By Kim Izzo
Disappearing acts are the rage these days, and I’m not just talking about Jennifer Wilbanks vanishing at the 11th hour of her wedding last month.
Products with names such as White and Blanc Expert may sound more like a Home Depot product to paint your ceiling with than to “brighten” your complexion, but so-called “whitening” cosmetics are making the rounds at department stores.
Then there’s the stretch-mark cream women are using in droves on wrinkles around their eyes and the Band-Aids that come with an anti-scar formula built-in. Even those of us who aren’t obsessed with wrinkles (i.e. under 25 or live in Europe) still covet a “flawless finish.”
“There’s something delicate and precious about skin that looks porcelain,” says Denise Wild, associate beauty editor at Flare magazine. “To me, a pale complexion has a glow that’s youthful and innocent. It doesn’t look beaten up by time or weather.”
The most obviously named of the new products is White – from Kiehl’s, the company whose old-fashioned packaging and detailed product ingredient lists have previously made it seem like a spectator rather than a heavyweight when it comes to beauty trends. The new line includes a cleanser, toner, concentrate and moisturizer that aim to lighten skin.
Critics and senior feminists have long decried products like White for not merely removing physical imperfections, but making these “distinguishing marks” invisible, erasing a hard-won badge of character – individuality – from our faces. Why now, of all times in history, the desire for geisha glam?
“Pale white skin historically and culturally is a sign of beauty and affluence in Asia, particularly Japan, where you have the symbol of the geisha,” says Donna Paty, a national education manager for Kiehl’s. “It was thought that pale skin was a sign that you weren’t out working in the sun.”
“If you don’t have any freckles or sun damage, it will brighten the skin. It won’t make it white, but it will even pigmentation,” Paty says. “Make it look clearer, brighter and more radiant.” And yes, non-Asians can smear and rub to their hearts content if they are unhappy with their complexion’s unevenness. Despite the word “whitening,” there is no bleach – which should alleviate fears of a Michael Jackson-type result.
For spring 2005, several fashion designers, including Chanel, sent models down the runways with China-doll pale faces. But as for the great white way being the latest tricke-down trend from the catwalk, not so fast, Wild says.
“On the runways, we see a range of complexions all the way from sun-kissed to milky white,” she says. “Each woman has a beauty and complexion ideal that’s sexy to them. Most women are looking to enhance and perfect what they’ve got, so I think the Asian market has been devoted to lightening and brightening products for so long because their complexions are naturally close to pale, whereas for example Latinas usually strive for the perfect Ocean Drive/Turtle Island beached bronze.”
While nobody is promising perfection, you can go pretty far sans scalpel with a little squeeze of a tube or a strip of silicone. Dr. Lisa Kellett, a Toronto-based cosmetic dermatologist, says that while the No. 1 complaint she hears from women is “I look tired,” 30 per cent of her patients come to her for scar treatment.
“A lot of people don’t know that they can do something about their scars,” she says. “When I see someone wearing a turtleneck in July, I know they’re hiding a scar so I ask them about it.”
She treats patients from the Hospital for Sick Children (for free), as well as cosmetics-enhancement seekers, with laser and other light-source equipment as well as silicone pads.
“The technology in the last six years has really made scar removal possible,” she says. Over-the-counter silicone pads such as Polysporin Scar Solution and Elastoplast Scar Therapy can be cut to fit the size and shape of a scar, and are worn like Band-aids for 12-hour periods until a scar is gone.
For six years, Toronto’s Rachel Weinstein, a recent MBA grad, had a scar on the lower part of her knee after a rollerblading accident. Only an inch long, she didn’t feel it was ugly enough to warrant costly laser therapy, but the scar’s bumpy texture and splotchy purple discoloration made her unhappy. “People would always comment if they caught a glimpse of it,” she says. “I was self-conscious of it and my whole wardrobe reflected covering my knees up. I was lucky with the whole Capri trend.” A friend told her about the new silicone scar pads, and she used Polysporin Scar Solution (about $37.99 in drugstores). After seven to eight weeks, Weinstein says, “it’s practically gone. It’s amazing. I guess it happened quite gradually, now it’s hardly noticeable.”
Of all the great vanishing acts, the biggest success story thus far is probably Stri-Vectin-SD. Although the product was launched as a stretch-mark cream, its makers soon learned that many women were happily using it as an anti-wrinkle cream. After two independent studies presented at the World Congress of Dermatology in 2002 showed that a particular component of it called a pentapeptide is in fact effective in reducing facial wrinkles, sales have gone through the roof. Stri-Vectin-SD is the No. 1 seller at Harvey Nichols in London and the top-selling skin-care product at Sephora in France.
The cream has also been doing well in North America (at the Bay, it costs $199 for a six-ounce tube that lasts four to six months) and the company has added an eye cream. Which only goes to show that when it comes to beauty, for some people, there’s character, and then there’s character flaws. Some of us prefer to wear them on the inside.