This Nottingham chemist is the hottest male property in Britain right now. Women have gone crazy for his anti-ageing skin cream, which sells on the street for just $30, and which scientists say really works. The only problem is, you’ll have to find it first.
In the end it was an unlikely, some would say pedestrian, place in which to find the long-sought-after Holy Grail. Its birthplace, it turns out, is none other than a vast, 26-acre industrial site in Beeston, four miles outside Nottingham. It was there, amid the phials and microscopes of his slightly cramped laboratory, that scientist Steve Barton came up with the formula for which the world has long waited: a potion that promises to hold back time.
Ever since Cleopatra immersed herself in a bath of asses’ milk, convinced its properties could retain her youthful complexion and fend off the ravages of age, we have been obsessed with finding the ultimate elixir of youth. Millions of women and an awful lot of men have filled the coffers of the anti-ageing cosmetic makers, desperate to stave off sun damage, pollution and, most of all, time.
Money has been no object in our relentless quest. Annually, the industry world-wide is worth £25 billion. And, in the past year, three million Britons aged between 35 and 60 have used an anti-ageing product at least once a week, spending £210 million for the privilege. In all, we spend £544 million each year on skin care, in the hope that, in our increasingly youth-obsessed culture, we can stay forever young.
Now, the answer has been found. Not, as one might have thought, from inside the jewel-encrusted, cut-crystal container of one of the world’s leading crème-de-la-crème cosmetics manufacturers in Paris or Milan, but from a British boffin who works for Boots, our leading high-street pharmacy chain which churns out one million pots of cosmetics each day.
Last week, after the BBC2 science series Horizon’s March 27 programme investigated the increasingly outrageous claims on the jars of the elite cosmetics houses, its conclusion was that, yes, indeed, there was one across-the-counter anti-ageing product that did what it says it would. What happened next was phenomenal. Twenty four hours after the programme was aired there was not a single £16.75, 30ml jar of Boots No7 Protect & Perfect serum to be found in Britain. Sales had increased by 2,000 per cent overnight, stores had amassed waiting lists running into four figures, the company’s web store had 4,000 requests in an evening and thousands of pleas from the US, and single jars of the serum were changing hands for £100 on eBay.
"We had crowds of women charging behind the counters, convinced our sales staff had a secret stash stored there,” says Geraldine Waterson, the No7 product developer. ”We had women threatening to practically lynch anyone who got more than one and, from John O’Groats to Land’s End, we had queues snaking down the high streets. We knew women would want it, we just wildly under-estimated how many. We had shipped 21 weeks’ supplies into the stores the night before. All were gone in a day, at a rate of one jar every 10 seconds. Now it will be a fortnight before we can meet the demand."
Mr Barton, who heads the 20-strong team which perfected the serum, is quietly proud of his very British success. And yes, he uses it himself. "I’ve been using sun screen and moisturiser for years and I’ve been using Protect & Perfect now for three years," he says. And certainly, his soft, relatively unlined 56-year-old skin certainly suggests it. What he hadn’t been able to do until six months ago, however, was to convince his wife, Julia, to give it a go. "She was the typically sceptical wife," he laughs. "But I persuaded her."
So how, then, has Mr Barton succeeded where his continental cousins, the "haute couture" of the cosmetics industry, have failed? How has he perfected a potion that reduces wrinkles and helps reverse the effects of sun damage: one that doesn’t need a tightly regulated doctor’s prescription?
It was 10 years ago that he and the company first began working on skin-care products. They were encouraged with their research into the effects of vitamin A and AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acids). Then, in 2000, along with Boots’s then sister company in Paris, Barton became increasingly enthusiastic about the results of tests of peptides, compounds of two or more amino acids, on sun-damaged and wrinkled skin. Before working for Boots he had spent 12 years researching the effects of disease on skin with the eminent Cardiff professor, Ronnie Marks.
"Then, if I had read the claims we make for Protect & Perfect, I would have thought: how could that work, I don’t see how it does,” he says. "Now I know very differently. I decided to make a base serum and added peptins. We did trials on 100 women in 2003 and the results were fantastic. By February 2004 the product was on the market."
