The Language of Skin Creams
Department store cold cream customer caught on candid camera, circa 1940s. Note tiny 'fear wrinkles' under left eye.
A woman on her way to buy manila envelopes finds herself threading through the ground floor of a large department store. Islands of cosmetics, with their dense, tiny pots of promise and ziggurats of skin-care products, stand in her way. As she tacks this way and that, certain phrases assail her: 'Anti-aging cell repair’, 'Moisture Recharging Complex', 'Renewal Night Treatment'. Is this the Mayo Clinic, or the make-up department, she wonders, slowing but not stopping. She passes another display that promises ‘Total Time Fighting Care'. Hmmm. Triumph over time, in a jar . . . yes! She veers over to the time cream, palms the heavy sea-green tester, and begins to lubricate herself.
Behind the counter is a lustrous clerk in a white lab coat with a cardboard computer, ready to evaluate the thirst and carnage of her skin. The woman, normally immune to the lure of rabbit-decimating lipsticks and redundant eyeshadows, nevertheless finds herself listening to the clerk, fascinated by her curved and combed eyebrows, as she describes the 'biomimetic activity' of the cream’s ‘anti-aging emollients’. These are not simple creams, but advanced, inscrutable, scientific systems and oh, for a system, any system, in these unravelling times. Plus, the woman is forty, over forty, and has taken to spotting the strange, pointy, post-facelift jawlines on late-night talk shows.
She smooths some time-fighter on the heartless clock of her face.
All around her the beauty stakes are being upped every day. She smooths some time-fighter on the heartless clock of her face, looks in the mirror, and imagines her face stopping. A subtle feeling, like burrowing termites, fizzes under the skin around her eyes. Obviously this is Science at work. So she peels off forty-five — or sixty-five dollars — and drifts away, excited, flushed, ashamed, having bribed Time itself and become her own Dr. Frankenstein. In just a few weeks, the brochure says, her skin will be 'fresher, younger and more organized'. Organized skin! No more slovenly, haphazard aging! She feels so optimistic that when she hits the stationery department she buys a colourful desktop file system she will fill and never use.
Strange that this woman, who knows her nitrates from her nitrites and can spot 'Red Dye No.3' on a food label from ten yards away should fall for an overpriced wrinkle cream described in pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. Perhaps it was the quaint lure of that phrase 'scientifically formulated’ — as if such mysteries could still be bought. The fact is, she feels a little sorry for science; physics has uncrowned it, mixed it up with fiction, mysticism, and philosophy. Pure pockets of hardcore scientific religiosity are hard to find. The ‘scientifically formulated' allure depends on the notion that this cream will act upon you in a way that is powerful, unknowable, and best left to experts. It exacts from us a 'faith in facts' based on sheer exhilarating ignorance. The point of the skin cream ad copy is to befuddle and impress; if it's 'scientific', it must be true. The woman knows this to be false, but it's a slightly more flattering pitch than, say, 'Get a man before your face turns into the Alberta badlands.’
A variety of radical but effective skin treaments are available in reputable offshore spa resorts. [o]
Let us take a closer look at this intelligent but susceptible envelope-shopper. She wears little or no make-up, and studiously buys non-violent banana oils at The Body Shop. However, she also suffers from a mild shopping disorder that flares up occasionally, like malaria. It strikes her when she least expects it. Perhaps she's a little depressed. Perhaps she feels that the job of being female entails far too much measuring up, beset as she is by images of youth and beauty on TV and in magazines. She remembers the first time The Pitch got under her skin (as it were). She was on her way through a store, again. She passed the Clinique counter — the word 'clinique' is a clever coinage suggesting a boutique of science, a lab of beauty. She saw the women dressed like technicians, with plain, efficient, minimal-gender jars that featured words, not images. And the phrase that hooked her was 'Moisture Surge’.
A hit, a fix, a surge of humidity. For all its prim packaging, the phrase had an unavoidable eroticism. (Did the marketing people consider 'Wet Swoon'?) So she swerved over to the counter, and picked up the heavy pink tester, with its mute silvery lid. This was obviously not some passive little cream you slap on in the morning but a powerful CEO of a hydrating honcho who won't take no for an answer from your skin. She read the 'literature' that came with the 'system'. The subtitle was 'The Intensifier'. Yes, intensify me, by all means, she thought. Make vivid my Hudson's Bay life. She read on. 'Moisture Surge is a lightweight gel with new-tech speed and skill'. New-tech presumably comes after hi-tech, from the root technology, meaning good, superior, perfect. And skill! An intelligent emollient, a cream with a resumé! 'Used in addition to the regular Clinique system of skin care' (more $$$) ‘it sparks a quick surge of extra power’.
The sheer opacity of such a claim reassured her — the way elves and tooth fairies once did.
A quick surge of extra power. She peeled off forty-two dollars and took the jar home where it sat with a radioactive aura on a bathroom shelf. For days she avoided using it. What if...it oversurged? What if her face became too empowered with moisture and swelled up like a watermelon? Instead, she found herself sitting on the toilet every morning, re-reading the literature, and the label. And the remarkable thing was...her skin improved. Nightly scanning of magazine ads also visibly reduced the tiny lines around her eyes. She discovered that the words themselves had a deep penetrating action that actually enhanced her cell cohesiveness.
