Comparing cheek to cheek

Lancome's Primordiale Nuit night cream, pounds 36, is all in the mind of the besmearer
Cigarettes, alcohol, late nights and sun-bathing. Years of abuse take their toll and, having scoffed at the hyperbolic claims made by cosmetic manufacturers, the best of us will probably turn to those miraculous little jars sooner or later.

The experts say skin is best treated during the night, while protected from the stresses of daily life, so night creams are a good option. But wouldn't a drop or two of virgin olive oil do just as well? Or does a top-of-the-range price mean a secret ingredient that "really" works?

Primordiale Nuit by Lancome is reassuringly expensive. This "visibly regenerating night treatment" costs a magnificent pounds 36 for 50ml and claims to combat the damaging effects of overwork, stress and age, so you wake to visible results, "fresh, clear and radiant".

Encased in a spiritually satisfying, misty blue pot, Primordiale Nuit contains "Nanocapsules" of Vitamin A, which works actively at night to nourish the skin. "It immediately relaxes and soothes you," the instructions promise in suitably delirious prose style, "leaving a profound sensation of well-being."

Rest assured that after spending pounds 36 on this precious item, I am going to take my time over my ablutions. As I smooth the velvety cream over my cheek, for a brief moment I am transported into a stress-free world of champagne, saunas and silk pyjamas. But is there any truth in Lancome's long-winded explanations? I turned to the experts.

"It is perfectly true," says Professor Gregory Gregoriadis, a biochemist at the School of Pharmacy in London (and also, as it happens, my father) "that with age, the skin becomes increasingly dehydrated and wrinkles appear. By adding moisture, the skin is enriched and can become softer. Some vitamins and oils are believed to neutralise harmful toxins from UV light, pollution and tobacco and can help the skin maintain its youthful elasticity. But," he continues, sagely, "most scientists are dubious as to whether one moisturiser can claim precedence over another because of a particular formula, and rightly so in the absence of hard scientific data."

Moisturisers with simple packaging can be just as good, says Beryl Barnard of the beauty school London Esthetique. "If you're spending a lot of money on a product, you will see a result because you want to," she says. "The scientific jargon on many expensive products is a good marketing ploy, but often prices are inflated solely because PR, advertising and packaging cost a lot.

"There are some brilliant ranges in health-food shops. Look out for Vitamin E and natural oils which are easily absorbed into the skin, such as avocado, jojoba and sweet almond. But, more importantly, eat well, drink plenty of water and adopt a good general skincare routine."

A more financially friendly product is Nivea's Nourishing Night Creme, also "carefully formulated to support the natural overnight rejuvenation and replenishment of your skin", but only pounds 5.99 for 50ml. Simply packaged in a white jar, the cream is luxuriously thick but its scent is rather overpowering. Although it is not as easily absorbed as Primordiale Nuit, it does leave my skin feeling soft, if a little greasy.

Nivea's product also contains a variety of the oils and vitamins suggested by Barnard, so it is clearly along the right lines. Lancome, too, has all the right ingredients and incorporates factors that effect mood, such as colour, fragrance and texture. If bank balance allowed, I would choose Lancome, if only for the feel of it. But as far as effectiveness goes, you're safe with either. No need to curtail the highlife just yet, then.