Read Centre Director Rob Brooks' comments in the article by Andrew Masterson.....


It may seem surprising to suggest that One Direction poppet Harry Styles upholds any tradition more ancient than that of blue-eyed boy bands. Last month, however, it was revealed that he practices a ritual that stretches back millennia.

It is a ritual, once observed by royalty and lords, that is both ancient and pointless: larding one's skin with unspeakable bits of dead animal.

In the case of Mr Styles, the tissue at issue is sheep placenta, which he gets plastered all over his face at a swank little dermatology clinic in Los Angeles, at a cost of $US950 a go. 

Harry Styles (One Direction) is a devotee of using animal afterbirth as part of his beauty routine.

Harry Styles (One Direction) is a devotee of using animal afterbirth as part of his beauty routine. Photo: Getty Images

While the treatment might appear to be just another expensive fad aimed at the cynical exploitation of the rich and vain, the use of afterbirth to refresh the skin has a very long history. The application of cow placenta was specifically advised by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Younger back in the First Century CE as a way of curing facial spots.


Styles' beauty regime, however – just like that of Khloe Kardashian, who revealed last week that she regularly gets her face zapped by lasers – illustrates the extent of the developed world's obsession with a nice epidermis. According to sales prediction site, it is an obsession that in 2016 will result in a global outlay of $US121 billion on skin care products.

The estimate is conservative. It does not, for instance, include the cost of the vast amounts of fruits, vegetables, fats and oils pressed into service to make homemade beauty products. It is unclear, too, whether the figure includes turnover from the substantial – if completely useless – homeopathic skin care sector.

Khloe Kardashian revealed last week that she likes to get her face zapped with lasers to improve her complexion.

Khloe Kardashian revealed last week that she likes to get her face zapped with lasers to improve her complexion. Photo: Instagram

The fascination with complexion, therefore, is both ancient and widespread. What drives so many women and men to every day put unguents and oils on their mugs, many suspecting, if never quite admitting, that the gunk doesn't do a blind bit of good?

"Putting stuff on your face and expecting it to absorb things is about as realistic as putting your books under a pyramid beneath your pillow and expecting to absorb knowledge while you sleep," said Professor Robert Brooks, director of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at the University of NSW.

Professor Brooks' speciality is in the evolution of mating behaviour – and from this perspective the popularity of skin care regimes makes perfect sense.

Blogger Adele McConnell, who writes on natural skin care regimes. McConnell, used to work in beauty salons but left the industry, disillusioned, after concluding that its prime function was to up-sell expensive cosmetic products.

Blogger Adele McConnell, who writes on natural skin care regimes. McConnell, used to work in beauty salons but left the industry, disillusioned, after concluding that its prime function was to up-sell expensive cosmetic products. Photo:

"I don't know that make-up and adornment have no effect," he said. "People groom themselves because, if they don't, they will fall out of favour with potential mates. Also, appearance is held to say things about you. An unkempt beard, for instance, can send a message about your personality."

Indeed it can. Whacking afterbirth on your face can do so, too. The interpretation of the message in both cases, however, depends very much on who is sending it, and to whom it is aimed. If an ordinary person – one, say, forced to live without the accoutrements of superstardom – talked about the joys of being draped in expelled sheep organs, anyone near would start edging towards the exit. If a celebrity does it, however, it becomes an object of desire and aspiration.

It's a process all too familiar to Adele McConnell, a widely read blogger on the subject of natural skin care regimes. McConnell, who moved from Melbourne to the Gold Coast last year, used to work in beauty salons. She left the industry, disillusioned, after concluding that its prime function was to up-sell expensive cosmetic products.

Looking for perfection.

Looking for perfection. Photo: iStock

"Some people just want a quick fix," she said. "We all like being unique, and for some that's having the latest, biggest and best thing around. When they see it, people will want it and will go for it."

A classic example of this over the past couple of years has been the mysterious and slightly nauseating rise in the popularity of a treatment known as the Vampire Facial. The procedure was named in 2010, without apparent queasiness or taste, by a Dr Charles Runels of Alabama in direct reference to the Twilight saga.

It involves extracting a small quantity of blood from the client, separating the cells from the plasma in a centrifuge, then injecting the latter under the facial skin. The result, once the awful red blotches fade, is a short period of sculptured puffiness, held to be a mark of glowing good health.

Kim Kardashian shared this picture of her having a

Kim Kardashian shared this picture of her having a "vampire" facial on Instagram, sparking increased demand for the procedure. Photo: Kim Kardashian/Instagram

Again, if a non-famous person boasted of injecting their own blood into their face, questions concerning the advisability of medication would arise. However, when Kim Kardashian did it in 2013, tweeting as she went, demand went through the roof. Bookings for the procedure in Britain increased by 800 per cent. 

Vampire facials – sometimes known by the less evocative alternative of 'platelet-rich plasma injections' – are available at clinics in all Australian capital cities.

Plasma-injections have long been used as an acute treatment for sporting injuries, but the evidence for their effectiveness as a beauty product is far less clear. That, however, probably doesn't matter: the power of self-persuasion is a wonderful thing.

Men are increasingly being hopping on the beauty bandwagon. A man in Beijing receives treatment at the first men's beauty salon in China's capital back in 2002.

Men are increasingly being hopping on the beauty bandwagon. A man in Beijing receives treatment at the first men's beauty salon in China's capital back in 2002. Photo: Reuters

In 2014, a team of dermatologists from the Ondokuz Mayis University in Turkey gave vampire facials to a group of volunteers. They then asked the volunteers and a second group of dermatologists to rate the degree to which their appearance had improved. The volunteers consistently awarded themselves higher scores than did the observing doctors.