While women loved the serum – which contains silicone, antioxidants and lipo-pentapeptide, created from amino acids grown in the laboratory, as well as an extract of white lupin flower – it wasn’t a runaway seller: rather it became one of those "best-kept beauty-bag secrets" that women are inclined to keep to themselves. During his work, however, Barton had asked Chris Griffiths, Foundation Professor of Dermatology at Manchester University, to run some tests on his product.
The professor, an acknowledged expert in the field, had long held the belief that no over-the-counter product could match the effectiveness of Tretinoid, a prescription-only drug used to treat acne and severe sun damage to skin. "When Dr Griffiths called me to say, yes, this does what you claim, I whooped with delight. I knew it did. But that extra endorsement was wonderful news."
Had it not been for Horizon, however, the serum might have remained just one more beauty product that sold well. When the programme approached Prof Griffiths he told them that, astonishingly, he knew of one cosmetic product that worked: Protect & Preserve. "In my clinical trials," he said, "it has been shown scientifically to repair photo-aged skin and improve the wrinkles associated with photo-aged skin. To my surprise, the Boots cream stimulated the production of fibrillin [a protein associated with the creation of elastin and collagen], the skin’s equivalent of the springs found in a mattress.”
Needless to say, Barton’s exact "recipe" is secret. "But it isn’t the existence of a magic ingredient," he insists, "it’s the whole product. And let’s be honest here: this is not a miracle cream. It’s not plastic surgery. It will, however, reduce lines and reveal younger looking skin. It does what we tell you it will do: it makes you look the best you possibly can for the age you are."
While Barton is justifiably pleased, there are many toiling in the laboratories of the premium brands who most decidedly are not. In January this year Consumer Report, the American version of Which?, debunked much of the myth behind the anti-ageing creams at the top end of the market. It tested 10 brand leaders over 10 weeks, measuring wrinkle depth and sun damage and concluded then that Olay Regenerist, costing just £16 for 30ml, achieved marginally better results than its more expensive rivals. The La Prairie Cellular range, costing up to £229 for a 30ml pot, was found to be one of the least effective, as was StriVectin-SD, costing £67 for a 6oz tube.
Part of the problem for the industry is that wrinkles are much like scar tissue: once they’ve formed, as a result of non-elastic skin being stretched and then hardening into furrows, they can only be removed by surgery. ”And the problem is that creams that are strong enough to make a difference,” says Michelle Irving, the director of Cheshire Image Clinic in Chester, "are also likely to have side effects. Companies cannot take the risk that their products will cause reddening or irritation and so they sell products with low levels of active ingredients."
What has always worked in favour of the top-range companies, however, is simple human psychology. Seduced by sales pitches that tell us to buy ”because you’re worth it”, most of us have been led to believe the most expensive will be the most effective. ”There is another reason that we reach for the elegantly packaged, up-market brand," says Sandra Gibbons, a psychologist. "What woman, when a friend asks to use her lavatory, isn’t pleased that she has left her expensive pot of Crème de la Mer on the shelf for all to see. There is an element of snobbery involved. But what has worked in No 7’s favour is that it is seen as a trusted yet sensibly priced range."
This month marks the launch of yet another top-of-the-range anti-ageing product. Re Peau Magnifique, costing £1,050 for one month’s supply, will soon be on sale at Space NK. Created by Dr Gregory Bays Brown, a former plastic surgeon in America, it claims to reset the skin’s ageing clock by five years and to have the power to reduce wrinkles by 45 per cent.
Steve Barton, ever the gallant British gentleman, will not be drawn on another’s claims. He remains loyal to his own serum – and he is the one with the scientific endorsement. And anyway, he has work to do. Right now he is in the final stages of testing his newest product. "It’s a secret," he says. "We know what works now. We’ve perfected it for the face. Now we are working on one for, um, let’s say, other parts of the body. Not another word." Whatever it is, it will be launched in October. This time, one supposes, Boots will be braced for the onslaught.
Via the Telegraph