Sorry Anita, but I never bother with cosmetics

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The Independent Online

Anita Roddick must be the blueprint for what we are told is the the newly emerging socio-economic group. The "Bobos" are the Bourgeois Bohemians, who are successful and wealthy but lead earnest, caring, and comparatively simple lives.

Anita Roddick must be the blueprint for what we are told is the the newly emerging socio-economic group. The "Bobos" are the Bourgeois Bohemians, who are successful and wealthy but lead earnest, caring, and comparatively simple lives.

Presumably these superannuated hippies are the successors of champagne socialists, eschewing both of these potent symbols to drink Merlot with enthusiasm and vote Tony with reservations instead. It all sounds just as comfortable as, but no less suspicious than, the old model. Nice lifestyle if you can get it - lovely house, plenty of holidays and no nagging guilt. Can such unearned virtue be for real?

Which is probably why we all remain so sceptical about Ms Roddick, who has hit the headlines once again, this time for some remarks she made during an event to promote her autobiography, Business as Unusual, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.

Asked how she cared for her own skin, she made a few acerbic comments about anti-ageing cream, nothing she hasn't said before, declaring that "anything which claims to remove your wrinkles is a scandalous lie.

"Moisturisers work," she continued, "but the rest is complete pap. There's nothing on God's planet that will take away 30 years of arguing with your husband and 40 years of environmental abuse."

Some may have nothing more to add to this other than noting that marrying at 10 can't be that good for your complexion either. But others find it deeply dodgy that a woman who has made £150m from selling cosmetics dares to breathe a word which is not utterly supportive of the entire industry.

Therefore the tabloids immediately launched into tirades. "Some Body Shop favourites - and not a moisturiser in sight," one trumpeted after an investigation, going on to name the guilty as: "Passion fruit cleansing gel; Orchid cleansing milk, tea tree oil facial wash, unperfumed elderflower eye gel, conditioning cream scrub, honey water, Japanese washing grains, neck gel, night supplement, bath oil and glycerin and oat facial lather." Most of these appear to be face cleaning products, and I don't think anyone is claiming that a dirty face is good for anything but blackheads.

There are, however, plenty of good reasons for giving anti-ageing creams the face-and-body swerve, which presumably is what Ms Roddick was talking about. What is remarkable is that in the light of all we know - or should know - about anti-ageing creams, Ms Roddick's comments are seen as controversial at all.

Many anti-ageing creams contain alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, which are fruit or milk acids similar to those used in the chemical peels by dermatologists and plastic surgeons to remove discolouring, roughness and wrinkling by stripping off an outer layer of skin. One of the strongest AHAs, glycolic acids, is used at full strength for etching metal and in household cleaners.

Used in creams and lotions since the early Nineties, there is now a body of opinion which suggests that anti-ageing creams may actually cause the skin to age faster, by worsening the damaging effects of the sun's rays, causing dark spots and crinkle lines. The US Food and Drug Administration agency has had complaints from people using AHA products, citing side effects such as burning, blistering, bleeding, swelling or itching. In a 1996 study the FDA found that those using creams containing glycolic acid for 12 weeks developed a slight redness to their skin even though they were spending 13 per cent less time in the sun than normal.

Other researchers have shown that skin is twice as sensitive to harmful UV rays on areas where cream has been applied. The FDA is currently conducting a study with scientists from the US National Toxicology Programme to determine whether AHAs increase the risk of skin cancer in mice.

In the meantime, a 1997 Cosmetic Ingredient Review recommended that AHA cosmetics were safe with a PH balance of 3.5 and a concentration of 10 per cent or less of fruit acids. However, professionals expect that eventually the recommendation will drop to no more than 4 per cent AHAs, and that all AHA products should be used in conjunction with a high factor sun-screen. At Cheltenham Ms Roddick also remarked that women seeking to preserve their skins should stay out of the sun. This advice seems doubly useful if you are also using an anti-ageing cream.

All the same, I can see why it is that Ms Roddick, with her sensible advice and her sensible products, still promotes unease among some people. For what The Body Shop has always sold is simple pampering, a pastime that appears to me actually to promote insecurity about one's looks. The more time you spend rubbing, creaming, cleansing, plucking, manicuring and exfoliating, the more you're focusing on the way you look, and the more aware of that you become.

At the turn of the 20th century, feminists believed that once women won the right to express themselves in ways other than physical ones, they would stop being obsessed with their appearance. Instead the opposite has happened, and men as well as women are becoming more and more preoccupied with their facial performance. My old colleague Suzanne Moore put this best when she lamented in print: "We wanted sensitive men, but instead we got men with sensitive skin."

The latest craze in the world's neurosis capital, New York, is for grown women in their thirties and forties to take part in "slumber parties" during which they give themselves and each other facials and so on, then settle down together for a spot of communal beauty sleep. Such teenagestyle activities for adults can be seen as part of the "kidult trend" that is exported from America round the world via programmes such as Friends, Ally McBeal and Frasier.

But it is also reminiscent of the teenagers' insecurity about her looks - the washing of the hair immediately upon returning tearfully from the hairdresser, the hours in the bedroom painting and repainting nails, undertaking the Sisyphean labours of zotting spots, or hitting zits, or whatever it is, and "experimenting" with every potion and lotion they can get their silly little hands on. In a teenager, worried by the upcoming stresses of adult sexuality, such behaviour is irritating but understandable. In an adult such extremes are plainly dysfunctional.

And while Ms Roddick's erstwhile empire, The Body Shop, may be at the bring-back-your-bottles, sign-the-petition, don't-test-on-animals end of all this, her business is still one that preys on, and encourages, female ideas that the way you look is there to be improved and enhanced, and that if you don't take part in this stuff, then you're a bit of a slattern.

And actually, I am a bit of a slattern. I don't brush my hair for days on end, let alone wash it, and I don't even take Ms Roddick's advice and use moisturiser. A personnel officer once argued that I shouldn't be given a job for which I was eminently qualified because my fingernails were so dirty, and the varnish I put on my toenails this summer (for the first time in 20 years) has now grown out on all but my two biggest toes. I wish I could discipline myself to do what I used to and have a grooming session on a Sunday evening, but I can't find the motivation.

This is not good either, so I do feel that Ms Roddick and not me is the person worth listening to on this, even if her choice of career involves promoting skin regimens for the soles of your feet (for God's sake).

Ms Roddick's advice is not as useful, though, as Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's vintage tip - which is that putting haemorrhoid cream on your lines makes them magically disappear in half an hour. Clearly those worried by ageing should be putting bottom cream on their faces, and shoving their anti-ageing cream somewhere else altogether.