- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 21, 2001

Two stylish women in their 50s are perusing the Stila makeup counter at Saks Fifth Avenue at the Galleria at Tysons II. What has piqued their interest this day is a glimpse of actress Cameron Diaz wearing a particular Stila product in a magazine layout.

Are the women expecting to slick on lip gloss and look like the twentysomething movie star? Of course not. They are here because cosmetics feel good and smell good and, if they work correctly, make them look better.

"I am not going to be willing to have cosmetic surgery," says one of the shoppers, 58-year-old Lois Yates of Annapolis. "I want to [use products] that can help minimize the bad and emphasize the good. When I find a good brand, I stick to it."

Ms. Yates is willing to pay a premium for those products. At Saks, for instance, Stila blush costs $15, Chanel lip gloss is $28, and La Prairie Age Management Night Cream is $125 an ounce.

Are those products worth it? As in beauty, it is all in the eye of the beholder.

"There are cheap products that are great, and there are expensive products that stink and vice versa," says Paula Begoun, a Seattle consumer advocate and author of the book "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me."

Ms. Begoun and a staff of testers reviewed more than 30,000 cosmetics and skin care products for the latest edition of her book. Though she says some lines and products clearly are superior to others, cosmetics are a largely personal issue. A highly fragranced moisturizer might feel greasy to you but great to your best friend.

Because the industry must appeal to so many different skin types, budgets and styles, the competition is brutal. That is why cosmetic companies try, try, try to tell you their product is revolutionary, Ms. Begoun says.

"There is no way I can account for personal preference," she says, "but clearly, from the industry's point of view, they are telling you what they want you to believe. Getting to the truth is complicated in our culture, and that makes it easy to be seduced."

The science of beauty

One hundred years before Cindy Crawford was the face of Revlon, elderly women hawked skin cream with frightening "before" and "after" pictures, says Kathy Peiss, a University of Massachusetts history professor and the author of "Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture."

It didn't take long to discover that youth sells. Soon came the evolution of cosmetics as a tool to make women desirable and sexy, Ms. Peiss says.

By the late 1960s around the same time as the women's movement advertisers found that science sells, too. Think of Clinique and its sales staff clad in lab coats. Picture words such as "liposomes" and "antioxidants" and "scientific research" in ad copy for astringent.

"The '60s and '70s took the cosmetics industry by surprise," Ms. Peiss says. "Manufacturers made things that seemed more natural or more scientific. Clinique ads did not have a woman in them, just the product.

"Around that time, many of the companies began their own research and development arms," she says. "They made scientific claims that became more and more important. If you can say [in an ad] that cosmetics are a health measure, not simply a beauty aid, then you are better able to sell the product."

However, there is a fine line between the two, which is outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act states that a product must be proven safe and that the label shall not be false or misleading. Cosmetic manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order by quantity but are not required to state how much of the ingredient is in the product.

Though cosmetic companies conduct extensive research, it is largely for their own purposes, the FDA says. Companies are not required, for instance, to prove to the FDA that their products minimize wrinkles. That is why phrases such as "appears to" or "may minimize" are used in advertising.

If the product did, indeed, erase wrinkles, which would be altering the cellular appearance of the skin, that product likely would be classified as a drug and not a cosmetic, according to FDA specifications.

Therein lies the difference between a beauty product and a drug. A beauty product, according to the FDA, is intended to beautify, cleanse or improve cosmetic appearance. A drug is intended to improve structure or function. No official list exists to say what is a drug and what is a beauty product, according to the FDA.

FDA occasionally sends warning letters to companies that step over the line with claims that cosmetic products promote cell regeneration or renewed hair growth.

Seduction in a bottle

"We are suckers for advertising," says Pat Thigpen, a 50-year-old Florida marketing executive who was shopping at Saks recently. "I'm in the business, and I fall for it just as much as anyone else."

Ms. Thigpen, who is loyal to the Bobbi Brown line of cosmetics, says this without a trace of annoyance. She is not alone. Falling for ads is part of the reason the cosmetics industry is a $26 billion business annually.

"Part of what the industry is selling is fantasy," Ms. Peiss says. "What you are getting is not just the product. You are getting a cheap form of therapy. The products make you feel good and smell good. Women are not dupes. They know they are doing this. For most of them, it is a pleasure, and they know it is not going to revolutionize their appearance."

In other words, if you buy Estee Lauder products, you might not look like its former spokeswoman, actress Elizabeth Hurley, but you might think you have a little piece of her fabulous life.

"No one is claiming you are going to look like her, but it makes you think," says Teruca Rullan, vice president of corporate communications for Estee Lauder, the parent company for more than a dozen popular brands of high-end cosmetics, including Clinique, Prescriptives, Stila and Bobbi Brown.

What celebrity advertising might make some women think is "why bother?" Ms. Begoun says.

"These women are spokes-models because of good genes and digital Photoshop," she says. "What is sad is not only can regular women not look like those women, but given digital retouch of photos, not even those women look like those women. It is not so beautiful to be ripped off."

Keeping expectations lower than youthful supermodel expectations is one of Ms. Begoun's 10 commandments of beauty, outlined in another of her books, "The Beauty Bible."

Her No. 1 rule: Don't believe expensive cosmetics are necessarily better than inexpensive ones. Many expensive and inexpensive products have virtually the same ingredients.

"A perfect example is a retinol (vitamin A) product that is practically identical between Loreal and Lancome," she says. "One is $12, and the other is $50. The difference is in packaging and marketing. In my opinion, there is no product over $30 that is worth it."

Other commandments: Don't believe everything the salespeople tell you; they are just doing their job, after all. Don't believe in beauty miracles, either. You cannot dissolve cellulite from the outside in, and you cannot permanently erase wrinkles.

"There are over 10,000 anti-wrinkle products on the market," Ms Begoun says. "In the end, good skin care relies on a good sunscreen and good moisturizer. You can get those with a game plan of options, but the notion that a $200 cream is the latest miracle item is just pathetic."


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