Minimalism is the cosmetics industry's latest buzz word, but has anything really changed? By Ruth Picardie
Not so long ago, a girl with a hot date, a shiny nose and a glossy new credit card would spend Saturday afternoon in her local department store discussing micro emulsified polysiloxine systems, multiple alpha- hydroxy acids and hydro-protective complex combinations with a sales girl in a lab coat. A few years before that, she would have been solving the problem in the Body Shop with ancient Amazonian plant extracts, holistic aromatherapy massage oils and save the whale eye-shadow.

Today, however, there's a whole new approach. The girl with her finger on the right pot of face cream will come away from the counter with a bottle of Nina Ricci's Triple Effect, a new cleanser, toner and moisturiser in one; a Lorac Vitamin E stick, "designed for both men and women, of all ages and all skin types"; and a can of Paco, a "no-frills, universal, multicultural" scent launched earlier this year. Call it less is more, call it pared down, call it no fuss: the new approach to make-up is minimalism.

As a lifestyle philosophy, minimalism is not new: Muji, the Japanese store which sells functional, simply packaged "No Brand Goods" opened in London in 1991 and in the fashion world, the understated classicism of Prada and Calvin Klein began making waves at around the same time. Both were a reaction against the gold-embossed, label-obsessed "more is more" Eighties. "Opulence is out," confirms Charlotte-Anne Fiddler, health and beauty director at Elle.

In the skincare and cosmetics market, the minimalist revolution is also a backlash against pseudo-scientific babble. "Most people didn't understand it," says Newby Hands, health and beauty director at Harpers & Queen, "including the counter staff. And the customer didn't care. They want to know what a product can deliver. Women are better educated now. They're used to dealing with the car mechanic and the plumber. Now it's a question of, I've got dry skin, what have you got?"

At the same time, less is more is the solution to the modern woman's frantically busy life, juggling work, partner, children and more. "There's too much out there," says Stephanie Sage, international PR manager for the Donna Karan Beauty Company, who produce just three skincare products. "It's product pollution! No one has time for a multi-stage approach. We need solutions which are fast, simple and effective, which produce maximum results with minimum fuss." Accordingly, the company's Formula For Clean Skin is make-up remover and cleanser; the Formula For Facial Moisture, covers up blemishes, moisturises and offers protection from the sun. "Too many products spoil the skin," adds the range's consultant dermatologist, Pat Wexler. Alongside all this philosophy is a new approach to packaging: less sterile than the high-tech products, more beautiful than Body Shop plastic (Charlotte-Anne Fiddler calls it "ugly eco"), with no buy-four- eyeshadows-when-you-only-want-one compacts. Shu Uemura, the hip Japanese company which pioneered the minimalist look when it launched in the UK in 1991, is sold in semi-transparent plastic squares that slot together, with no built-in mirror and brush adding to the bulk. "When an artist selects painting instruments," breathes a company press release, "the choice of materials will be of the highest quality possible. He will not be misled by the extra decoration of the packaging but is only interested in the quality and content."

From the manufacturers' point of view, packaging has another advantage. "Men's cosmetics haven't taken off," explains Newby Hands. "But the pared down unisex approach of CK One has been huge." Hence the launch, earlier this year, of Paco - from a company whose previous approach to scent was the flamboyantly Eighties XS Pour Homme and Pour Elle (advertised with muscley men, lizards and lots of gyrating in the rain). "Probably the last thing you need in your life is another launch," read the postcard which announced the new one-size aluminium can, sold from a mini-milk crate. "It's for anybody, at any time, for any reason," explains the company's UK managing director Robert McClatchie.

Before you throw out your so-five-minutes ago space age anti-cellulite cream and aloe vera lip balm, remember that marketing is the middle name of the beauty industry - so many lipsticks to sell, so few women. If you read the small print, you'll find that Nina Ricci's pared down Triple Effect is "enriched with a hydro-protective complex combination of hyaluronic acid and a cellulose polymer". So it's really a high-tech cream? Sort of. But the cellulose polymer - just in case there are any New Age customers out there - is "derived from natural raw materials, including wood and cotton". Shu Uemura's palette of lipsticks, meanwhile, come in just 108 colours. No wonder the company slogan is "Simple and rich".