A new wrinkle in cosmetics

PONCE de Le'on was right: there is a Fountain of Youth. But he was also wrong. It isn't to be found only in Florida, as he believed, but rather in hundreds of locations across the country: cosmetics counters.

That at least is the impression cosmetics manufacturers hope to convey as they hype their latest moneymakers: ``anti-aging'' products.

Now that the baby boom generation is turning 40 and the median age of the population is rising, at least a dozen firms are wooing a more mature market. Gidget has grown up, and she's worried about crow's-feet, frown furrows, and laugh lines.

To allay those fears, manufacturers offer a bewildering array of products with ``intensive synergizing formulas'' and ``remarkable moisture reparative capacities.'' Advertisements make bold promises:

``Defy the passage of time!''

``Make your skin measurably firmer.''

``Enact a support system to save your skin from wrinkles starting today.''

Some of the promises get very specific. ``You could be six hours away from a firmer, smoother, younger-looking skin,'' Stendhal teases. ``Laboratory tests showed a 31.5% increase in moisture-binding ability of skin,'' Est'ee Lauder claims. And Chanel asserts that its Lift Serum gives ``up to 45 percent wrinkle reduction.'' Most women would be hard-pressed to know just what 45 percent of a wrinkle looks like, but no matter. It sounds good, and hope is the name of the game in this industry that generates sales of $1 million an hour, by one estimate.

Other promises get funny. Lauder's new ``repair gel,'' for instance, supposedly helps ``restructurize the deepest epidermal layers of the vulnerable skin around your eyes.''

Restructurize? Please pass the dictionary.

At its best, a cosmetics counter represents a fantasy world. All those bottles and jars and tubes and vials! All those colors and scents! All those possibilities for transformation!

At its worst, that same array of products can cause even a savvy consumer to wonder if this is just a snake-oil enterprise in sleek disguise. A typical line of upscale ``treatments,'' ``regimens,'' and ``rituals'' can easily crowd a bathroom cabinet and sabotage a paycheck. Just over half an ounce of an ``instant action firmer'' sells for $35. One ounce of a ``cellular wrinkle creme'' costs $90.

In addition, a shopper may need a background in chemistry to make sense of the scientific jargon, the references to bio-hyaluronic acid and glycosphingolipids.

It also helps to have a working knowledge of French, and occasionally Italian. Plain old English product names are Out. French names are In: Antirides Tour des Levres, Firmant des Rides, Savon Fra^ichelle. Even Shiseido, a Japanese firm, puts on French airs with names like Bio-Essences Jour et Nuit. This bilingual approach lends a certain cachet, but some shoppers suspect that the pseudo-snobbism also gives manufacturers license to jack up their already steep prices.

Where will the competition end in this fiercely competitive business? Not with anti-aging products, certainly. Irma Shorell has just introduced ``Birthright,'' the first skincare collection for the expectant mother, ``because nine months shouldn't add years to your skin.'' This line, ``formulated for those changes of the skin that accompany pregnancy,'' includes everything from Stretch Mark Creme to ``Pregnancy Mask'' Preventive Creme.

Will products for infants and children be next, on the theory that birth is none too soon to start preserving one's looks?

Probably not. But as women slather expensive controllers, energizers, and emulsions on their ``age zones,'' hoping that those promises will come true and their money will not be misspent, some wonder privately if perhaps earlier generations had the right idea after all. Jars of cold cream and Vaseline were the only ``treatment products'' on many grandmothers' dressing tables. The process was simple, the price was right, and beauty was less a matter of skin tone and firmness than of character and charm.

Best of all, no one was pretending that Gidget would never grow up - or grow old.

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