Real Bodies: Importance of Erno

A skincare regime set up in Budapest in 1927 is still streets ahead, says ANNALISA BARBIERI

Fifteen years ago, in the run-up to Christmas, I was reading a magazine. In it were wish lists detailing what various folk wanted for Christmas. One woman asked for "membership" of the Erno Laszlo Skincare Institute. As I'd been a skincare obsessive since my teens, I decided to investigate.

The trail led me to the skincare counter of a department store where my lifestyle was scrutinised by a Laszlo representative. Finally, I was diagnosed as having normal/combination skin which, in Laszlo speak, meant I was a "12 o'clock". (These classifications have nothing to do with a clock per se. If you've got very oily skin you say "I'm a 3 o'clock"; if you've got very dry skin you're an "8.30 o'clock".) I was given a membership card, my "preparations" (never called mere products) and I was in.

The Laszlo regime is like no other on earth and its followers become devotees. I've been one ever since I discovered it. When the range disappeared from the UK for a few years, due to a change in ownership, I was bereft, and had to have products shipped in from the States. (It came back here last year.) It is almost medical in its approach, but then the man behind it, Erno Laszlo, was a doctor and the grandfather of skincare. His great discovery, back in the Twenties, was chalmoogra oil, derived from a nut found in Madras. It is a very healing oil (used to cure leprosy) and only Laszlo preparations use it - the company buys up almost the entire world stock years ahead. A great deal of his work, when he was alive, was spent helping those with scarred or damaged skin, including adolescents psychologically crippled by acne.

But the real key to the Laszlo regime is water. No matter what "clock" you are, cleansing must be done with comfortably hot water which is splashed on the face a total of 30 times. It may not be the easiest, quickest method but, I promise, cleansing by splashing your face with comfortably hot - not boiling! - water is the most effective change anyone can make to their skincare routine, whatever products they use. People with dry skin are especially scared of using water on their faces, thinking it will be drying, yet no amount of creams will hydrate skin as effectively as this splashing routine does. Splashing with hot water doesn't only cleanse, it also brings vital nutrient-rich blood to the skin.

Dr Laszlo also believed that skincare did not stop at moisturising and each type of skin has "finishing" preparations to use. As a "12 o'clock" I had "Regular Normalizer Shake-It", a powder in liquid formation that provides the sheerest covering, evening out and mattifying the skin. It is the only product I have ever found that makes a difference but still manages to be invisible on the skin.

I go through stages of doing the regime religiously - and it is like a religion, only practised more often - but regular readers of my skincare columns will know I can be a little lazy about these things (and also I have other products to test these days). Dr Laszlo would not have approved; he was fanatical about his clients doing it twice a day. He once had a row with Ava Gardner because she swore blind that she was following her regime to the letter and he said she was not. (He could tell by looking at her skin.) He came close to throwing her out of his Fifth Avenue Institute but she quietened down and agreed to do exactly as he told her. Yes, it really does make a difference if you do it twice a day, but if you don't, it won't kill you either.

Dr Erno Laszlo was born in Transylvania and raised in Budapest, where he studied dermatology. In 1927 he set up the Erno Laszlo Institute for Scientific Cosmetology. Almost immediately he was called upon to treat Princess Stephanie, the widow of Austria's Crown Prince, whose husband had rejected her on their wedding night, a slight which caused her to become a recluse. She had a morbid fear of make-up, since she had been "painted" for her wedding day, a subterfuge she blamed for her husband's apparent repulsion. Subsequently, she never went out, thinking herself too ugly. Dr Laszlo to the rescue! It was for this unfortunate creature that he created his super-light finishing preparations which - Lord, aren't women shallow - got her out of the house again.

He set up offices on Fifth Avenue in 1939 and business boomed. Dr Laszlo's techniques shocked the New York elite. (Consultations cost $75 and even then you had to be recommended and numbers were limited to 300 a year.) He asked pertinent questions and he quizzed them on how often they washed their faces; few ever did, cleansing instead with creams and tissues. He also never made house visits, no matter how famous his clients were. Not even to the White House for John F Kennedy and his wife. (Jackie would use her pHelityl Oil on Kennedy's back as he had dry skin and Dr Laszlo famously scolded her one day when she veered away from his instructions.) In 1940, Greta Garbo, who would become a life-long friend, had her first ever beauty treatment at the Institute. His client list was and is spectacular - Lillian Gish, Cecil Beaton, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe (in photographs of her bedroom, taken after her death, you can see her Laszlo jars in the background), they all splashed away. Modern-day clients have included Madonna, Yoko Ono, Sting, Cher, Hillary Clinton and Diane Keaton.

As well as being a bit of a pathological stickler for doing as he said, he also came up with some great one-liners: "Flirting is an invaluable beauty treatment, good for the circulation and the spirit." And for women who applied thick make- up he had these words of wisdom: "You will look like yourself 20 years from now and no man wants to peer that far into your future." But the reason I would have loved to have met him was that Dr Laszlo loved chocolate. It was his absolute favourite food and he was never without a bar. He also encouraged women to eat what they wanted, stating that: "Beauty results from happiness, not deprivation." Sadly he died of heart failure in 1973.

Individually, you can get better products: Eve Lom does a better cleanser, Jo Malone a better moisturiser. (Interestingly, both also advocate the use of water.) The Sher System is also based on the splashing regime and has changed the lives of many men and women blighted by acne or rosacea. But as a synergistic system nothing beats Dr Laszlo's. However, if you can't afford it, don't fret. I think the most important bit is the hot water splashing, which anyone can incorporate into their routine using existing products. Dr Laszlo wouldn't approve, but then he's not to know.

Stockists:

Erno Laszlo: 0345 697072

Eve Lom: 0181 661 7991

Jo Malone: 0171 720 0202

Sher System: 0171 499 4022.

Annalisa Barbieri is winner of Neutrogena's Beauty Journalist of the Year award. Skincare queries to a.barbieri@independent.co.uk.

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