London - Twice a day, Pariena Charalambous, 36, follows the same routine as millions of women - she cleanses and tones her face and rubs on face cream to maintain her youthful skin.
But there is one big difference between the freelance designer and most other women: the creams she uses cost her more than £1 000 (about R20 000).
Pariena, a mother of two who lives in London, is a fan of celebrity favourite La Prairie’s exclusive products, using four products including the £252 face Cellular E ye E ssence and the £724 Cellular C ream Platinum Rare, leaving her with an annual face cream bill of £6 000.
And she is not alone.
Indeed, some women are paying more than £1 000 for a single pot of face cream as prices soar to unprecedented levels.
Pariena’s expensive habit began last year when her company director husband Tony took her to London’s Dorchester Hotel for their anniversary, where she had a La Prairie spa facial.
“After an hour-and-a-half, I hardly recognised myself. The dark circles under my eyes had almost vanished and I looked radiant and refreshed,” she says. “Tony spent £1 000 buying the whole range for me as a birthday present.”
Since then, he has spent a further £2 000 keeping his wife in skincare.
Recently it was reported that sales of moisturisers costing more than £200 have increased by a third in just a year at Fortnum & Mason in London. At Liberty, demand for products costing more than £100 has increased by almost 2 000 percent in the past five years and John Lewis is stocking three times as many £200-plus face creams as five years ago, with sales up 120 percent.
While the average woman spends £300 a year on products, a significant number are spending more than that on a single cream.
Fifteen years ago, eyebrows were raised when Creme de la Mer launched a face cream costing £115. Now, many products retail for ten times that, from Christian Dior’s £1 200 L’Or de Vie La Cure and Guerlain’s £900 Orchidee Imperiale Cure to Revive’s £930 Peau Magnifique Youth Recruit, which promises to make the skin five years younger within 28 days.
Meanwhile, the 111 Skin Celestial Black Diamond Collection will set you back £1 000 for three products.
So can they really be worth it or are women sucked in by wishful thinking?
“Expense does not necessarily equate to a quality formulation,” says Harley Street consultant dermatologist Dr Emma Wedgeworth.
“There is nothing wrong with women enjoying the luxury of premium products, as long as they know exactly what they are getting for their money.”
Ingredients and cosmetic expert Dr David Jack agrees: “The problem with the vast majority of these creams is that you don’t know exactly what you are getting, other than a ‘miracle product’ as touted by the manufacturer. Most of them are pitched on one super ingredient with, on the whole, no substantial clinical proof.
“They frequently contain similar moisturising ingredients to cheap High Street creams with other additives that, while perhaps being slightly more expensive to produce, do not necessarily do anything other than hydrate the superficial layers of the skin. There is nothing worth hundreds of pounds, unless you want to pay for hyperbole.”
And there is plenty of that. Take Christian Dior’s £1 200 La Cure, heralded as “the fruit of an extraordinary alchemy between the miracle of nature and hyper-innovation”.
Its killer ingredient is a sap extract from the vines of a chateaux in France, which is combined with the “marc” - the leftovers from pressing grapes. Dior claims that when used for three months it will “reactivate the skin’s youth”.
Admittedly, evidence is pretty sound for the antioxidant properties of grape extract and Dior says that in tests on 32 women using it twice daily for three months, 84 percent felt their skin looked firmer and 78 percent said their skin was smoother.
But then Superdrug tested their Optimum Super Antioxidant Grape Serum - which contains a similar ingredient - on 50 people and 90 percent said the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles was minimised after a month. It’s on offer at £6.45 - a mere £1 193.55 less than La Cure.
However, many women were clearly convinced by Dior’s rhetoric. La Cure, a limited edition, has sold out in the UK, leaving only the standard L’ Or de Vie collection at £1 000 for four products.
Then there is Guerlain’s £900 Orchidee Imperiale Cure, which apparently stimulates cell regeneration using “Gold Orchid Technology”.
