British shoppers join the ‘serum queue’

Times Staff Writer

When hope comes in a $30 bottle, people start to lose their cool. And when a respectable news program hypes it as a potential antidote to aging, they may even go crazy.

Take the curious case of Britain’s new cult-favorite skincare line, Boots’ No. 7. When the homely brand first introduced its Protect & Perfect anti-aging serum two years ago in Britain, consumers hardly took notice. That all changed when the BBC broadcast a special report on beauty products in March. A dermatologist’s analysis showed that the serum might actually work, the BBC reported. Sales promptly exploded.

“After the program, there was an initial sales uplift of 2,000%,” Boots spokeswoman Lucy Folks said.


Demand for the serum has risen to unprecedented levels, Boots says: In a single weekend, the chain sold 160,000 bottles. The manufacturing plant has increased production from 20,000 bottles a week to 20,000 bottles a day. And still, the High Street pharmacy chain cannot seem to keep the stuff in stock.

On a recent Wednesday morning, the scene at Boots Sloane Square, a posh tourist-filled neighborhood in central London, was all squealing women and nervous staff.

“This is about the eighth time I’ve come and now I finally got it!” chirped one customer.

“Can I use it all over my body?” asked another.

“Some people have been coming in four or five days a week,” cashier Kiptieu Shariff said as she dabbed her sweaty forehead with a tissue. “It’s crazy!”

Because the serum is in such high demand, Boots is restricting shoppers to one bottle each.

“The first weekend after the BBC program, we gave tickets out because the queue was so big,” Boots employee Sue Desilva said. “They’re working 24 hours just to make it. We restrict purchases so everyone gets to try it.”

Interest in the anti-aging serum mushroomed after the BBC featured medical professor Lesley Regan testing various over-the-counter brands in search of the best beauty products. During the televised hunt, Regan took the Boots serum to Manchester University, where professor Chris Griffiths, head of the dermatology department, carried out experiments and found that Protect & Perfect was the most effective.

“At both basic science and clinical levels, Boots’ No. 7 Protect & Perfect has been shown scientifically to repair photoaged skin and improve fine wrinkles associated with photoaging,” he announced to the network.

The bottle label touts the product’s purported anti-aging properties: “A unique antioxidant complex helps protect against damaging free radicals, while concentrated levels of our intense skin-firming pro-retinol complex boost and maintain elasticity.”

Not all dermatologists are convinced, however, that this serum, or any other lotion, repairs aging skin.

“Most of the anti-aging creams have vastly too little retinol to make a difference,” said Dr. John J. Voorhees of the University of Michigan Medical School.

Voorhees and his colleagues recently published a study on the effects of retinol on aging skin. They found that high levels of the Vitamin A-derived substance trigger collagen production just under the skin, reducing fine lines and protecting the surface from injury and even ulcer formation.

The key to retinol’s success, however, is a high enough concentration to allow the retinol to be absorbed into the skin to promote a healthier appearance. If concentrations are low, the product is unlikely to make a significant difference.

“If Boots and other creams have enough retinol in them, and if that retinol exits the cream into your skin, you might actually have an effect,” Voorhees said. But he added: “Consumers should not expect much to happen when they use retinol products. All creams are moisturizers, and moisturizers fill in the nooks and crannies and make the skin look better. So people will think their skin is better, but nothing is really happening.”

But shoppers at Boots Sloane Square were not overly interested in the scientific details. They just wanted something that would give their skin, and perhaps their ego, a little pickup.

“I bought a bottle four or five weeks ago,” said Protect & Perfect loyalist Sheila Thacket. “I haven’t noticed a difference. I just like it.”

Though this Boots store didn’t have a line wrapped around the block, bottles were quickly disappearing from the coveted box behind the counter. As cashiers instructed eager shoppers to step into the “serum queue,” women became anxious. By 10:40 a.m., all 90 bottles that arrived that morning had sold out.

“If everyone’s getting it, it must be good,” said 33-year-old Shareena Harnett, who missed out. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”