Like many other men in their early thirties, I had always hoped there would be this golden period in my life between the last of my lingering adolescent acne and the greying of my hair. Then again, I planned to be a millionaire before the age of 30 and that didn't happen either.
So I found myself in the drugstore the other day, staring bleakly at shelf after shelf of cosmetic products, all promising to cure the recent flare-up of my skin on the basis of natural ingredients like aloe vera, cucumber, even salmon eggs -- although presumably without the fishy flavor.
The cleansers and toners that didn't feature chunky images of fresh fruit on the packaging were instead covered with drawings of complex amino acid chains and even the odd reputable-looking scientist in a white coat. Between the pictures of sliced avocadoes and the pseudo-science they had me sold and I came away with a bottle of each in my hands, hoping rather foolishly that I could buy what I wanted -- to look good.
Americans spend billions on cosmetics each year. With the most modern role models coming through the TV set, everyone wants pearly white teeth, unblemished skin and the rich, flowing hair that all their favorite celebrities seem to have.
Worse, in a society where products are frequently sold through fear, the underlying message is that with the odd freckle, blackhead or pimple, you stand no chance of getting a date, an interview or just some welcome attention from the opposite sex when walking down the street.
Cosmetics companies understand this intimately. Like any major corporation, they hire teams of psychologists, researchers and PR consultants to identify the major causes of concern for their target public and all their advertising, packaging and product launches are centered around their recommendations.
You can bet that if eyebrows went out of fashion, L'Oreal and co would be the first to sell lotions to prevent the growth of hair above your eyes.
When I got home I eagerly applied the avocado cleanser and, while I impatiently waited the 20 minutes until the instructions allowed me to wash it off, I checked out the ingredients, wondering how they'd ever got avocado to be so soft and smelling so fresh. I was a little disconcerted to find that while there was indeed pulp of avocado contained within, it came only at the end of a long list of chemicals that I could barely pronounce, never mind identify.
Go ahead, check the ingredients in just about any cosmetic you have in the bathroom and if you can explain what they all are I'll send you a free avocado.
Which left me with the moisturizer containing the latest in amino acids. I belatedly realised that I'd been impressed by an ad on TV which featured an impressive computer simulation of the amino acids in question spinning around and melting into skin cells. With a hot date that night and blackheads on my nose, I was ready to believe anything.
Cosmetics companies are really smart. They pay large sums to laboratories to come up with actual hard data about the behavior of things like broken-down proteins that can be put into neat little computer animations. Then they pay marketing spin doctors to find a way of implying that these latest biological innovations are actually going to make the slightest difference to your skin or your hair.
And there's the rub -- and also why you'll never be able to sue them for misleading you in your purchase -- they keep the scientific mumbo jumbo to one side and the claims about the effects of the cosmetic quite separate.
They'll say something like "such and such a vitamin is important for cell formation" which may be perfectly true but there's no evidence that smearing the vitamin on your face will help in the slightest.
Their claims that the cream will hydrate your skin are true but just about any cream will do so. Only the the computer graphics show the vitamins entering the skin and enhancing the glow and sex appeal of the exceptionally beautiful model in question.
Or take shampoos and conditioners. Companies like Garnier and L'Oreal are forever touting the use of specially catered proteins to give new life and verve to your hair, you know, to get the movie star look.
There's just one problem -- now brace yourself -- your hair is dead. Really. And no amount of amino acids is going to change that. What the conditioner can do is make your hair look great -- for a while -- but that has nothing to do with all the science of hair growth. It comes down to the right balance of oils, chemicals and water in the product.
But if the science is spurious or the advertisements misleading, how could the products ever be sold in a country like the US? Surely the government has safeguards in place to protect the consumer and test the claims of such products?
Not a hope.
For while the FDA does call for drug companies to produce documented studies that prove efficacy, cosmetic products are allowed onto the U.S. market without any efficacy tests being conducted and cannot even be recalled in the event that they prove hazardous to the consumer. The FDA believes that "cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients" and leaves it up to the consumer to decide if they work or not.
It's an open question whether there are any health risks from using the kind of cosmetics found in most American bathrooms. Certainly many of the ingredients could be fairly toxic but the skin just isn't that absorbent -- we'd leak if it was.
However, as we enter a futuristic technological era, some cosmetics now include nano-particles which can penetrate the skin and perhaps cause ailments ranging from breast cancer to genital deformities or damage to our children. Such charges haven't been proven but experience shows that it makes sense to take precautions sooner rather than later.
