How far would you go in pursuit of the perfect complexion? Surgery? Botox? Smearing your face with bird droppings? The last example is no joke – and nor surprisingly, is it some new faddy beauty must – Japanese geisha girls have used nightingale droppings as a treatment to exfoliate and lighten the skin for centuries, while monks were said to use it to condition their shaved heads.
These days, spas and salons across the globe are also embracing the restorative and youth-promoting properties of bird goo, with anti-ageing masks and serums rumoured to be popular with A-listers such as Victoria Beckham and Tom Cruise. But treatments based on the waste products of our feathered friends are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the more exotic – shall we say – beautifying skincare elements, available for those brave enough to indulge in them.
Snake venom is one such on-trend ingredient. In its natural form – as in fresh from the snake – it is what the reptiles use to paralyse their prey. But in its synthetic form, it is a peptide that mimics the paralysing action to slow down muscle movement, therefore stopping skin contractions and the formation of wrinkles. All the hype is that it could be a needle-free alternative to Botox.
Other weird, yet apparently wonderful, skin preparations to be found across the world include squid ink moisturiser (Japan), and skin lotion made from cows’ colostrum (Denmark), and that’s just for starters. “The wackiest-sounding product I have come across so far has to be snails’ slime cream,” says beauty expert Alice Hart-Davis, creator of www.goodthingsbeauty.com. “Which sounds bizarre and disgusting, but is hugely popular in South America. I gather the slime, which is purified, has remarkable moisturising abilities and is good for softening the skin.”
Indeed, the numerous products made from the slime are said to stimulate the skin and aid elasticity, while helping to heal scars, spots and even severe acne. The various manufacturers using it in their ranges cite the fact that the slime is the natural bodily fluid that enables a snail to repair its own shell when broken or fractured, as its benefits, which, if you are a snail, makes perfect sense. But can we really make the same claims when applying the logic to humans?
“I do feel a lot of these ingredients are used for their novelty value more than their effectiveness,” Alice says, adding that the only ‘weird’ skincare component that she is a fan of is bee venom, which she reckons makes skin, “look terrific”. So why are so many brands now delving so deep into nature’s resources to keep coming up with newer and more bizarre additions to the already-booming (especially in the area of youth preservation) beauty market place? Research company Mintel reported that 32 per cent of facial skincare products launched in the US in 2008 made anti-ageing claims, with 26 per cent of companies worldwide doing so.
It is this sheer volume of new products, they say, which then causes manufacturers to constantly respond with new ingredients and more detailed and scientific claims as to their effectiveness and ‘projected benefits’. But despite this research suggesting that women are a captive audience when it comes to pushing the boundaries of ingredients and more and more outlandish skincare routines, not everyone is convinced by the various claims, or indeed, their results.
“It’s a hope-in-a-jar philosophy,” says Dr Ross Perry, medical director of Cosmedics Skin Clinics (cosmedics.co.uk) “If there was a wonder cream, everyone would be using it and it would be commonplace.” Topical preparations, according to Dr Perry, have no impact “other than the belief by patients that they are working,” he adds. “Good diet, exercise, minimal sun exposure, not smoking, and being relaxed with low stress levels,” are Dr Perry’s only ‘wonder ingredients’ for good, line-free skin and protection again premature ageing.
“Creams are 99 per cent topical,” he says. “And unfortunately, they do not turn back time.” Preparations with sunblocks and antioxidants like vitamin C can help prevent skin ageing, but according to Dr Perry, most products have no basis for their claims. Alice agrees to an extent. “When strange beauty treatments become fashionable, it often sounds as if beauty companies are casting around for inspiration and turning to the past for ideas, but it is usually because a traditional treatment has been analysed properly and found to have a reasonable scientific basis for how it works. In the case of the nightingale droppings face mask, for example, the excrement does actually contain ingredients that brighten the skin.”
And not all treatments have to be salon-based, pricey forays into the unknown – our own kitchens can be treasure troves of natural, if slightly unusual, beauty problem-solvers. “I have heard of people rubbing their thighs with coffee granules as an anti-cellulite treatment,” says Alice. “Which makes sense in so much as caffeine is well known to stimulate blood circulation to the skin. Having said that, I think there is a lot to be said for using a well-formulated product that will sink into the skin rather than granules, which will leave a residue that rubs off on to your clothes.”
