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The first time I used my new tube of lip treatment I panicked. I'd given it one gentle squeeze and what looked like six gallons of balm exploded from the applicator's tiny hole. That was impossible, obviously, since the tube held just .35 ounce. But it looked as though six gallons -- or at least the entire .35 ounce -- had gushed onto the tips of my fingers, where it clearly didn't belong.
If I'd been using my old lip balm I wouldn't have cared. What was $3.95 down the drain? But this was Kinerase Lip Treatment, a blend of kinetin, collagen boosters, grape-seed oil, and white-tea extract, ingredients that would give me a "younger-looking smile" by plumping my lips and reducing the wrinkles around my mouth, which were starting to look like fault lines.
And it cost $38.
"Help!" I yelled as I frantically grabbed a Dixie cup and dropped the tube in it, desperate to salvage every last drop.
My husband, Thad, rushed into the bathroom as if he expected to find me on fire. "What?" he asked.
"Look!" I said, pointing to the cup. "How am I ever going to get that back in the tube?"
"This is honestly what you're freaking out about?"
"Thad, this is very serious." This luxury lip treatment was the first step of my Grand Age-Fighting Experiment, "grand" because that's roughly what my new arsenal of beauty products cost: $1,000. Did my face need that much help? Not really -- I still get carded every now and then when I buy certain over- the-counter cold medicines. But that didn't change the reality of my situation: I am an overscheduled, very under-moisturized mother of two little girls who has spent most of her 37 years ignoring her face.
The neglect was starting to show. If I stared at myself in the mirror long enough I began to see scary things: thinner lips, lines at the corners of my eyes, the lack of anything resembling a glow. I had to do something about this -- and fast.
That something would be an experiment. I would trade in my favorite drugstore products for the uber-expensive ones celebrities use and find out if the investment and fuss were worth it. Luckily, Ladies' Home Journal agreed to fund my "research," since no sane woman could rationalize spending that much money on her beauty routine these days. But that has never stopped me (or any other woman) from wondering whether luxury skincare products are really any better than stuff you can buy at the local drugstore.
Which was why I was gingerly squeezing the tube of Kinerase Lip Treatment just above the spill on my fingers, praying the reverse suction would force it back inside. It actually worked. Phew! I applied a few drops, covering every millimeter of my lips and the surrounding skin, just as the directions said.
I turned to face Thad. "Do I look younger?" I asked.
"You look like an insane person," he said.
"Yes, but do I look like a younger insane person?"
"Not quite yet."
A few days earlier, when the box of goodies arrived in the mail, I'd stared at it warily, as though it might contain something illegal. That's because I'm not the kind of woman who would ever use this type of stuff. I clip coupons. I shop at Target. My mother swears I still have my First Communion money stashed in a shoebox. What would I do if these products worked? I couldn't spend $1,000 on my face. Not ever. Sure, that's cheaper than a few sessions of Botox or three days at a spa, but the fact remains that that money equals 250 pints of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie low-fat frozen yogurt, which is my idea of a luxury purchase. Plus, we're in the middle of a recession. Even if I could afford these products I'd feel immoral dropping that much cash on an anti-aging regimen.
But when I opened the box I knew I was in trouble. The fancy packaging alone made me giggle. I ran to my bedroom like a teenager home from a shopping spree at Abercrombie, sat cross-legged on my bed, and spread my fancy new dream creams and treatments in front of me.
Yves Saint Laurent Freshness Rinse-Off Foaming Creme Radiance Revealer
This would "refine and improve the quality of [my] skin," thanks to ingredients that sounded like Harry Potter's magical incantations ("Enantia chlorantha!"). It smelled delicious, much like the cologne of a man I loved for a few months back in 1996, and it was thus already worth every penny of its $38.50 price tag.
Kinerase Lip Treatment
The teeny white tube, $38, did not look, in any way, as if it had the potential to explode.
StriVectin Neck Cream
Everything about this $90 cream was medicinal -- the name, the scent, the box's serious simplicity -- which made me confident that it might actually smooth the two deep, train-track-like wrinkles bisecting my throat.
Murad Intensive Resurfacing Peel
This looked more like a chemistry set than a beauty product. The 12 doses were packaged in little bottles lined up like shotgun shells in a plastic case. Each contained glycolic acid and salicylic acid and extract from a pungent-smelling southeast Asian fruit called a durian. $165.
Chanel Sublimage Eye Essential Regenerating Eye Cream
For $200 you can buy what sounds like the ultimate eye treatment. According to the product description, it would help smooth away wrinkles and reduce dark circles, which have been the bane of my existence since I was 19. Included: A mini-spatula ("A free sorbet spoon?" Thad asked) for application.
Creme de la Mer Moisturizing Cream
Here's a company that isn't afraid of hyperbole: This stuff allegedly "defies the laws of nature" and is "where miracles begin." Not only was it supposed to make my face softer and "virtually creaseless," but each 2-ounce jar had also been hand-filled. Wow. No wonder it cost $230. I'd heard that J. Lo uses it as a body lotion.
