There is a fear which plagues humanity and it is the fear of death. And because old age brings us closer to the grim reaper, we fear old age. It may be a fear we despise and one we want to deny, but most women, when they talk about growing old gracefully, actually mean growing old as slowly as possible.

If there were an elixir of life, we would all take it. Rider Haggard's Ayesha in She isn't just a fantasy, she is the fantasy: eternally youthful, eternally energetic, eternally powerful. That she crumbles to dust when she finally meets her maker is beside the point: she is what we all want to be; who cares what the corpse looks like?

And because of the basic urge for that taut, smooth, skin you see on those actressy women who hold their chins higher with the passing years (cheaper than a jaw-job, darling), alchemy is alive and well and living in our skin care laboratories and ad agencies. Take the publicity copy for the latest addition to the Clinique range, Moisture On-Call: "Mnemonics Technology, the next generation of skincare, is available. Clinique's Mnemonics Technology incorporates a botanical extract to reactive skin's memory." Personally, I don't much like the thought of my skin sitting around saying, "Richard of York gave battle in vain" when it should be getting some well earned rest, but the idea will probably work: people vaguely know mnemonic has got something to do with memory. Memory equals the past. And the past is the place you want to take your skin back to.

I'm not claiming that Clinique's products aren't good - its Dramatically Different moisturiser is divine, for a start - but what is the difference between this company and any other? Well, it's the marketing: a soothing combination of reassurance and cod-science that goes to the heart of the hidden fear. Each outlet is equipped with a "Clinique computer": You slide knobs around and find out about the most gratifying of subjects - yourself. Stands carry Q&A leaflets reminiscent of those things the government puts out to tell you how to avoid Aids. Magic words like "lipids," and "optimal moisture barrier" carry promises of laboratory necromancy. And that pale green and white livery looks as clean as the brand name.

But even the heartiest sucker must occasionally ask themselves if pounds 24.50 for a bottle of glop is really worth it. After a lot of consideration, I think it probably is. It's a function of human nature to respect things more the more they cost. You could buy a nice bottle of cocoa butter from Superdrug for 99p, but you're more likely to remember to use a product if you had to go through hell, Haberdashery and your entire life savings for it.

Serena Mackesy