Would you pay 30p a day for Elizabeth Arden's Custom Colour foundation (pounds 29 for 30ml)?
THE ONE thing about which all skin-care evangelists are adamant is the absolute importance of the "right" foundation. Susie Faux, managing director of image consultant company Wardrobe, insists that a woman who goes without foundation "instantly demotes herself in the professional world", while international make-up artist Jenny Jordan claims, "You're not properly dressed without it." Oops.

According to the experts, the artificial, pancake look which has inspired the myth that foundation clogs the pores and causes spots is actually cosmetic sacrilege. A good foundation, properly applied, should invisibly create an even skin tone, provide a "finished" look and protect the face from UV damage and pollution. But an armoured healthy glow does not come cheap. At Elizabeth Arden, a 30ml pot of Custom Colour Foundation sells for pounds 29. Sold exclusively at Selfridges, the high price is apparently justified by the presence of a "spectrophotometer". Attached to a computer, this optical skin reader is held next to the jawline (the benchmark for skin tone) and produces a scientific analysis of each person's skin colour which guarantees an exact match from over 45 billion shades. The trained sales assistant swiftly garners your skin type (dry, oily or combination) and your preference for a natural or more sophisticated matte look, and types the data into your file. A few seconds pass and Bob's your uncle. Your personal blend is dispensed and vigorously mixed in a reverberating vice, then labelled and dated for future reference.

"The custom blend is particularly good for customers who are confused by the choice available or who have difficulty finding the correct foundation to suit their skin type," explains Jordan. "Although the name on the bottle and the extravagant packaging do, of course, increase the cost, it is ultimately the service that you're paying for."

Meanwhile, 30ml of Prescriptives' Virtual Skin, marketed as "liquid skin in a bottle" costs pounds 19.50, while 35ml of Max Factor's Lasting Performance is cheaper still at pounds 9.50. With a range that incorporates a variety of shades in four different colour families, Prescriptives claim that only 20 per cent of their customers do not find an exact match, in which case a custom blend is available for pounds 40. This includes the standard 30ml bottle, a 15ml concealer and a 7ml bottle "for your handbag", says Russell, the friendly advisor.

In comparison to Max Factor, where a limited range of colours and lack of assistance can leave you looking like a sun-bed casualty, both Arden and Prescriptives appear deceptively natural. Max Factor's Lasting Performance, like many brands, contains titanium-dioxide (often the reason behind chalky chops), while Prescriptives' Virtual Skin has a clear-gel base and is more readily absorbed into the skin. Barely visible, both Arden and Prescriptives create the illusion of a smooth complexion minus the heaviness. "The skin looks flawless, not made up," confirms Faux, "which for daytime wear is an absolute must." Eighty per cent of beauty queens will be better off with Prescriptives (for a tenner saved and anonymity preserved), but those in need of a custom blend should head for Elizabeth Arden. Loose powder, time-release moisturiser, concealer, nose-job and private jet are optional, but recommended.