Why wait a decade or so until people start getting sick from the latest skin rub?
One such group is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which has been pressuring companies for some time now to sign a convention based on safety measures introduced in Europe. Interestingly enough, while many smaller companies have signed, the giants like L'Oreal, Revlon, Gap and Proctor & Gamble have refused to join up.
And why does the FDA not bother to regulate the safety of cosmetics in America? It's because they consider cosmetics to be "topical products that do not affect the structure or function of the skin."
They don't do anything, in other words.
Got that? All those expensive bottles that promise to give you the skin of a TV star are really nothing more than make-up and moisturizer. Your skin looks good or bad depending on the overall state of your health, not on how many layers of amino acids you splash on top. The best thing you can do for overall skin health is to drink lots of water, avoid fried and processed foods and get plenty of exercise.
But as the best things in life can't be sold, you'll rarely hear the above and instead get lost in the vast array of cosmetic supplies that hypnotized me into making a purchase the other day. Dermatologists are beginning to tire of the claims of the cosmetics companies though and there's a call for a return to the basics of skin care. One prominent advocate is a Dr. Fran E. Cook-Bolden, a New York dematologist, who summed it up:
"Just two products, a gentle cleanser and a good sunscreen, are enough daily skin care for most people, and you can buy those at a drugstore or a grocery store."
I spent last winter in India and I was struck at how many of the cosmetics available were typically outside the budget of many Indian families yet they all seemed to have glowing complexions. One day my landlady decided I was respectable enough to be invited for lunch and, towards the end of the meal, her teenage daughter began to apply some yogurt to her skin.
After they had a good laugh at the look on my face, it was explained to me that, according to the principles of Ayurveda -- India's traditional holistic medicine -- most cosmetics for skin care can be found within the kitchen for next to no expense.
They went on to show me how honey could be used as a moisturizer, slices of uncooked potato could tighten the skin and even papaya pulp or beaten eggs could be used as face masks. All without costing them any more than the leftover groceries.
And these ancient traditions had not only the advantage of being cheap, they were also free of the kind of heinous karma that the cosmetics companies have built up over the years by testing on animals. For decades, the standard method for determining the irritation factor of new products has been to release drops of the cosmetic into the eyes of rabbits or guinea pigs and observe the toxic reaction.
Amid recent animal rights campaigns and surveys that show a majority of Americans and Britons oppose animal testing, the cosmetics companies have done all they can to cast a smokescreen: they played with the stats to look innocent, they donated money to universities to further studies into alternative testing methods and hired the best PR teams that money can buy.
Yet animal testing still goes on in a big way, despite all the media spin employed by the cosmetics giants. Naturally, these kinds of experiments have usually been outsourced to other companies to avoid any immediate moral fallout and bad publicity. Which is just as well as half the animals used in the testing die a few weeks afterwards.
So think about that the next time you reach for your sunscreen. If the bottle doesn't proudly announce that it's free of animal testing then you can bet that many helpless creatures had to die in order for you to shrink those wrinkles.
Ultimately, just about everyone wants to look good. Cosmetics wouldn't be a multi-billion dollar industry if they didn't. But products and industries should exist to serve our needs, not the other way around. We don't need teams of scientists, PR marketing whizzes, legal teams and graphic designers to put together products to make us look beautiful, much less healthy. As Dr. William P. Coleman, M.D., a dermatology professor from Tulane University in New Orleans tells us:
"You have to think of cosmetics as decorative and hygienic, not as things that are going to change your skin. A $200 cream may have better perfume or packaging, but as far as it moisturizing your skin better than a $10 cream, it probably won't."
The cosmetics industry would have us believe that enduring myth, that beauty is only skin-deep. We then take the next step of swallowing the notion that if we were only to spend enough money on our appearances then we'd look beautiful. The truth is, no amount of $200 wonder creams is going to do that for us.
A good make-up artist can do wonders for the camera but at the end of the day it's only a mask.
You can use some oats to cleanse your face, some yogurt to moisturise it. Failing that, you can buy pre-packaged alternatives at your local drug store. But don't let the jargon and sales pitches make you part with the better part of your wages to shrink those wrinkles. Your skin is fairly elastic but it gradually shapes itself into the expression it most commonly wears. Try smiling a little more often and as you get older your face will have its own characteristic charm.
Beauty really does come from within.
Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.
The cleansers and toners that didn't feature chunky images of fresh fruit on the packaging were instead covered with drawings of complex amino acid chains....