On the point of collapse?

When you're feeling really stressed out, can relief come in a bottle? Holly Davies puts the latest products to the test

We've had the products to revive ageing skin - everything bar the elixir of eternal youth. We've had the lipsticks that don't smudge and nail varnish that doesn't chip, plus a whole range of cosmetics for men - cold cream dressed up in masculine packaging. The latest fad is for products that combat stress.

Oh, if only life were as simple as the marketing men would have us believe ... You've had a hard day at the office. Your boss is breathing down your neck. You're tired and you feel like your neck muscles are tied in knots. Your nerves are jangling. Hey presto! With one quick dab of your on-the- spot stress buffer, all your worries disappear. You melt into a human being again. It seems too good to be true.

We tested eight anti-stress products to see if indeed there was any truth in their claims. Even if there isn't, in most cases, just the act alone of stopping work for five minutes and rubbing some cream on to your neck, breathing deeply as the instructions tell you, is enough to give you a few golden moments of stress relief.

Avon Stress Shield Serum, pounds 6

This contains a "revitalising complex" which claims to nourish and condition stressed skin with anti-oxidant vitamin, essential moisturisers and skin smoothing complex.

This was the best of the bunch. After using it, your skin actually does feel cooler, fresher and calmer. It feels like you have a thin film or protective layer on your skin, perfect for tiresome air-conditioned environments.

To arrange door-to-door sales, mail order and general enquiries, phone 0845 6050 400.

Aveda, Calming Composition, pounds 16

A light body oil supposed to balance the skin and soothe the senses. Contains clarified jojoba oil and a blend of rose and other flower and plant essences. Recommended for dry and sensitive skin after a hot bath, which is pretty relaxing anyway. But the Aveda oil actually smelt really soothing and was warm to put on. This is the kind of thing that British Rail should hand out to people on their way home from work, so that we can sit in a nicer smelling environment instead of next to some woman who insists on inflicting her bad taste in perfume on everyone else.

Available from Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW3, Kendals, Deansgate, Manchester, enquiries 0171-0411600.

Origins, Sensory Therapy Stress

Buffer, pounds 14.50

"Breathe deeply as you massage a dab on your neck, sternum and spine. Now your nerves will keep from knotting." The instructions are clear, although massaging cream on to your own back while you sit at your desk isn't as easy as it sounds - especially if you are wearing a high-backed dress. The cream smells of cinnamon, and sure enough, scan the extensive list of ingredients which span the entire back of the tube and cinnamon is included, along with melissa balm leaves, thyme, wild lavender and sweet almond oil. Mmm, sounds good enough to eat. By the time you've read the ingredients - I counted about 40 of them - taken a deep breath and negotiated the back of your spine, it has the same effect as if you were to take a deep breath and count 1 to 10. You are less likely to boil over with tension - plus you now smell like a cinnamon cookie.

Available from Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW3; John Lewis, Oxford Street, London W1; Fenwicks, Northumberland Street, Newcastle, enquiries and mail-order 0171-730 1234 ext 3371.

Clinique, Exceptionally Soothing

Cream for Upset Skin, pounds 20

Calming influence, apparently, for any skin when it overreacts to stress, weather or pollutants. On application, this feels very cool. Once absorbed, the skin feels a little tacky, but with more elasticity. In the office, it felt like an extra protective layer from the air-conditioning, preventing the skin from dehydrating. The cream does feel a little too heavy, and perhaps not suitable for hotter climates.

Available from Friday at department stores nationwide, enquiries 0800 525 501.

L'Occitane, Gentle Calming Spray, pounds 9.95

Hold the bottle away from your face and spray. The main ingredient is water with camomile and orange flower with a touch of honey extract. The spray does not contain alcohol and it is recommended for use before make-up or after make-up removal. You can also use it during the day as a light cooler. It has a faintly medicinal smell, a bit like Savlon. It does calm, but so gently you might not notice.

Available from 237 Regent Street, London W1, enquiries 0171-290 1420.

Estee Lauder, Stress Relief

Eye Mask, pounds 19.50

This is a revitalising 10-minute treatment for the delicate area under the eyes.

You get 10 sachets in a box, each of which contains two under eye patches. You can smell and feel the alcohol as it slightly pulls your skin. The patch actually looks clear on the skin so you probably wouldn't have much of an excuse to stop working. After five minutes, I looked as though I'd had some kind of cosmetic surgery as the patch became more "set". After removing the patch I was for a moment convinced that there was a difference between the eye that was "relaxed" and the one that wasn't, but in fact the lines under my eyes had simply gone slightly puffy for about 30 seconds and then reverted to normal, with the signs of a few early wrinkles.

Available from department stores nationwide, enquiries 0800 525 501.

Kyusu, restore neck cream, pounds 8.50

Give your neck an instant moisture surge, helping to recondition tired skin dulled by stress and fatigue. It feels slightly greasy but smells nice and fresh. Would perhaps be more effectively used if someone else was able to massage them into neck and shoulders. I did try to massage my own neck but not to much avail.

Available from Boots, branches nationwide, enquiries 0115 95 06 111.

Decleor, Arome de Bain,

aromatic bath oil, pounds 24.35

This has a concentrated aromatic strength that claims to help activate the elimination of toxins and improve the peripheral blood circulation. The three essential oils help your body to relax, unwind and release tension.

Smells strongly of lavender oil, bound to blast you with energy in the bath. Perfect if you're preparing a long night out.

Available from Selfridges, Oxford Street W1, and selected House of Fraser stores nationwide, enquiries 0171-262 0403.

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