Time passed, despite the cream. She discovered the next 'scientific' hook, microspheres — visible blobs of 'active ingredients' suspended in a clear gel. It was a childlike way to make the cream look more complicated and powerful, as if she were gazing into the molecular blueprint under a microscope. She found the word 'microspheres' increased the blood supply to her skin surface within hours. She then bought Niosome's Sysème Anti-Age, which had special microspheres with 'niosomes', which, the literature assured her, were ‘anti-aging actives'. The sheer opacity of such a claim reassured her, the way elves and tooth fairies once did.
Then, one day when she wasn't so thrilled with her relationship, or her work, or her shoes, she went out and bought Esteé Lauder's 'Time Zone'...'the rich, soufflé crème so influential it can reprogram the future of dry skin.' It was silly, she knew, but she longed to be reprogrammed. The ad copy suggested that if 'Time Zone’ couldn't precisely stop time, it could still bargain effectively with the future. 'Time Zone’ — an executive cream from a good family, with money and power, come to manage your skin and arm it for the future — the future, as Esteé so bluntly put it, of dry skin. She rubbed it in, the genie cream, and felt noticeably younger and wetter.
Visible photographic proof of hard copy transformation. [o]
Science used to measure the material world. But the closer and longer it looked, the more the world dematerialized. No we live in a 'new tech’ mediaeval kingdom of waves, impulses, fission, and transaction that has disembodied us, leaving us with the lightness of being, a modem, and...dry skin. Drat! she thinks. If it's the end of history, then what are those lines on my face? We need something to erase this troubling reminder of our corporeality. Something to rub in and rub us out. Why be half-disembodied? So she gathered up all the jars and vials, and put them out by the curb in the blue recycling box. But she kept all the labels and boxes. It was language she discovered, not science, that fought off time, kept on working all night long. ≈ç
This article first appeared in the magazine, The Journal of Wild Culture, Vol. 2. No. 4. Summer 1990.
Illustration by Bernard Stockl (d. 1992), The Journal of Wild Culture art director (1986-1991).
TRUE FACTS! Cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting (real doctor!) lifts the lid on what rumours we should and shouldn't be listening to when it comes to anti-aging
MYTH: Water is the fountain of youth.
FALSE: “Alas, if skin isn’t well-constructed with the right water-retaining elements (think ceramides, essential fatty acids and Natural Moisturising Factor [NMF]), it won’t stay hydrated — much like water isn’t retained in a sieve, however much you pour into it.”
MYTH: Moisturisers lessen wrinkles.
FALSE: “A truer statement would be that water lessens the appearance of wrinkles, rather than moisturisers do.”
MYTH: The earlier you start using anti-aging products, the better.
TRUE: “This is absolutely the case when it comes to prevention, i.e. wearing sunscreen. There is a strong argument for getting early teen girls into the habit of wearing sunscreen — a big part of it is sending the right message that tanning is bad for the skin. Bear in mind that 25% of our lifetime sun exposure occurs before age 18 and melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults. Therefore, if teens are tanning (and even scarier, using sunbeds) serious re-education needs to occur.”
MYTH: You don't need sunscreen on a cloudy day.
FALSE: “UVA is present all year-round, and passes through clouds (and glass). It drives collagen and elastin breakdown, plus it triggers hyperpigmentation. So we need protection 365 days a year.”
MYTH: The rate at which we age is based on our genes.
TRUE: “Genes do play a role in aging — but the likelihood is that our behaviour has a far greater influence, given that as much as 90% of aging is due to extrinsic factors such as sun, smoking and pollution.”
MYTH: Lasers can get rid of any form of aging on the skin.
FALSE: “Hmm. Lasers are a hugely broad category — there is one for most anti-aging concerns relating to skin (acne, redness, brown spots, wrinkles) etc. But one thing they won’t do is re-volumize the face – so I’m going to say false.
MYTH: The more expensive an anti-aging product is, the more effective it is.
FALSE: “When you look at how many products fall into the +£100 price point but don't actually contain significant levels of proven actives, you realise that price has very little bearing on efficacy. Many effective ingredients with good quality data to support their mechanism of action can be found in reasonably-priced pharmacy brands — look out for niacinamide, lactic and glycolic acid, soy, retinol and retinaldehyde in the top 1 or 3 of the ingredients list, suggesting tangible amounts present in the product.”
MYTH: Wrinkles are formed by frowning and smiling.
TRUE: “Animating the face does lead to wrinkles, especially in the upper 1/3 of the face. That’s why Botox is so successful at treating the lines we get from frowning, smiling and raising our eyebrows — because it takes the oomph out of the force of the muscle contraction.”
MYTH: Once the signs of aging have started to show, it's too late to change it.
FALSE: “We can always improve things — the skin has fantastic powers of recovery, provided the right skincare routine and treatments are adopted.”
MYTH: Diet has nothing to do with the rate at which our skin ages.
FALSE: “Eating foods with a high glycemic index like white bread, pasta and potatoes cause the formation of AGEs (Advanced Glycation End Products), because they are quickly converted to sugar in the bloodstream. We know that the formation of AGEPs (Advanced Glycation End Products) are associated with collagen and elastin becoming stiff and less springy, which we see clinically as sagging skin. To make matters worse, AGEs also make the skin more susceptible to sun damage. The changes associated with this process tend to manifest in the mid-30s — a great reason to start eating clean.”
MARNI JACKSON is a Toronto writer and journalist specializing in humour and social commentary. Her nonfiction books include The Mother Zone (1992), Pain: The Science and Culture of Why We Hurt (2002), Home Free: The Myth of the Empty Nest (2010) and a recent book of fiction, Don’t I Know You? (2016). She lives in Toronto. marnijackson.com