The Yuck Factor: How disgusting became the last word in luxury

Bird droppings, snail slime, excreted coffee beans – there's no substance so vile that it can't be a must-have product. Gillian Orr explores a world of (very) gross profits

Nightingale dropping facial

£110 per treatment

News of it has only just reached the West, but bird poo facials have been big in Japan for several years.

It's not just any old bird poo: the pricey stuff is the excrement of nightingales from the island of Kyushu; it is said to have an enzyme that breaks down all the dead skin on the user's epidermis. Just ask Victoria Beckham, whose dewy complexion is reportedly down to the songbird's guano – dried, mixed with rice bran and faeces and applied as a face mask in selected high-end spas.

Bull semen conditioner

£55per treatment

Not still dousing you hair in olive oil or beer for a bit of extra shine, are you? Those in the know are using a far more effective hair conditioning treatment which has bull semen as its main ingredient. When mixed with katera root, an Iranian plant, this protein-packed concoction is believed to reinvigorate your barnet, drenching follicles in moisture and leaving hair full-bodied and shiny. The product is now hard to come by, and you probably wouldn't want to go down the home-made route. However, the results are far superior to those seen after a similar experiment in the film There's Something About Mary.

Karakul lamb's foetus

£3,000 per coat

Resembling crushed velvet, the fur comes from lambs that haven't even been born. It takes 26 lamb foetuses to make just one coat, and the cloth has featured in catwalk collections by Dolce & Gabbana and Prada. Madonna recently came under fire from her friend (and animal welfare supporter) Stella McCartney, after wearing a jacket made from the controversial material.

Bird's spit soup

$2,000 per kg

The saliva of swifts is one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans, and forms the basis of bird's nest soup, a sweet delicacy in Chinese cuisine. The soup is believed to be so nutritious, with its high levels of calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium, that people with all sorts of health complaints are encouraged to eat it in Chinese medicine. Women also swear that the expensive broth is a great source of collagen, keeping their skin soft and supple

Bee larvae

$1.20 per packet

Just as we would devour a bucket of popcorn in the UK, so bee larvae are wolfed down in Thailand. Typically pan-fried or deep-fried, the delicacy is best enjoyed doused in salt, pepper and spices. Of course, the crunchy delights are also packed full of protein and are said to not taste dissimilar to prawns. Then again, deep- frying anything can make it acceptable for human consumption, including parts of a chicken that you would probably pass on if they had been cooked a different way.

Goat's excrement hair oil

£75 per litre

If you have been to Morocco you might have been lucky enough to see the famous tree-climbing goats there. But the creatures aren't performing for your entertainment: they are searching for the fruit of the Argan tree – an activity that is fundamental in the creation of a special oil used as an antidote for dull, lifeless hair. After the undigested pits from the fruit have been excreted by the goats, farmers use them to produce a golden-coloured oil that is said to be rife with antioxidants and vitamins. This boasts a musky vanilla scent that belies its origins, so you needn't be afraid to rub it on to dry ends or flyaway hairs.

Snail slime cream

£15 a jar

When all the handlers on a Chilean snail farm realised that they had exceptionally smooth hands, they worked out the slime that the snails were secreting was responsible for their silky mitts. They began to harvest the supposedly therapeutic fluid and use it in a number of face creams that are said to help eliminate acne and fight wrinkles. As a result, a variety of unguents containing snail slime have become available – none cheap and all more attractive than the original slime.

Coffee excreted by civets

£324 per kg

Civets, a close relation to mongooses, are common in the Philippines, where they are seen as pests and hunted for their meat. They like to eat the red coffee cherries that grow in their habitat, and some enterprising coffee lovers have discovered that, after the beans have passed through these mammals' digestive systems, they will produce a coffee that has such an exquisite taste and aroma they can get away with charging £324 for a kilo of it.

Maggot cheese

£40 per kg (approx)

Casu marzu is a traditional Sardinian cheese made from sheep's milk and riddled with live insect larvae. Flies are allowed to lay eggs inside the cheese, leaving thousands of white transparent maggots that are either scraped out or eaten. They are able to jump up to 15 centimetres, but believe it or not this is a good thing – casu marzu is considered to have passed the point of no return when the maggots die.

Spiced duck's foetus

50p each

Balut, or duck foetus, is a popular delicacy in south-east Asia. Duck eggs are incubated and allowed to grow until the foetus has started to acquire some of its familiar features (part of the beak, a sprinkling of feathers), before being boiled and spiced. As they're so high in protein, they are thought of as a healthy snack – and they’re also believed to be a strong aphrodisiac. But don’t count on being able to get any as a Valentine’s Day treat: they are hard to come by in the UK.