By
Dateline NBC
updated 10/17/2004 6:14:18 PM ET 2004-10-17T22:14:18

Last year, archaeologists in London discovered what may be a 2,000 year old jar of face cream. The ingredients are unknown, but one leading theory is that they include donkey's milk. Cosmetics have come a long way since then. Or have they? Dateline takes hidden cameras into the modern world of high-end cosmetics, where companies claim that cutting edge science of chemistry, biology and even genetics, has created a "revolution" in skin care. Some creams are very expensive. If they work, you might think they're worth it. The question is, are they?

There's nothing new about the search for ways to stop or at least slow down the inevitable march of time. Women have been on that quest for years. Along the way, many companies have been more than happy to help. And when it comes to skin cream, there is always, pardon the expression, a new wrinkle.

And today, in what appears to be skin care as 21st century cutting edge science, there are personalized products based on your own DNA, potions containing secret rejuvenating waters from the Far East, and there’s cream containing a miracle broth formulated by a former NASA scientist. It all sounds so seductive, but is it science or marketing mumbo jumbo?

We took Dateline's hidden cameras to some high end department stores to learn about top of the line cosmetics. Right off, we heard nothing but bad news. The Dateline staffer who volunteered to be our consumer quickly learned she was visibly aging -- and needed cosmetic triage. There were wrinkles, but thank goodness, they could help.

But help doesn't come cheap. The price of beautiful skin might give most consumers worry lines. The clerk showed one cream marked at $250. Another was $140, seemingly a small price to pay when you consider what the saleswoman told us this product could do.

Saleswoman: "It was made specifically for burns and scars by a man, a NASA scientist who was badly burned. And he created the product to heal his skin. It actually took away his scars. It's a phenomenal product."

And so, presumably, is another cream -- at least you'd think so when you hear this:

Saleswoman: "You know how popular it is. Look it, we sell a $1,000 jar."

A thousand dollars for a jar of skin cream? Remember, that's for just one product. And most sales clerks will tell you one is never enough.

Clerk: "One targets puffiness, one targets lines, the other one moisturization."
Dateline: "Does it diminish brown spots?"
Clerk: "No."
Dateline: "Age spots?"
Clerk: "We have something just for -- we're very precise, like I say."

Very precise, unless of course if you want to know what's in it.

Clerk: "It’s just basic all natural ingredients from -- it's like I said, science and nature. I have some reading material you want on it. It's too much to get into detail."

But the details might make your head spin. We found many products with ingredients we didn't understand. There were others that were clear -- however they sounded more like lunch than luxury skin care, with cranberry, shitake mushrooms and more. Even caviar. A moisturizer and an appetizer.

So many products, so much money. We wondered, what are the returns on such a steep cosmetic investment? We selected two of the most intriguing product lines so a Dateline staffer could try them out. Her New York City dermatologist, Dr. Rosemarie Ingleton, monitored her progress monthly. 

The first brand, SK2, was just introduced in the United States. SK2 stands for the secret key to beautiful skin. We were told that the key, the so-called holy water, was discovered by a monk at, of all places, a sake brewery.

Clerk: "Their faces were aged and dry, wrinkled, cracked, spotted, their hands were youthful."

And so, the story goes, a monk found the fountain of youth in a vat of sake.

Clerk: "They discovered that during the peak of fermentation that they can extract this clear broth, and the broth is nutrient rich with vitamins and minerals."

A byproduct of sake fermentation, rebirth for the skin and soul. Who could resist a pitch like that? The SK2 saleswoman used what she called a beauty imaging system on our staffer’s face that produced hair-raising close-ups to underscore how bad off we were -- and just what we needed from the product line.

Clerk: "The first thing I would recommend that you use as part of the ritual, would be the facial treatment cleanser… next step is holy water."

All told, the saleswoman suggested five SK2 products for about $500. But when we asked for the printout of our facial image, that apparently was not part of the deal:

Dateline: "Can we get print out of this?"
Clerk: "We actually don't give you a printout of this mostly be-- I mean we're not, I’m not a doctor. I'm not a dermatologist. So I’m just really reading the results off of here. So that's why we don't actually print out the information and give it to you. Because there's a lot of people who take things a little bit too seriously."

Which we thought was exactly the point. For most women lines and wrinkles are serious business. Then we went from a monk and his sake to the most scientific sell of all -- genetic cosmetics.

Clerk: "It's a bio-science line. And the reason that they can call it that is because we actually do DNA test on you."

A DNA test. A company called LAB 21 says it uses information from your own DNA to create a personalized anti-aging formula.

Clerk: "We have 400 different ingredients that they will put into your product, depending on what they find. They can target allergies also."

First they swabbed our volunteer's mouth for a DNA sample and told her it would be sent to a special lab and analyzed. Then she had to fill out a standard skin questionnaire about skin coloring, pore size, sun exposure and any complexion problems she was experiencing. For $250, we would get a DNA analysis of our skin and a jar of specially formulated skin cream.

In a letter that arrived with the cream, Lab 21explained that it analyzed our genetic propensity to break down collagen, and based on that, formulated the cream. The company claimed if we used the cream for seven days, "the aging process… on your face will begin to slow down."

The Dateline staffer began using the face cream and other products we ordered from the LAB 21 line, on one side of her face. And she used the SK2, the Japanese discovery, on the other.

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