Looking for youth in a jar

Sharyn Belkin Locke knows better -- she does -- but she's admittedly attached to her anti- aging products.

"If I run out when I travel, it's a problem," says the 44-year-old art director who co-founded the handbag collection Kelly Locke. "I don't like to put something on my skin that I'm not familiar with. I don't like unknown elements."

She also knows that her loyalty to SK-II products, a Japanese skin-care line endorsed by flawless-complexioned Cate Blanchett, is based as much on the allure of sleek packaging and the luxurious formula as on the possibility that the reported active ingredient, Pitera (derived from sake yeasts), can rejuvenate the skin. "When I use it, it immediately feels great on my fingers and feels good on the face. And when I look in the mirror, my skin looks dewy and radiant."

She attributes much of her success at looking younger to exercise, eating well, drinking lots of green tea and, most important, being vigilant about sun protection. But still, she has no problem spending up to $200 on a product that probably won't do what it promises. "There are so many products out there that claim to do this or that," she says. "Do you really ever see that kind of difference? I never do."

Women's complicated relationship with their anti-aging products is of course perpetrated by the beauty industry from which they spring.

"This whole industry is about transformation -- the eternal quest to look better and younger," says Elana Drell Szyfer, Estee Lauder's senior vice president of global marketing.

Even in this challenged economy, anti-aging skin-care products aren't getting cost-cutting treatment, says Kat Fay, a senior health and beauty analyst at consumer market research firm Mintel International. "If you talk to my friends they say, 'You will pry my favorite product from my cold, dead hands.' And most women we speak with say anti-aging creams are not an indulgence. They are a necessity right up there with toothpaste and deodorant."

Healthy or not?

This national aversion to embracing fine lines and wrinkles is often couched in polite nomenclature such as "aging gracefully" or "healthy aging." In fact, when L'Oreal-owned Vichy Laboratories launched its popular European skin-care line in America a couple of years ago, the tag line read, "Advancing Skin Health."

Says Vichy's Sarah de Joybert, vice president of marketing in the United States: "The link between beauty and health is stronger than ever, particularly in North America. People understand that looking good starts with being healthy and having healthy skin."

But Fay of Mintel says, "If anyone says they're trying to age healthfully I don't buy it. That's not the core of the market. People who buy these products want to fight aging and eliminate the signs of aging. It's not called healthy aging; it's called anti-aging for a reason."

This relationship between women and their beauty products has been analyzed over and over again -- by author Naomi Wolf in her book "The Beauty Myth," which surmises that "the terror of aging" feeds insecurities and creates unattainable standards, and by Jean Kilbourne, whose "Killing Us Softly" documentaries offer a polemic against media images that present impossible beauty aspirations attainable only by buying products.

In August, an HBO documentary will also tackle the anti-aging offshoot of that industry. That film, "Youth Knows No Pain," is a personal look at 38-year-old Mitch McCabe's own obsession with aging.

A plastic surgeon's daughter who says she considered lying about her age for this story, McCabe began her anti-aging product buying spree at age 27 after her father died.

"I remember looking in the mirror and discovering wrinkles I had never noticed before," she recalls. "I went to the Chanel counter and bought a night cream. From there I graduated to Sisley [another luxury brand] . . . and I quickly realized that the obsession [with aging] can be suffocating."

Filmmaker Kilbourne, 66, who made the original "Killing Us Softly" in 1979 and has updated it twice since, concedes that, more than most women in America, she should not be seduced by anti-aging claims at the beauty counter. But she similarly succumbs. "Have I ever fallen for and bought an expensive product that made unrealistic claims? Absolutely. Do I get depressed when I look through magazines? Yes."

When it comes to her current skin-care regimen, Kilbourne now sticks to a CVS night cream that imitates a more expensive brand. She also uses Retin-A in an attempt to stave off skin cancer from previous sun damage. In her mind, there's no mystery why smart women buy anti-aging products. "The pressure is so intense and aging is presented as a horror with absolutely no upside," she says. "There's nothing good about it, it's treated with contempt, it's all bad."

As for McCabe, her American travelogue profiles regular people battling the fear of growing old and their attempts to prevent the inevitable. It's a convincing look at why we still want our hope in a jar and helps explain the steady growth of the anti-aging skin-care category, which, according to research from Mintel, in 2008 amounted to $1.6 billion. That trend shows no sign of slowing.

Absurd standards

Women are their own harshest critics, says BellaSugar beauty blog editor Annie Tomlin, 31. She encourages more than 350,000 readers a month, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, to not treat aging as something terrible. "I'm not one to be Pollyanna about it because I know women are harshly judged and that ageism is a real issue. At the same time, people want beauty advice, and it's fun to look at something with beautiful packaging, and it's a treat to put on a beautiful cream with a gorgeous scent."

In a culture in which even twentysomethings post about their Botox treatments, Tomlin -- a self-proclaimed feminist punk rocker -- gets angry about a beauty industry that wants to make money off the fear of aging.

She left a recent mole-check appointment with a dermatologist in tears, she says, after the doctor suggested she might want to consider Botox to get rid of the slight "11" lines between her eyebrows.

"I cried because I was stunned and depressed, not because I looked old -- I don't, and I know that someday I will -- but because it's depressing to have someone say that I should consider Botox when I really don't need it," Tomlin says.

She posted about her experience, and more than 40 readers commented, all of them with encouraging and supportive messages that says she was beautiful just the way she was.

We should all be so lucky.