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Heaven-scent - Rediscovering grandma's makeup

LIU Xuwei's dressing table, like most women's, is cluttered with bottles, vials, creams, balms, face powder, fragrance, powder puffs and assorted concoctions and potions that are supposed to make her beautiful.

But instead of an arsenal of luxury imported cosmetics and skincare treatments, these are lotions and creams seldom seen for the last 10 or 15 years, such as Gongdeng (Palace Lantern) almond cream, Pehchaolin (Hundred Sparrows) cream and Xie Fu Chun (Fragrance of Spring) powder, foundation, lipstick and rouge.

Liu, a 42-year-old senior editor at a business magazine, started using old-time skincare products last year for an outbreak of acne and found they cleared up her skin and made it smooth and supple.

"When I opened it and smelled the cucumber fragrance, it took me back to my youth - and it worked," says Liu.

Many of these old-time products was and still is said to contain the beauty and anti-aging secrets, such as pearl cream, ginseng, green tea extract and herbs.

Once the time-tested old brands beloved by mom and grandma were all Shanghai ladies used, but since the 1990s they lost pride of place to imported products with fancy names, elaborate packaging and big advertising campaigns - and much higher prices.

This is not to say, however, that imported cosmetics and skin treatments do not perform, but how much does a girl have to pay?

For a time, women who used Chinese domestic cosmetics and beauty treatments were considered laotu, or old-fashioned, by their peers. Imported cosmetics were trendier, subtler, less powerfully fragrant.

And Chinese ladies have tended to believe that low price means low quality and "you get what you pay for."

But these days, aided by the economic downturn, domestic cosmetics are making a gradual and dignified comeback, once again attracting many women with their good performance and low prices.

Some domestic cosmetics sold at big supermarkets are very popular, according to Sun Ming, deputy director of the general office of Lianhua Supermarket. "Feng-hua (Bee and Flower) shampoo and hair conditioner and sandalwood soap sell really well these days," he says.

Actually, "domestic cosmetics and high-end overseas products are almost the same in basic functions like moisturizing and preventing dryness," according to Zheng Jie, chief physician at the Dermatology Department of Ruijin Hospital.

"The basic ingredients for skincare are almost the same for whatever brands. The main difference is additives for targeted purpose such as whitening or reducing wrinkles," says Zheng. "Expensive imported products are usually more successful in these areas. Most domestic products are effective initially, but lose effectiveness after they are unsealed and exposed to the air for long."

Tight budgets alone, however, don't account for the increasing popularity of the tried-and-true brands. The cost-performance is high and many are especially formulated for Asian skin. Word-of-mouth by satisfied customers is the best advertising.

As they have been displaced for so long, Chinese domestic cosmetics have only a small market share.

Though some big brands such as Feng-hua and Pehchaolin have gradually found their way back to some major supermarkets, pharmacies and department stores, it is still difficult to find most domestic cosmetics - except online.

Most are purchased from Internet shops and satisfied customers often post their comments to encourage others.

Liu, the convert to old brands, used to be fan of expensive European, Japanese and American cosmetics. When she was bothered by acne two years ago, she remembered what she had used as a teenager, Chinese cleansing milk An'an (Pacify) and decided to try it again.

She bought three bottles on the Net - one for acne, one a scrub and one for whitening. Each 220ml bottle cost only about 6 yuan (88 US cents).

After two weeks, her skin cleared up and her complexion improved. There were no problems as some of her friends had predicted. She was encouraged to buy more domestic products, including 4-yuan Gongdeng (Palace Lantern) almond cream and 9-yuan Hanfang Baodian (Chinese Prescription Treasury) glycerin.

Liu admits that the allure of the traditional brands is partly nostalgia, but that's just a part.

"I got my clear skin and complexion back and these products didn't have a bad effect that many people fear," says Liu. "And more important, no product costs more than 10 yuan."

The only problem, she says, is that many can only be purchased on the Internet and delivery costs may exceed the price of the product.

Winnie Zhang, a 26-year-old secretary, also swears by domestic skincare products since she won the battle against acne with an inexpensive cleansing milk Fumeiling (Beautiful Skin Miracle) about three years ago.

"I used to firmly believe that 'cheap doesn't pay,'" says Zhang. "But I discovered the popular wisdom isn't necessarily true."

Zhang and Liu search for more good domestic products and like some containing traditional Chinese ingredients. One of them is Pianzaihuang (a patent TCM prescription) made of cow bezoar (hard, indigestible mass found in stomachs or intestines of animals), notoginseng (tianqi), snake gall and musk, which help dispel pathogenic heat and relieve inflammation.

"The prescription has survived hundreds of years, which indicates that it's effective for Chinese people," says Zhang. "Different people (Asians, Caucasians) need different skin care. I cannot help suspecting that I got acne from using cosmetics not suited to my skin."

Zhang says many European and American products focus on anti-aging while Asian women don't have such a serious skin problem, or maybe they're not as obsessed. She suspects that overuse of Western cosmetics may overnourish skin and lead to excess oil that causes acne.

Not everyone is convinced, however.

"I've seen many recommendations of domestic products online and some friends have recommended them, but I don't dare to risk my face," says 29-year-old Jane Wang, who works for a domestic shipping company.

Wang did try and like the old-time hair conditioner, Feng-hua (Flower and Bee), but she still says no to facial cleansers and creams.

"I did lose less hair after using it, but maybe that's because I didn't hesitate to use a lot since it's so cheap," she says, "just 6 yuan for 450ml. The more the better may be true for hair conditioner, but not for face cream."

Editor Liu says some simple traditional prescriptions may not satisfy modern girls who want something special. But when she compares them with expensive imported products that do basically the same thing, she is firm in her choice.

In some cases, Liu makes her own treatments. For example, she mixes 9-yuan glycerin with a capful of white vinegar and half a capful of lavender essential oil.

"It is not true that the more expensive the better," says Zhang. "But you need to be clear about what suits you best."

Xie Fu Chun (Fragrance of Spring) Yadan Fen (Duck Egg Powder)

Fragrant Xie Fu Chun powder/foundation/rouge/lipstick was made in Suzhou and Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province. They were said to be the best in China, and the company founded in 1830 was a supplier to the royal family in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The makeup is called "duck egg" (yadan) because it is sold as small differently colored solid "eggs." They can be crushed and applied as powder, or simply brushed and rolled on the cheeks and lips.

They still are packaged in colorful sets.

Women used to make bracelets and necklaces using a lucky number of the scented powder/foundation/rouge/lipstick eggs, six or 18.

They would pierce the eggs, draw a string through and wear them when they went out. Thus, they could easily powder their nose and refresh their makeup. Women wearing this duck egg jewelry are mentioned in the classic, "A Dream of Red Mansions."

The makeup is advertised as being made of natural flowers and herbs and comes in four kinds, gardenia, jasmine, rose and osmanthus.

Balei (Ballet) pearl cream

Pearl cream is one of the most popular products of Nanjing Jin Balei (Golden Ballet) cosmetics company, established in 1932 in Jiangsu Province.

Pearls contain calcium carbonate and minerals that nourish the skin, promote skin metabolism, soften the skin and generally improve the complexion. A popular export.

Feng-hua (Bee and Flower) shampoo and hair conditioner

The hair products were first produced in 1985 and were extremely popular as there were few hair conditioners on the market at the time. Many users say it reduces or stops hair loss.

Pehchaolin (Hundred Sparrows) cream

The cream was first produced in 1931 based on a German formula and was the first generation of modern cosmetics. The metal box with silver foil covering the cream evokes nostalgia for many women.


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