The material world: In the pink

The world's best-selling facial moisturiser was launched, 46 years ago, with a confidence trick
Excuse me, ladies, before you put that pink stuff on, let me ask you: what is a ulay? An oleaginous fish? A nut from the rainforest, long used by the natives to eliminate crows' feet? Or is Ulay a place, whose name has been hitched to one of its exports, as in Eau de Cologne?

I'll let you in on a secret: there's no such thing as a ulay. The world's best-selling facial moisturiser was launched, 46 years ago, with a confidence trick. A successful one, because Oil of Ulay, so-called to give the impression that it contained the essence of an exotic plant, now sells six million bottles every year in the UK alone. British women spend pounds 113 million a year on creams to keep their skins moist and young-looking; of this total, 30 per cent goes to Proctor and Gamble, which now owns the brand, via Oil of Ulay products.

Pilot project

The cream was developed during the Second World War by a South African chemist called Graham Gordon Wulff, to prevent badly burned pilots from becoming dehydrated. Presumably this was not the potion we know - pink, fragrant, in bottles embellished with a mysterious, Madonna-like figure cupping her face with her hands - but a more medicinal forerunner. The principle, however, would have been the same: get as much moisture into the skin and minimise evaporation.

To achieve this, it probably used the same basic ingredients as it does today: glycerine, a humectant to absorb moisture from the air (just as you put it in Christmas cake icing to prevent it from drying out); various oily substances of mineral, vegetable and animal origins that form a film on the skin and keep the moisture in; and water to mix everything into an emulsion. This mixture will certainly hydrate your skin, but how or whether it makes you look younger is a trade secret, perhaps encrypted in the list of polysyllabic ingredients printed on the bottom of the box.

When the War ended and Wulff's market dried up, he had the idea that his burn cream might sell as a beauty treatment. He found a partner with some marketing experience, Shaun Adams Lowe, and together they came up with the name Oil of Ulay. Over the next 15 years, Wulff and Lowe shamelessly modified the name to suit each new market: it is sold in the United States as Oil of Olay, in the UK as Ulay, and most of Europe and South America as Olaz.

And will it make you look like Uma Thurman?

But what is "beauty fluid"? Some magical elixir that makes you look like Uma Thurman, for pounds 3.50 a bottle? It's all part of the mystique that surrounds the product, but to some extent this was accidental. At first Wulff and Lowe had no advertising budget (they sold the cream door-to-door in South Africa), so they relied for publicity on word of mouth. Then they noticed that by not saying much, they had kindled interest in their product. When they could afford press advertising, they kept them enigmatic, refusing to say what the "fluid" was made of, or even what it was supposed to do. This eccentric strategy gave the product a very broad appeal: women found in it whatever they needed. It wasn't until 1985 that Oil Of Ulay started to "segment" the market, and produce variations on the formula aimed at different groups of consumers.

One of these target groups was the under-35s, so long excluded, it was felt, by the "makes you look younger" line. Recently, though, Oil of Ulay seems to have become more relaxed about its image as a treatment for "mature" skin. The latest television advertisements use a 56-year-old model - not exactly elderly, but a realistic step away from the 20-year-olds usually featured. This could be the dawning of enlightenment, or just shrewd marketing. In an ageing population with an entrenched insecurity about looking old, rejuvenation must be a boom industry