March 4, 2011 10:13 pm

Pot luck

The one good piece of advice my former literary agent gave me had nothing to do with literature: “At our age,” she said, “it’s all about the face cream.” We were in our early thirties at the time; I had no need, I thought, for moisturisers. But the comment squirrelled its way into my brain and the next time I passed a Body Shop I walked in and asked for the cheapest, lightest face cream they had. Just as a precautionary measure.

The shopkeeper handed me Vitamin E Moisture Cream, and that was that: I was hooked for the next 12 years. So much so that when I ran out of the stuff while on strict bed rest during my third pregnancy – I was 40 by then – I called my friend Abby and asked her to run to the Body Shop and bring me a new container. My face felt dry and lifeless without it; what was once preventative had become a necessity, as much a part of my grooming as brushing my teeth or taking a shower. Now, when people tell me I have great skin for my age (44, at least for another six days until I turn 45) I attribute it a little to genetics (my mother still has great skin at 68; her father had great skin into his nineties) but mostly to the Body Shop. And that’s why, when asked to branch out and try other creams for this column, I was sceptical. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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But just as I was able to leave my old agent after she called me a doormat, I knew I was capable, if not necessarily willing, to turn my back on anything, face cream included. I was also curious to try the new breed of creams that combine moisturiser with sunscreen, something the Body Shop cream doesn’t do.

I had three SPF-rich moisturisers chosen for their advanced technology: NUBO Cell Dynamic Day Performance SPF 20 (£120, www.harrods.com); Invisible Zinc ESP Environmental Skin Protector SPF 30+ UVA-UVB (£18.50, www.asos.com); and Clinique even better skin tone correcting moisturiser SPF 20 (£32, www.clinique.co.uk) – the ee cummings use of lower-case letters theirs, not mine. Because I could only choose one to test for long-term results, I literally went eeny-meeny-miney-mo, and picked the Clinique.

Every morning I dutifully smoothed the dense, white cream on to my cheeks. It had a pleasant, almost imperceptible odour but was thicker and pastier than my regular cream – I attributed it to the SPF – so it took a bit longer to rub in, though it moisturised my skin admirably. The issue I had was that if I was a bit careless about getting it too close to my eyes – which was nearly every morning – I wound up spending the rest of the day at my desk rubbing tears from the corners of whichever eye I’d too closely approached. I also missed the lighter, daintier feel of my old face cream.

But did it correct my skin tone, as promised? Who knows? You look at your own face so often, it’s hard to get any distance, literally and metaphorically. I will say that after three weeks with Clinique, the skin on my face looks as good as it can for a woman my age. This means that if I’m in a dark bar you might mistake me for a woman in her mid-to-late-thirties but if I’m outside I look like who I am: a nearly 45-year-old woman who’s been diligently using face creams since her early thirties, because her former agent made a passing comment that stuck.

With spring around the corner, I intend to use the NUBO, which has a lovely floral scent, to protect my skin from the sun, and when summer comes along, I will break out the ESP with its high SPF, making sure, as the yellow caution sticker warns, to avoid contact with my eyes.

Deborah Copaken Kogan

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I have before me, in addition to my hands, three creams which are supposed to heal those same hands when they are chapped, dry or weathered. These creams are: Jack Black Industrial Strength Hand Healer (note: not Jack Gulliver’s Travels Black); Seboni Luxury Hand Butter; and Malin + Goetz Vitamin b5 hand treatment.

The creams run the gamut from rugged to natural to clinical-looking. I’ve long been sceptical of any product focused on a specific body part: a potion for the hands, like one for the nose or eyes, seems less about healing than getting a person to buy three potions instead of one. I have, in fact, been an advocate of dual- or multi-use when it comes to grooming products. I’ve been known, for example, to use hair conditioner in place of shaving cream, and shower gel in place of mousse. Also, I have not had many problems with my hands.

The rest of my body and face have been dried by the sun, ripped to shreds by gravity and dark matter but my hands have remained relatively intact. If anything, I have worried that my hands are too soft and fine, a giveaway that I have not worked an honest day in my life. I always feel a little shame when I shake hands with one of my high school friends who has gone into construction, and whose hands are strong and calloused.

It does seem that in the western world we have embraced a kind of spa culture, where sitting around in a robe awaiting a masseuse is an ideal. It is in this spirit that I tested these products. I even tried to adhere to the cream-only-on-the-hands proviso, though as I opened each cream, I couldn’t help asking myself: “How does this lotion know where my hand ends and my wrist begins? What happens if I put it on my face? Would it be like putting steel in a microwave?”

Jack Black Industrial Strength Hand Healer (£14, www.woodruffs.co.uk) comes in a shiny blue tube, squeezes out in a white snake and smells like every resort locker-room I have ever known. Rubbing it into my hands elicits a sense memory of the private rooms in Fisher Island, Miami, where the peacocks land on the roof with a clatter of claws, and the massage area in Club La Costa, where a Brooklyn-born plug-ugly told me, “Your father, he treat me real cordial.” But did it heal me?

Well, no. It made my hands marginally softer, I suppose. But I’m not sure healing is the real object of the exercise. It’s more like pampering, a flash of get-away luxury for the winter-wracked person.

Seboni Luxury Hand Butter (£7.83, www.seboni.com) comes in a little glass container, sized like a snuff tin and coloured like stained glass, and reeks of exotic. Twisting off the cap, I half-expected to see a little man inside, with his shirt off, being rubbed down by a tiny physical therapist. The butter is hard as wax, and must be broken off in dollops. The label claims it is made from “pure essential oil products from the sea mist of Cornwall, England”.

Now, I am fond of Cornwall, England, and I have good friends from Cornwall, England, but not one of them has especially fine hands. The hand butter goes on in globs and has that strong beauty product smell that is impossible to place – aloe? lavender? – and impossible to get rid off. It precedes your entrance and lingers after your exit. Still, it’s soothing to the hands, and I recommend it.

However, of all these products, I liked Malin + Goetz Vitamin b5 hand treatment (£16, www.spacenk.co.uk) the best. It comes in a white tube with green lettering laid out in a way that suggests the participation of a cutting-edge graphic designer. The cream itself is white and smells fruity, and it actually helps your hands: fixes them when they’re dried, as they can be after a snowball fight or charging the dead battery of your Pungs-Finch vintage car.

Still, there is a problem here and it is one I’ve noticed with most creams and lotions: your skin gets addicted to it. As you begin, you notice that your hands dry out more quickly and thoroughly, as if they have come to desire the product – crave it, demand it. The more you use, the more you need to use. And at a certain point, as First Lady Nancy Reagan once said, you have to Just Say No.

Rich Cohen

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