By the time you read this, I will be one week into being another year older. It’s not a milestone birthday but somewhere in that no-man’s-land of fortysomethingness, which is ominous enough. But while I’m happy with my face (two eyes, a nose, a mouth, a couple of ears – what’s not to like?) it seems the beauty world is conspiring to make me try a new face cream.
Recently, it has taken me up 4,500 metres to one of the highest peaks in the Swiss Alps to pick a rare form of crocus; to the Atlas Mountains to farm saffron (not easy, as it only harvests once a year); to cut down bamboo forests in Korea; and even to a top-secret laboratory in a remote part of France, where I watched as thousands of slender edulis plants, suspended in air, not soil, were spritzed with water.
I’m talking virtually, of course; this is not the 1990s, when budgets were enormous and beauty brands would think nothing of flying international press out to the actual source of their new ingredient. Now it’s a cup of coffee and a croissant in a hotel suite in London if you’re lucky, or a “deskside” presentation if you’re not.
This is nothing new: much of the mystique of Crème de la Mer is based on the development of its secret, seaweed-based formula by a Nasa scientist in the 1970s.
There is no denying that the beauty industry loves a miracle ingredient – and so do its customers. And so, mea culpa, do I. Take Chanel’s new Le Lift cream (from £89): I love the fact that Chanel goes off and develops new methods to farm ingredients, buying iris and rose de mai fields in Grasse, just to ensure that its supply is unique.
Chanel’s latest find is the edulis plant, which hails from Central America and packs its roots with antioxidants. It won’t beat New York-based Tracie Martyn’s electric current facial, for which Diane von Furstenberg keeps a weekly standing appointment (it is brilliant – I managed to book myself in during fashion week and am still feeling the benefits several weeks later), but it’s a good game-changing moisturiser all the same.
Then there is YSL’s new Or Rouge Creme (from £275) with saffron, the ingredient that comes from the pistils (the red bit in the middle) of the saffron crocus flower. Meanwhile, La Prairie is using another crocus in its Cellular Swiss Ice Crystal Dry Oil (from £210). The company claims a rare species, found high in the Swiss Alps, has unique molecular properties that enable it to cope with the cold and with UV light. After all, if this tiny, fragile flower can survive such harsh conditions, just think what it could do for our skin.
That is just the beginning: in Korea, it’s all about bamboo sap. Harvested by beauty brand AmorePacific (a new discovery for me – its single-dose face masks are amazing, and I particularly love the Color Control Cushion Compact foundation compact with SPF50, from $60), it is supremely moisturising and regenerating. And … well, new.
But I must remind myself not to get so blinded by sheer novelty that I forget the tried and true ingredients I already know and adore. For every uncovered crocus or bit of bamboo sap, there is a whole host of supporting staples that might not be as attention-grabbing but are, nevertheless, really good.
Let’s hear it, for example, for hyaluronic acid, a viscous fluid that draws moisture and holds it, and is found in most of our skincare yet rarely gets more than a namecheck in marketing materials. “Hyaluronic acid has been constantly upgraded and reworked over the years,” says Dr Marko Lens, founder of Zelens. “Nowadays, we are using low-molecular-weight hyaluronic acid, which reduces its viscosity in water but improves its ability to penetrate the upper layers of the skin. It helps to preserve the characteristics of youthful and healthy skin: suppleness, elasticity and tone.”
Then there’s retinol, a type of Vitamin A, which was effective when I had an acne outbreak after trying out too many facials (it’s an occupational hazard). The prescription-only cream I used not only got rid of the bumps but boosted the plumpness of my skin. Some forms can be irritating, so look for retinol that is “encapsulated”, which means you can apply bigger quantities to the skin to stimulate collagen production without causing the sensitivities occasionally found with non-encapsulated sources of retinol. Try the Zelens Youth Concentrate Supreme Age-Defying Serum, from £155. Another one to try is Vichy’s LiftActiv Advanced Filler (£31), which has the holy trinity of retinol, hyaluronic acid and glycerine.
Finally, don’t forget peptides – amino acid compounds that are small enough to act as messengers in the skin cells, sending out signals to boost their performance. A good peptide classic that is also loaded with hyaluronic acid is Soap & Glory’s Make Yourself Youthful Serum (from £16).
Go ahead – whether it’s your birthday or not – and give yourself a present.