A cosmetic solution to world pollution: Roger Tredre finds that worry over the effect of pollutants has led men to the skin-care counter

When the beauty people at Aramis asked three British Gas workers to test some of the company's new products for men, the interviewees' response came as a surprise. 'They were really informed and knowledgeable,' said an Aramis executive. 'Even the oldest, who was in his fifties, was genuinely interested.'

The volunteers, glad to take a break from digging up London's Oxford Street, were pampered as they had never been pampered before: pre-shave beard softeners, malt-enriched hair-conditioners, protein-enriched styling gels, even anti- ageing creams. The male toiletries market has come a long way since the days of soap-on- a-rope and a splash of Brut.

The multinational beauty companies are expert at talking up their products for men, but perhaps they no longer need to. That British men are concerned about the condition of their hair, skin and bodies - and more willing to spend money on them - is no longer in doubt.

Why should this be happening? In the late Eighties, the theory was that we were all turning into New Men who kissed babies, did the ironing, and borrowed our wives' moisturisers. The concept is now discredited: the marketing industry has concluded that men are much the same as they have always been. Perhaps the New Man was merely an invention of the media and the advertising industry.

The real reason for the upsurge of interest in these products is rather different - and it affects women as much as men. People are concerned about the environment. They are worried about rising levels of urban pollution, the effects of UV sunlight, exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke and dehydrating central heating.

The rise of Body Shop was fuelled by these concerns: men and women buy Body Shop products in the hope that they can wash away the pollutants of the modern world, at least for a while. The Mostly Men range, launched in 1986, brought men's scrub washes and moisturising face protectors to the mass market for the first time. Initially, they were bought by wives and girlfriends; the big change of recent years is that men are buying for themselves.

At the top end of the market, both Aramis and Clinique are pioneers. When Clinique launched Skin Supplies for Men in 1976, it was testing the waters with a three-step skin- care system, combining low- lather soaps, scruffing lotions and moisturisers. Seventeen years on, it is still selling them. The products are not so different from those in the Clinique women's range, although the formulations for the scruffing lotions are stronger than women's lotions and, thankfully, fragrance-free.

In the Eighties, Aramis took a similar tack with its own Lab Series range of products for men (the company was already well known for its tortoiseshell-packaged Classic grooming range, introduced in 1965). The very first Lab Series creation was Nutriplexx thinning- hair supplement, which tackled the problem of hair loss, an age-old male obsession. The reformulated product is called Nutriplexx energising scalp treatment, a more accurate description of a gel that needs to be massaged into the scalp. Like Clinique, Aramis avoids offering magic solutions. No, it won't stop you going bald; yes, it will keep what remains in rather better condition.

Aramis has since built up a list of 14 Lab Series products, including a razor-burn relief, a skin-clearing solution and a 'dual-action' face soap. The latest trend is for creams that improve the look of men's skin. Aramis makes an 'anti- ageing supplement', which is an advanced type of moisturiser. According to its press blurb, it is also a 'sophisticated environmental defender' - note the environmental reference.

Fashion designers have also got in on the act. Yves Saint Laurent's Jazz range includes three skin-care products: a moisturiser, a face scrub and a lotion called Vitality, which is, well, revitalising. The most recent product is Jazz Bi-Actif Gel, a pre-shave gel that you apply before using your normal shaving foam.

Paco Rabanne produces an active regenerating concentrate that 'fights against skin ageing', and a maintaining colour-tone lotion that 'instantly gives the face a healthy, natural, outdoor colour'.

How well do these products work? The answer varies depending on the individual. A scrub that leaves one man's skin gleaming with good health may leave another's looking a bit raw. The best advice is to experiment with samplers and buy from department stores where the assistants should understand the specific qualities of each product. At Aramis, the assistants study videos of men shaving and discuss slides of beard hairs, so they should know what they are talking about.

Still looking for proof that this market is on the move? This year, Gillette, the giant of the shaving-products industry, launched its own Series range of shaving gels, aftershave gels and anti-perspirants. And last March, Boots introduced Sensitive Skin System products for men, including after-shave moisturisers, anti-razor-burn creams and shaving gels, all at high-street prices.

In the late Nineties, it seems certain that the male share of the bathroom cabinet will continue to grow - in tandem with everyone's growing concerns about an overpolluted world.

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