Paula Begoun, author of Don’t Go To The Cosmetics Counter Without Me, has devoted her life to producing honest reviews of beauty products. “Orchid is not a miracle ingredient which can turn back time,” she says. “Guerlain’s research [which is not based on independent trials] concluded that orchid stem extracts appear to cause fibroblasts [cells that make skin-firming collagen] in a petri dish to survive longer. Those are tests in the lab, which do not necessarily translate to the same results on human skin.”
She says it is hard for the layman to decipher labels in terms of quality or pricing. She even suggests that ultra-expensive products, which are frequently heavily fragranced, could make some women age faster: “Perfume can actually promote ageing due to the irritation it can cause.”
It’s not all bad news, though. “Orchids do contain flavonoids, molecules with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties,” says Dr Wedgeworth.
“I think you are better off investing in tried and tested ingredients such as retinol [a derivative of vitamin A proven to effectively tackle signs of ageing.]”
But these creams still sell. The £930, one-month Revive treatment boasts “patented and Nobel-Prize-winning ingredients that help increase the production of healthy skin cells” - EGF (epidermal growth factor) and IGF (insulin-like growth factor), which stimulate collagen production and skin restoration.
“There is some evidence that EGF has benefits,” says Dr Wedgeworth. “But I don’t think it is yet concrete enough to spend £1 000.”
Of course, those behind these hyper-costly creams insist the prices are not inflated. Chinese medicine practitioner John Tsagaris, whose SkinPointEight is sold in Harrods and costs more than £1 000 for the whole regime, says: “I have spent seven years developing my range. I use extremely potent ingredients to address the skin’s ageing factors. The packaging and manufacturing processes are also of the highest standard.”
Undoubtedly, there are other considerations beyond ingredients that determine the cost of your product. But one industry insider suggested packaging - “unlikely to be much more than £1” - and manufacturing were not major factors. Far more important are tax and profits.
“If a cream costs £1 000, you need to take off 20 percent VAT. Next, remove the shop’s profit margin, which could be 60 percent. You are left with £320. And bear in mind that some shops charge a placement fee for the product being in a prominent position.”
Add the fact that the glossy adverts you see have to be paid for, not to mention the fees of the models and actresses fronting the brand.
It all adds up - so how much of what’s left is spent on ingredients?
“I don’t see how the sum total of the ingredients in most of these creams could cost much more than £20,” says our insider.
That leaves a hefty profit margin for the brands. Still, devotees are adamant the creams are worth the cost. Though it is hard not to wonder if the prestige of owning these creams could be clouding their judgment over their efficacy as none of my experts could find anything in the creams that justify the price.
“I wouldn’t have fillers or Botox, though many of my friends are doing so. My unlined skin is because I have invested in good skin care,” says Pariena.
Others agree. Julia Ward, a 41-year-old company director from London, admits she has always been a sucker for a new and pricey cream.
“I’m drawn in by the science, and yes, the expense,” she says. Her most recent indulgence has been the creams from a Swiss brand called Dr Levy, which claim to use stem cells to revitalise skin.
“The beauty editor of a high-end magazine told me it was the only brand she rated. She looked amazing, so I thought I’d invest,” says Julia, who’s spent more than £1 000 on the products.
‘Within a few weeks I had comments on how great my skin looked. I haven’t been able to justify spending another £1 000, and since then my skin has definitely lost that expensive clarity.’
Pariena says: “It’s insulting to suggest women aren’t intelligent enough to recognise what works. Perhaps you pay more attention to your routine and use the creams more carefully than, say, a product costing a tenner, but I certainly didn’t talk myself into believing I look younger.”
Most of us don’t have thousands to spend on face creams, so Dr Jack recommends looking at such clinically trialled and dermatologist recommended ranges as Puramed, Obagi, pH Advantage and Medik8.
“Very few medical grade products cost over £100 and they contain very high levels of active ingredients as well as being medically certified,” he says.
They don’t have expensive fragrances or glamorous packaging, and tend not to be sold in swanky hotel spas.
That means Pariena and women like her are unlikely to trade in their pricey products and Dior, Guerlain and Revive (all of whom declined to comment on this piece) will continue to peddle luxury skincare to anyone willing to buy into the dream.