Thursday, November 03, 2005

Apparently no price elasticity in firm skin.

October 27, 2005

Skin Deep

Face Potions Break the Four-Figure Barrier


AT the end of August five women in Calgary, Alberta, received via express mail engraved invitations to try the world's most expensive face lotion. Each of them met privately with a beauty adviser at the Holt Renfrew department store in Calgary, who presented the Essence from Crème de la Mer. Made mainly of fermented algae (billed as a "miracle broth" for the skin), it is kept in three magnetized tubes. The tubes are in turn contained in a plexiglass holder, which is housed in a jewelry-box-like case with foam-green lining.

During the presentation the women were offered fresh berries and chilled Champagne. Four of them bought the lotion, a three-week supply for $2,100.

"It is very pricey," said Davie Myers, 50, a dental office consultant who was one of the buyers. A Crème de La Mer customer for more than five years, she had been waiting for the Essence to arrive in Canada since she heard about it last spring. "You just felt chosen after that white-glove type of service. You had to try it at least once."

That an ounce and a half sells for roughly the equivalent of a top-of-the line laptop computer seems not to deter devoted La Mer customers. In London, Harrods has sold more than 100 boxes of the Essence in the three weeks it has been available (for about $2,650). In New York at Bergdorf Goodman there are 20 names on a waiting list, a sales clerk at the La Mer counter said.

The Essence is just one of the lotions and creams that have broken the four-figure price barrier at cosmetics counters in the last five months. As recently as last spring the most expensive skin care products - like RéVive Intensité Volumizing Serum and N. V. Perricone M.D. Neuropeptide Facial Conformer - cost a mere $600. Now there are cosmetics that run to $1,000, $2,000 and more.

Over the summer Kanebo introduced its Sensai Premier three-step skin care system at $1,320, and within two weeks eight Saks Fifth Avenue stores sold out their inventories, said Mokoto Nakamura, the president of Kanebo Cosmetics USA. DDF RMX Maximum ($1,000), a 28-day skin care regimen, which comes in tiny frozen vials, made its debut at Sephora in September and has been selling briskly. The most expensive treatment at Harrods in London, introduced this year, is a 10-product variety pack from Crème de la Mer, which comes with its own sterling silver tray. The price is $6,200. Five have been sold so far.

The sky-high price hikes come on the heels of a more gradual, though still striking, rise in the cost of luxury skin care. Between June 2002 and June 2005 top prices doubled to $600 from $300, according to NPD Beauty, a division of the NPD Group, the market research firm. Yet inflation does not seem to be driving customers away. Sales of cosmetics that cost more than $150 are expected to reach $40 million this year, NPD predicts, almost double the $23.2 million in sales in 2004.

The new potions offer rarefied ingredients, velvety textures, elaborate rituals and vague promises to enhance the skin's appearance and camouflage the effects of aging. That they may be little more effective than their drugstore counterparts in the view of some dermatologists and cosmetic chemists seems almost beside the point. What customers are buying is the ultimate in luxury cosmetics, which some say makes them feel they are taking the best possible care of themselves.

"My face, which is normally very dry, feels luxurious and looks luminous," said Denise Fadili, 55, a real estate manager from Wakefield, Mass., after trying Kanebo's Sensai Premier. "It's very expensive, but it was worth it."

To some industry analysts these cosmetics do not seem worth the price. Many contain smoothing ingredients like silicone and olive oil, which transparently coat the skin, creating a silky surface. Some also have proteins that are absorbed by the top layer of the skin and attract water, causing the surface to look plumper, cosmetic chemists say. Other ingredients may disperse or refract light so that the skin's surface appears more uniform.

"These are steep prices to pay for a temporary enhancement that might alter the appearance of the skin," said Lawrence H. Block, a professor of pharmaceutics at the Mylan School of Pharmacy at Duquesne University. Dr. Block has been researching cosmetic delivery systems and consulting with beauty companies on product formulations for 40 years. "The ingredients do not penetrate the skin or change anything fundamental in the underlying structure. As soon as you cease using the products, any effect you are seeing will dissipate rapidly."

But short-term improvements are good enough for some consumers, whose jobs or lifestyles require them to keep up appearances. Carol Cohen Freiselder, a television advertising sales representative in New York, who gave her age as over 55, views taking care of her skin as a professional investment, she said. She has been using $200 to $300 DDF products for 10 years, and last month she bought the brand's new $1,000 product.

"My skin felt plumper and firmer and got an overall glow that even my husband noticed," Ms. Freiselder said. "When the product is finished, I may not run out immediately and spend another $1,000. But I might do it again in three months."

Cosmetics companies say the high prices reflect the research to create the new luxury products, as well as the ingredients and manufacturing processes that go into them. The main ingredient in DDF RMX, for example, is a milk protein from organically raised cows, which is expensive to extract and purify, said Karen Anne Kosta-Strachan, the company's director of quality and regulatory compliance. The Essence from Crème de la Mer's main ingredient - algae from the ocean off San Diego - is fermented for four months and then hand-mixed into small batches of cosmetics, said Loretta Miraglia, the company's senior vice president for creative product development.

Dermatologists are stumped when women pay more for cosmetics than they would spend on medical treatments meant to improve appearance. The money it takes to buy one package of the Essence, for example, would pay for Botox injections (to smooth wrinkles), Restylane injections (to plump lips) and a laser procedure (to even out skin tone) at the offices of Dr. David Colbert, a dermatologist in Manhattan.

"For the same price you would get a marked dramatic change that might last up to six months," Dr. Colbert said. "I'm all for patients using moisturizers. But even the cheaper ones like Vaseline or Nivea are going to give you a smoother skin surface that will reflect the light better and give you a more uniform texture."

Not all women believe the medical treatments are necessarily better. "I've spent more money on laser photofacials, microdermabrasions and peels at a doctor's office than I did on the Essence, and my skin never looked a quarter as good as it does now," Ms. Myers in Calgary said.

But others who have sprung for the new treatments are more skeptical. Rebecca Rutledge, 55, a real estate agent in Palm Desert, Calif., has tried the most expensive items from La Prairie and Sisley but said the results were not noticeable enough to justify buying them again.

"When I get collagen, Restylane and Botox injections, I am spending thousands of dollars for a micrometer of change, but you can see the difference, and it's backed by science," said Ms. Rutledge, who regularly uses Renova, a prescription cream that reduces sun damage. "I'm looking for results from skin care too. Renova costs $175, and it lasts for months.

"But I see fabulous results when I use Olay Regenerist eye serum too. That costs $19, and you don't need a prescription."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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