formula for Men range is actually called an Elastin Firming Advanced Moisture Complex. "Men get frightened if products are too complicated looking," says men's grooming selector Belinda Crawford, "so we explain it targets dry skin and then we go into more detail about what dry skin can lead to - ie skin ageing." The lotion has things to slow the breakdown of elastin (which helps keep skin firm and youthful) and filters to protect against ultraviolet damage.

You would suppose that M&S adding this hitherto female-oriented potion to their range indicates a massive surge in male interest in all things cosmetic. Well, yes and no. "It's actually a slow market to take off, but media interest in male grooming and the number of macho sports stars who endorse men's toiletries mean that men find the whole subject more acceptable now," Belinda explains. "And we'll be well positioned to go for it when the whole thing really takes off."

As will Nivea. Nivea for Men, another collection of straight-talking, no-nonsense men's toiletries, has just been launched: shaving gel and foam, aftershave balm (including one for sensitive skin) and an intensive dry skin cream (pounds 5.75) with the all-important UV filters and vitamin E.

There's no doubting the existence of male vanity - it's just not confined any longer to receding hair lines and beer guts. "The workplace, particularly in the City, is becoming a younger, more buzzy, `up' environment," argues Paul Stubbs, of the newly established Men's Grooming Studio, in Dickins & Jones. "Anyone over 35 is probably working with younger people and has to compete in looks as well as qualifications. Our customers want to know about the right way to shave and to pick our brains about what products to use," he says. "Our anti-ageing facial [pounds 25] is very popular. Wrinkles are a worry."