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Cosmetics firms see foundation flaking: Some British women have given up make-up, while others make a huge effort to look as though they have. Mary Braid reports

'I'M NOT really into make-up,' actress Helena Bonham-Carter told journalists last week. At Ms Bonham-Carter's launch as cover girl for the cosmetic company Yardley it was as if the Milky Bar Kid had revealed an allergy to chocolate.

Her faux pas may have caused spluttering among those anxious to transform Yardley's lavender water image, but the beautiful Bonham- Carter, hailed as the archetypal English rose despite her Spanish looks, is not alone among British women in resisting the temptations of flawless foundations and gleaming lipsticks. Cosmetic companies are currently grappling with a broadly flat international make-up market. But Euromonitor, a market researcher which compares make-up sales in the UK with those in the United States, France, Italy, Germany and Spain, reports that between 1987 and 1991 sales in Britain actually declined by 11 per cent.

Euromonitor does not shrink from the awful truth at the root of the overall decline. Women, it concludes, are 'increasingly prepared to wear less make-up and a growing number are prepared to go without altogether'.

Despite the recent contraction of the British market, Polly Sellar, Vogue's beauty editor, believes traditional British resistance to make-up has weakened in the past 30 years.

'In the 1950s make-up was considered incredibly vulgar. Women of any social standing would not be seen in it. Today make-up is virtually imperceptible. Most women now think it offers a little help, and God knows we can all do with that.'

While we buy more of it than we did, Ms Sellar says we leave Chanel and Dior to the French, opting for Boots' own make and other low- to mid- price brands. 'It is similar to the way in which British women see designer clothes as something for the elite.'

Jane Booth, beauty editor at Bella, believes many British women regard make-up - especially the expensive variety - as frivolous.

'It is part of the British personality. Here, women are less comfortable spending on themselves.

'I have to be quite careful what I recommend to readers. A Chanel foundation costing pounds 17 may be a Rolls-Royce foundation, but some readers would find the suggestion that they buy it offensive.'

The British attitude may just be common sense. Bella is comparing the performance of expensive and cheaper make-up ranges. The cheaper products hold up well.

British women who do enlist the help of a little powder prefer the 'natural look'. Karena Callan, beauty guru for Cosmopolitan, says most woman accept the irony that the 'natural' look requires a lot of make-up.

Dolly Burt, make-up artist, recommends a five-stage make-up plan for those who want to wear it but look as if they don't. Demonstrating on Lotta Heath, 25, model turned illustrator, she began by disguising minor blemishes and bags under the eyes with concealer, a thick, beige cream. This was followed by a matt base foundation applied with a sponge and then a natural tan powder for what Ms Burt refers to as the 'warming effect'.

'It gives your skin that fresh-out-of-the-shower look,' said Ms Burt, who last year introduced John Smith, the Labour leader, to the magic of tan powder for official pictures.

In stage four the eyebrows were brushed and teased with hairspray. A little mascara followed and a 'neutral' eyeshadow with a subtle pink, beige, brown or coral recommended for the lips.

This routine should take no more than 10 minutes a day. And what price the artificial English rose? Ms Burt used Estee Lauder, Kenebo and Elizabeth Arden brands costing around pounds 50, but you can be 'natural' for as little as pounds 15.

Experts say the natural look is particularly popular with American and British women, who are more interested in grooming than seduction.

Ms Callan explains: 'British women don't want their makeup to show. French women still like dark eye-liner and red lips . . . more of a 'come-hither' look. I think British women wear make-up more for themselves than for men.'

(Photographs omitted)