Why bee venom is creating a beauty buzz
Honey bee venom, also known as apitoxin, is produced in the abdomens of worker bees and is used medicinally and therapeutically (including as a treatment for joint diseases and rheumatism) because of its excellent anti-inflammatory and anticoagulant properties. In recent years, it has gained popularity as a beauty preparation worldwide – though its routes in anti-ageing skincare began in Korea where, due to its popularity and results, the government then invested vast sums of money into researching its possible use in arthritis and multiple sclerosis care.
UK-based therapist Deborah Mitchell developed her Bee Venom Mask after three years of tireless testing and trials. Favoured by celebrities and royalty, it is, she claims, a “natural alternative to Botox”. “We really have had the most fantastic results with it,” she says, “It’s natural, and as well as tightening, lifting and firming the skin, it soothes and heals because of the other ingredients in it – manuka honey, rose and lavender oil and shea butter.” Far from being put off by potentially gimmicky ranges, Deborah says that her customers are open to more quirky products if they know they are natural.
“I do find that people are more inclined to try a product containing unusual ingredients if they know they are organic and the best possible ingredients available,” she says. “Some people find it a preferable option, rather than using skincare treatments that contain synthesised chemicals, and people are always keen to try new things and push the boundaries of beauty.” Deborah says the only concern for her clients is whether they could be allergic to the venom, or if any bees have been harmed in the making of the product.
“Allergic reactions have not happened with anyone,” she says. “And it has been very well tried and tested. Nor are any bees harmed in making the product, it is perfectly safe! We really have had the most fantastic results with it – in fact, the Duchess of Cornwall uses bee venom and likes it so much she gave some to her daughter-in-law!” Heaven Bee Venom Face Mask (heavenskincare.com) is available from The Nail Spa, Dubai. Dh460 (50ml).
Wild and wacky products tried and tested
Luxe - Sjal pearl enzyme face masks
Made with precious stones, the pearl enzyme face mask is formulated with real gem stones as well as mushroom and pomegranate. Applied first as an exfoliator, it’s reassuringly gritty, yet has a silky, malleable base. The tiny stones cleanse, and after leaving on for ten minutes then rinsing, the skin is left looking refined. We also tried the Kashmir Saphir mask (containing blue lotus). The complexion was baby-smooth, plumped up and succulent looking. With quirky ingredients, it gave fantastic results. Available from the Dubai Starwood Hotel Spas from November. www.sjalskincare.com
Problem Solver - Cor, The Silver Soap
Brilliant for younger and problematic skin, this facial soap contains real silver to deep cleanse, while marinecollagen plumps the skin and helps disguise the appearance of pores. Developed in Japan, the soap has a cult following among celebs around the world, and for ease of use (it is as simple as using a bar of soap), it’s plain to see why. With a rich lather, it leaves the skin feeling great. Perfect for irritated skin that needs a clarifying and brightening cleanser that won’t dry it out. Available from Peak Performance, Mall of the Emirates (04 3413056). Price on request. www.corsilver.com
Anti-Ageing - Crystal Clear Intense Anti-Ageing Serum with Syn-Ake.
Luxurious anti-ageing and anti-wrinkle treatment based on a natural polypeptide found in snake venom. A really smooth, easy-to-apply non-sticky serum, which has an immediate tightening and smoothing effect on the skin. Great under make-up or as an intensive overnight treatment in a thicker layer. Available from Madonna Beauty Spa, Abu Dhabi, (02 6740666), Dh420. www.crystalclear.co.uk
Lush - BB Seaweed Fresh Face Mask
Lush is well known for its innovative and exciting ingredients. Its fresh seaweed face mask has a reassuringly natural fragrance, rugged looks and no-nonsense packaging. And its wonderful Toothed Wrack seaweed core packs a real punch as a mineral-rich facial pick-meup and deep cleanser. It’s perfect to soothe inflamed or irritated skin (it also contains honey and aloe vera), and it’s a back-to-basics beauty cupboard must-have, to use alongside your high-end ranges. Available from Lush, The Dubai Mall. www.lush.com