A touchy subject

Love them or hate them, skin creams really do work

The two most emotive subjects I've ever written about may surprise you. They've made otherwise calm friends pull me aside at social gatherings, wanting to set me right on "that piece you wrote", or prompted total strangers to send me hate mail. Those subjects are breastfeeding and skincare; and, perhaps not surprisingly, they share a common bond in that you can't retrospectively attend to them.

But men react differently from women. Women who don't believe in "skincare" have to convince themselves it's a load of expensive nonsense, because otherwise it means they might actually have to invest in some. "Oh, but none of those creams really work, do they?" huffed a usually open-minded female acquaintance, who has never once applied a moisturiser to her face. When I said that, well, yes actually, they do, she got redder and redder in the face (not difficult, with so many ravaged blood vessels) until only the offer of a home-made chocolate cup cake stilled her anger. Men, however, react with open-eyed and childish wonder. "Does it work?" they ask. Perhaps this is because men, the bastards, just age better and so have less to feel reproachful about.

However, though men's skincare has really come a long way in the past ten years, many men are still fairly clueless about face creams, and brain cells have nothing to do with it. I was once writing about eye creams and gave them out for testing. I gave a Clinique eye cream (that came, and this is relevant, in a tube with a nozzle) to the fiercely intelligent writer Neal Ascherson. I went back to my desk and then thought: "I wonder if I should explain how to use it to Neal?" And then I thought: "Nah, this is the man who wrote The World at War." Nevertheless, I wandered over and explained to him that you put a bit of eye cream on the pads of your ring finger and dab dab dab it around your eyes. "Oh, I'm so glad you told me that," said Neal, "because I would have put it in my eye." Why not? If you've never used eye cream and it has a nozzle applicator and it says "eye cream" on the tube . . .

I've never thought it was cool, or clever, when women boast that they use only soap and water on their faces. I mean, it's fine if you want to end up with skin as fragile as cheap, dampened kitchen roll, but neither our water, nor our soap, is the same as it was in our great-great-grandmothers' day when a lick and a spit kept the complexion supposedly supple and virtuous-looking. What is the point, in these modern times, of having men in white coats come up with ludicrous, potentially toxic ingredients if you can't keep nature's footprints at bay?

There are, of course, creams that are crap, but some are so good that one needs to find ways to afford them. And below (exclusive to the newstatesman.com web site), I've produced a little list of products I think work really well.

Skincare for men and women: Annalisa recommends

Natura Bissé Diamond Extreme cream is what you need if you’ve reached thirty-nine and realised you’re not immortal and that you really need to pay attention to your skin if you don’t want to end up looking sixty before you’re forty-five. It’s ludicrously expensive, but unlike some creams invented by space scientists, (mentioning no names), it does actually work. Natura Bissé’s Sensitive Cream is much cheaper and a really excellent cream for men to use after shaving.

Eve Lom’s cleanser, a best seller for a quarter of a century is the best cleanser ever, with Neal’s Yard Remedies Organic Wild Rose Beauty Balm a close second. I know it doesn’t sound like a hard job, to cleanse skin well, but it is. It’s a good idea to cleanse with a linen face flannel as this acts as a natural face exfoliator – you really don’t need to use face scrubs and they thin the skin over time, anyway. Whilst on the subject of Neal’s Yard, it does a great moisturiser: Frankincense Nourishing cream which is excellent for men and women of all ages.

In case you think only expensive creams make the grade, after over ten year’s of testing, I still think Superdrug’s Vitamin E Bodyscrub can’t really be bettered in terms of scrub-factor, although the Lime and Ginger salt glow by Elemis is far classier, and nicer-smelling. Sisley’s Ecological Compound is simply wonderful as a protective serum (again, great for men although they can use any of the products listed here).

Mac’s Strobe cream is what you need when your face needs a bit of help. It’s a transparent cream that’s light-reflective and superb to mix with foundation to give a dewy look. I never fail to wear it and get told I look “well”, even when I’ve survived for the past three years on no more than three hours sleep at any one stretch. Guerlain’s Midnight Secret is what you need for persistent late nights. Lord knows what soul-trading ingredients it contains but you really do wake up in the morning looking as fresh faced as Natalie Portman, even if you went to bed a Bet Lynch.

And finally, Clarin’s Eau Dynamisante spray and body lotion are both so utterly beautiful that in the summer, there’s no need for any other fragrance.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger