16 MARCH 2002, Page 12

Forget defence spending and concentrate on moisturising cream, shampoo and petroleum jelly


Discomfort this winter with itchy legs has led me in an indirect but deeply rational way to the conclusion that there is, after all, something to be learnt from the Spanish Inquisition. The Spaniards persecuted unbelievers. Greater social damage, however, is inflicted by belief. What we need is the relentlessly prosecuting intellect which characterised the Inquisition, but harnessed instead to the knocking down of misplaced faith of every kind.

My Society for the Confounding of Error and the Prosecution of Twaddle, SCEPT, will therefore aim to copy from the inquisitors of old the merciless persecution of dangerous nonsense, while avoiding the pitfall which was their undoing: rigid adherence to a nonsense of their own. So far as possible we shall adopt the scientific method in our inquiries.

SCEPT will be, at the outset, modest in its aims. I shall for the moment leave religion alone, and start with a lesser but comparable nonsense: moisturising cream. Like the purveyors of theology, the manufacturers of beauty products grow fat on the wilful gullibility of those whose faith is so important to them that they shrink from asking the questions that those who peddle it cannot answer.

From the calves down, but especially the ankles, I get occasionally itchy in winter. The skin is dry, I just cannot stop scratching, and this happens only during the coincidence of freezing temperatures outside, and savage central heating indoors. The cooling of air robs it of moisture: the reheating of the dehydrated air then produces a fiercely demoisturising atmosphere; and this is almost certainly what is causing the dry skin and itchy legs in winter.

The skincare business makes great play with dry winter skin, and suggests that their products can remedy the problem.

Everything claimed by everyone connected with the beautification of the body for this life, or of the soul for the next, should be treated with violent suspicion. It is, for instance, easily established that the entire skincare industry consists of little more than the perfuming, tinting, packaging and marketing of two of our planet's most plentiful natural resources: calcium carbonate and mineral oil. Ninety-eight per cent by weight of the contents of a chemist's shelves is basically pulverised rock and Vaseline, its value, unadorned, being about one tenth of 1 per cent of the shelf-price of

the packaged products. If Johnson & Johnson had a mission statement, it should be Toncifying Chalk Powder and Adding Value to Petroleum Jelly'.

I decided to try an experiment on my legs. These are ideal for experiments because most of us men have two of them which we keep quite separately in trousers. One can be used for the experiment, the other as a 'control'. Accordingly I applied a liberal covering of a well-known and expensive patent moisturising cream to my left leg, and nothing to my right, persisting with this regime for four weeks. After this, a week's pause (nothing to either leg); then, for a further fortnight. I repeated the experiment but swapping legs and this time using as moisturiser a tub of the cheapest, unadulterated petroleum jelly on the market.

Finally, for a week, and after another pause. I tried the same with a light covering of engine oil (Mobil. SAE 20W-40). The results were as follows: (1) All three moisturisers offered immediate relief from the itchiness, relative to the untreated leg.

(2) There was no difference between the relief (or balming effect') offered by the patent product, the simple petroleum jelly, and the engine oil.

(3) After up to a day's absence of any of the three moisturisers, the leg formerly moisturised became itchy again; there was no long-term improvement to the skin.

(4) The short-term balm persisted longest — for nearly a day — with the petroleum jelly, followed by the engine oil; the relief offered by the patent moisturiser wore off fastest: within a couple of hours.

(5) There was some evidence that once the treatment was stopped, and after the effect had worn off, the skin on the treated leg became drier and suffered more from itchiness than the untreated leg.

(6) I liked the smell of the engine oil best. My conclusions are these: itchiness is

caused by the body's inability to secrete enough natural moisturiser; any old oil or grease will soothe the skin's surface (dead anyway); none assists the bodily process of moisturisation; and long-term reliance on an external application of moisturiser may inhibit the body's secretion of whatever should naturally be doing the job.

This last conclusion would square with my findings on the use of shampoo. Noting that to strip the scalp of natural oils only stimulates the oil-glands in the scalp. I have for nearly a decade now stopped washing my hair with anything but warm water. My hair is never greasy now, any more than a dog's is; dandruff is no worse and no better than ever it was when shampooing, and a fortune has been saved on silly shampoos.

You can work these things out from first principles, so why do so few people try? How many billions of dollars a year do women in the developed world spend on face creams? Wouldn't they be interested to know whether it makes any difference? And is there not a simple and conclusive way of finding out? Just pay a woman to conduct a ten-year experiment with her head. Anoint one hemisphere — to one side of an imaginary vertical line from chin through nose to forehead, crown and nape of neck — as instructed by the makers of the product, for ten years, and leave the other half of her untreated. Let her otherwise live her life normally for a decade, Then see if the treated side has fewer wrinkles than the virgin side.

Has this ever been done? If not, why not? I wouldn't mind betting that the average taxpayer is spending more per annum on things to smear, wipe or dab on her or his skin than the Chancellor is spending, on our behalf, on national defence. We passionately debate the contribution that defence-spending makes to our security, arguing furiously about the cost-efficiency of aircraft carriers, nuclear warheads and the like; then we go out and blow a comparable sum on something to apply to our necks to stop wrinkles, without any serious inquiry into whether it works. Why doesn't the Audit Commission look into this?

You have not heard the last of SCEPT. Future columns may examine the diet industry, and insurance. For the moment, however, I lay down my pen to scratch my legs.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.