Givenchy Le Soin Noir
This was like no night cream I'd ever seen: kind of gooey, kind of sparkly, and totally black, due to "vital black algae sap concentrate found in the depths of the ocean." (How did they come across that?) Supposedly it would "prolong cellular longevity." And at $360 it cost $11 more than my wedding dress.
And so, twice a day for six weeks I'd wash with the cleanser and apply the eye, neck, and face cream. In the mornings I'd moisturize with Creme de la Mer and, at night, with Le Soin Noir. During the four weeks in the middle I'd use the peel three times a week. I made Thad take a "before" photo of me so I could document my transformation. I figured that at the end people would be mistaking me for Natalie Portman.
"Do I look younger?" I asked my mother three weeks into my regimen. I'd run through a couple hundred dollars' worth of creams but I didn't see any change, and no one had yet commented that I "looked different" or had asked, "Did you do something new with your hair?" I was afraid my plan was doing squat.
She scrutinized my face. "Well, your pores look smaller," she said. That gave one point to Creme de la Mer, which was supposed to diminish visible pores. The stuff stressed me out, though. The instructions warned you to first "warm cream between hands to release key ingredients." I was constantly wondering: Was I warming it enough? Was I ruining it? Would I be better off rubbing cream cheese on my face?
But a little later in the day, after I applied the Murad peel, my mother stopped me in my tracks. "Wait. Your face is suddenly all glowy," she said. Too bad the effect didn't seem to last longer than a few hours and got covered by my makeup anyway. The neck and lip products felt good going on, but I hadn't noticed even a slight improvement.
The black night cream was a different story. Even when I was so exhausted from reading Goodnight Moon to my girls that applying lotion seemed like too much effort, Le Soin Noir called out to me. Or, more precisely, my face called out for it, as if my face were thirsty for more.
But first I would lather up with my other obsession, the thick, silky Yves Saint Laurent cleanser. I'd been addicted to it from the first time I used it and made Thad try it to make sure I wasn't having delusions of grandeur. ("Niiice," he said, as if he'd bitten into an exceptionally tasty barbecued rib.) Then came Le Soin Noir, which felt magical. I swore I could still feel it working in the morning, doing battle against the free radicals that cause skin damage.
A week before the end of my experiment, Thad and I were walking through Macy's when I spotted a display for StriVectin products. I checked out its Facial Sculpting Cream, Instant Deep Wrinkle Filler, and a stretch-mark cream that, I'd read, also softens the look of wrinkles, fine lines, and crow's-feet.
"Can I help you?" I turned to face a saleswoman who was wearing a very large bow around her neck.
"Just browsing," I said.
"By the looks of your face," she whispered, "you don't need any of those products."
"You're too sweet," I said, feeling kind of dumb that I was blushing. Could this be proof that my $1,000 beauty routine was working?
I examined the evidence for myself a week later. I dug out my "before" shot, had Thad take an "after" and compared the two side by side.
Sadly, the "after" picture did not even slightly resemble Natalie Portman. There were, however, transformations. My skin was rosier and more even-toned, and the grease slicks around my nose had vanished (for this I gave full credit to the cleanser); my bottom lip seemed slightly plumper, my eyes somewhat de-puffed and the lines around them shorter and shallower. Oddly, I also looked thinner around my chin and neck. Had I lost a few pounds or was that the result of the neck cream? (If it was the neck cream, I was going to apply it to my upper thighs immediately.) I didn't necessarily look younger, but I did look softer.
I even felt healthier, as if I'd done something good for myself. Technically I had, since I'd never been so devoted to a skincare routine before. Even though I'd gotten the products for free, the price tags had been a powerful motivator. Any woman would make very sure she got a return on that kind of investment. It made me wonder if the smoother, firmer me had nothing to do with black algae sap concentrate or Enantia chlorantha and everything to do with commitment. If I'd applied my usual drugstore moisturizer so religiously, would I have gotten the same results? Possibly. But the cheap stuff never made me feel like a rock star the way Le Soin Noir did.
That didn't mean I was going to keep grooming myself as though I were Angelina Jolie. My sense of frugality -- and morality -- was still perfectly intact. I knew I'd survive without the peels, lip treatment, and neck cream and I could probably lose the eye cream and the Creme de la Mer. (I don't think I ever mastered "hand warming" anyway.) But the Yves Saint Laurent cleanser and I had bonded too hard, and Le Soin Noir was like face-crack; I'd need a rehab program to kick it.
Since President Obama hadn't earmarked any funds in his stimulus package for anti-aging products, I have to make those two freebies last as long as possible. And I have to hope that the economy is stronger by the time they run out so I can buy them myself. In the meantime I'm experimenting with ways to afford my dream cream and cleanser. I may be able to do it by ordering takeout pizza once every other week instead of every Friday -- a move that might also do wonders for my upper thighs.
Because, in the end, all I needed was The $398.50 Face. Which could also be known as The Less-Than-Half-Off Face. And that's a bargain I could live with.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2009.