Are skin creams any better than lard? Emma Cook rubs off the hype
IT TAKES cast-iron resilience to ignore the contents of Selfridges' cosmetic department. Try as you may to resist, the proposition of eternal youth, bottled and prettily packaged on each counter that you pass, is an alluring one.

It's even more seductive when the promise of looking younger is backed up with a mass of scientific explanation. Youth can be yours, sings each of the prestige cosmetics labels, through the power of the latest advanced technology.

Perhaps the scientists in long white coats really have discovered something, you reflect in a vulnerable moment (usually after the cheque book's out and it's too late to revert to reason).

But judging by a recent visit to one large department store, if these product claims are true, their research facilities must be more advanced than Nasa's.

Within minutes, I was caught by a zealous sales assistant, dressed immaculately in a pale yellow overall. She was keen to tell me about a new product which aims to reduce wrinkles dramatically after 10 weeks.

The advanced formula she was trying to sell cost pounds 30 for a pot slightly bigger than my thumbnail. After a 10-minute lecture, I still had no idea how it worked, despite the handy three-dimensional skinprint diagrams that accompanied the cream.

The half-dozen promotional leaflets I collected were even more verbose: Elizabeth Arden's Ceramide Phenomenon boasts that the cream acts "like a molecular 'rivet' to help support and hydrate the skin". Their new alpha- ceramide, they write, is the "first progressive alphahydroxy system supercharged with ceramides to target fine lines . . . ."

And that's only for the face. Acres of counter space were equally devoted to other areas - thighs, necks, feet. There's even a whole product range designed to keep the breast unlined and eternally pert.

"It feels so good to use," enthuses Shoshana, the PR for Clarins Bust Beauty Gel. "We can't promise you'll get a new bust by morning," she says sensibly. "But it does make your skin feel so much tighter."

These creams, unguents and serums all claim spectacular results, thanks to a selection of unique yet indecipherable ingredients. Some are based on natural plant extracts while others seem to spring from the realms of science fiction: liposomes, nanospheres, aquasomes and thalospheres are just a few.

But does this techno-babble have a shred of scientific authenticity? "They're all marketing terms basically," says Dr Neil Walker, consultant dermatologist at Oxford's Radcliffe Hospital. "I don't think there's anything they actually do in terms of rejuvenation. If it was medically proven, they'd have a drug licence for it."

In terms of proving the efficacy of these creams, empirical evidence is flimsy to say the least. As Dr Walker says, "I try to keep an open mind, but there is still no study that has gone into a reputable refereed journal and stands up scientifically."

Dr Ian White, consultant dermatologist at St John's Institute for Dermatology in St Thomas's Hospital, London, is also sceptical. "They say you have to use it for a long time, but the effects you see after 10 weeks are the same as after 10 minutes," he says. "There's no accumulative benefit at all. Put lard on your face - it would do exactly the same."

While the medical profession is often the first the first to question the cosmetic industry's hype, the European Union and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) are beginning to take a tougher line.

The sixth amendment of the Cosmetics Directive, the principal piece of legislation governing the sale of cosmetics in Europe, is currently under review. Consequently, it has been emphasised that all companies must substantiate their claims with evidence available for inspection by the Department of Trade and Industry. And from 1 January 1997, products must carry full ingredient labelling.

In May, the ASA introduced stricter regulations for beauty and slimming advertisements. Companies that breach honesty codes more than three times must have all their adverts checked before publication.

"We just weren't happy that standards were high enough," says ASA spokesman Grahame Fowler. "The fundamental point of the code is that there's got to be fairly rigorous evidence to support the product, especially when you're targeting a vulnerable audience."

The problem is assessing just how authentic the research is once it has passed through the publicity machine. "All the evidence is extrapolated by the marketing department, who hyperbolate it out of all proportion," says Dr White. "They're always going to make claims and it's very difficult to regulate. Ultimately there are no breakthroughs in skincare - unless you have a profound effect on the physiological anatomy of the skin. Then it's a drug and not a cosmetic." The industry has overcome this awkward paradox with a new buzz word - cosmaceuticals - which covers all eventualities. Thigh cream fits snugly into this latest category, promising beauty that is more than skin-deep. These products claim to banish cellulite and the unsightly "orange peel" effect forever.

One of the most prestigious of these is Christian Dior's Svelte Ultimate Body Refining Gel, costing pounds 27. Described as "fast penetrating", the gel contains four natural plant extracts which, they claim, acts on the fatty cells under the skin called adipocytes. The promotional blurb promises that after 28 days the user will see a "noticeable refining of body contours".

Although Dior advertises in the upmarket women's glossies, other thigh creams prefer to promote their claims through editorial PR - which is less strictly vetted than under the ASA regulations.

One such product is Thigh Tone 1, created by Kit Miller, an ex-journalist for the Sun and News Of the World. The cream, containing 22 natural ingredients, gained a great deal of press coverage a month ago after Miller appeared on GMTV. Although there were cynical reviews as well, this didn't stop sales doubling overnight. It seems that readers and viewers want to be seduced.

As Fowler points out, products are selling a dream, and to a certain extent both the customer and the producer are completely aware that this is the case.

"The buyer is piggy in the middle," says Dr White. "There are two agents either side: the marketing and the media. The whole mystique is perpetuated by newspapers and magazines who repeat everything without criticism."

Happily for the cosmetics industry, the desire to sustain or regain youth will always outweigh the doctor's logic. Even the experts are susceptible - which doesn't leave much hope for the rest of us.

Dr White relates a story of a female consultant dermatologist who returned from Selfridges one lunchtime with bags of lotions and creams. "I'm furious with myself," she wailed, "but it all just smells so nice."