"The vampire facial is a classic example," said Adele McConnell. "These people are chasing the ultimate feeling of beauty, but they won't find it through that, or lying on a sunbed. 

"That sort of thing doesn't address the real problem. To do that you have to combine beauty products with looking at issues such as nutrition and self-confidence. You can't cure unhappiness by simply using the latest treatment." 

Professor Brooks is slightly more equivocal on that point. "There can be a sort of placebo effect," he said. "Attractiveness is about confidence. If you believe you have the latest thing on your face you may smile more, for instance, and that can deliver social benefits."

An interesting aspect to this is the broad consensus that seems to operate regarding what visual cues are seen as desirable. Although it changes from culture to culture, within each society there emerges a generally agreed idea of beauty (or handsomeness) – which implies, in the Platonic sense, a theoretical physical perfection that we all strive to emulate.

"A lot of our beauty ideals aren't just handed down by the manufacturers," said Professor Brooks. "We have underlying preferences. We seek out cues for health and robustness. When we see them, we pick up on them and in our own case might seek to exaggerate them.

"We have deep, deep evolved preferences for signs of youth and vigour and general health. So we tend to exaggerate people's ideas of what's healthy. Sometimes light skin is seen as healthy because young women tend to have lighter skin than older women, just because they haven't been exposed to so much sunlight and ageing."

The pursuit of lighter skin as an indicator of youth and good health is a particularly long-embedded dream. Again, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Younger recognised the desire among the women of Rome and was happy to oblige with advice. His suggestion was to bathe in asses' milk, a treatment already made famous by Cleopatra and reputed to work a bit like a chemical peel.

A generation earlier than Pliny, the Roman poet Ovid suggested several other rather less sensual methods of achieving pale skin. He advocated the liberal application of sheep sweat, excrement, bile, vinegar and urine.

Many centuries later, in the European Renaissance, the pursuit of pallor was a concern of royalty. The ladies of the court commonly mixed hydroxide, carbonate and lead oxide together and put it on their pretty faces – which went admirably pale, especially once the heavy metal poisoning kicked in.

From the turn of the twentieth century until the 1930s there was a craze for soaps and salves containing radium and thorium. It was claimed that radioactivity – still a novelty following its discovery by Marie Curie in 1895 – was just the ticket for creating pale, glowing, wrinkle-free skin. 

Today, the pursuit of light skin continues unabated. Treatments with long-term effects include laser therapy and skin bleaching creams. Many of the creams contain mercury, a fact that as long ago as 2011 prompted the World Health Organization to issue a warning.

"The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage," it said.

"Mercury in skin lightening products may also cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin's resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy."

Despite the dangers, global sales of skin whitening creams are projected to rise to $US19 billion by 2018. This fact highlights another curious aspect about the quest for a nice complexion and a beautiful appearance. Even though, as Professor Brooks noted, the signs of youth and vigour are held to be synonymous with a state of good health, the pursuit of them often involves risks to life and limb.

The danger of developing melanoma though altering skin colour using sunbeds – the reverse of the pursuit of the pale – has long been known. The decrease in the use of solariums, however, is much more the result of legislation than customer choice.

Surgical enhancement procedures, such as liposuction and lifts, carry clear risks. Do-it-yourself botox injections, very popular in the US, have been aggressively red-flagged by doctors. Anti-aging stem cell injections are increasingly popular, despite many unanswered questions about efficacy and safety. The US Food and Drug Administration in 2012 tested a range of lipsticks, and found lead in all of them. Some hair-straightening products have been found to contain formaldehyde, a recognised carcinogen.

Laser treatments – the favourite of Kardashian the Younger – can induce acne, virus infections, scarring and – in a grossly unfortunate few – make your lower eyelids flop out so you look like a bloodhound.

The point here isn't that these things can happen, but that the risks of them happening are well and truly acknowledged. Despite the dangers, however, the procedures remain popular, in seeming contradiction to their ostensible purpose as routes to health and beauty.

"The qualities that are most desirable tend to be the rarest and the hardest to achieve," said Professor Brooks. 

"The things we prefer in appearance can be very hard to develop, so people are prepared to take risks to try to achieve them. Today, for instance, slenderness is difficult to achieve in our society – and harder still as you age.

"And there are always people prepared to offer dangerous and harmful methods that might achieve them. There is no Hippocratic oath in the beauty industry."

Adele McConnell's blog, Vegie Head, counsels a risk-averse approach to skin care and beauty. She advises the use of natural products, but her central premise is that appearance is the not just the result of slap, but is also determined by diet and self-confidence.

"Many women use beauty products because they feel they need external validation," she said. 

"But really, they need to validate themselves first. They shouldn't need the validation of others to feel beautiful, but the beauty industry preys on women's insecurities and self-esteem."

The debate over whether skin care and grooming bolster self-confidence or merely disguise its frailty will go on without end. For Professor Brooks, however, the fact that such a discussion has been conducted at least since the height of ancient Egypt is proof of its very deep roots.

"In her book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf did a great job of describing the damage the beauty industry wreaks, and the damage people are willing to inflict upon themselves," he said.

"Where I differ from her is that I don't think the drive to do this comes from some arbitrary place, but instead from a range of evolved preferences."

On some very primal level, therefore, perhaps we can't resist the pursuit of perfect skin. Perhaps grooming is an instinct, as irresistible to models and metrosexuals as fanning the tail out is to peacocks. 

So should we now view Harry Styles and his predilection for placentas in a different, more forgiving light? Is he simply the victim of an irresistible genetic longing, present, if unexpressed, in the primordial soup of eons ago? Or is he just a vain tit with more money than sense?

Answers, please, on the back of a One Direction album …