DENVER // During times of economic uncertainty, economists have noted that American women load up on affordable luxuries as a substitute for more expensive items such as clothes and jewellery. Dubbed the "Lipstick Indicator", it was charted first during the Great Depression, when industrial production in the US was cut in half, but sales of lipstick climbed 25 per cent. In more recent periods of belt-tightening, including the Second World War and the 1973 oil embargo, general spending declined, but cosmetics sales held strong. Most recently, lipstick sales jumped 11 per cent in the months after the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
But this time around, that is not happening. In 2008 annual lipstick sales actually dropped five per cent, according to Inside Cosmeceuticals, which tracks cosmetics purchases in the US and UK. Now, it seems, Americans - both men and women - are splurging on a more modern luxury: cosmetic injections. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that surgical cosmetic procedures like nose jobs and tummy tucks dropped off nine per cent from 2007 to 2008. However minimally invasive procedures such as Botox, which eases wrinkles, and Restylane, which puffs up sagging skin, are up more than five per cent.
"Botox and filler have carried us through this recession," said Dr Herbert Parris, at the Ageless Remedies Clinic in Denver, which does laser treatments, facials and microderm abrasions. He credits the rise in part to the fact that Botox patients have a 97 per cent satisfaction rate, on average, with Restylane and other fillers causing satisfaction about 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the time. "It's a quick hitter," he said. "An easy pick me up."
Clients at Ageless Remedies have sharply cut back their spending on other treatments such as facials, chemical peels and microderm treatments, according to clinic director Donna Reichert. But women - and increasingly men - keep walking through the door for injections. "I think in part it is the instant gratification," said Ms Reichert, noting that one often needs three months of treatment to see results from laser or chemical peels.
"With injections, they see the results right there right now. It is not as pricey as a facelift, which can cost as much as $12,000 [Dh44,000]. They can come in and spend $300 and see results." In America's youth- and beauty-obsessed culture, some analysts believe there may be a larger factor at play. "There have been a number of studies showing that there is both a 'beauty premium' and an 'ugliness penalty', in the labour market," said Dr Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of Survival of the Prettiest.
"Better looking women and men earn more than average looking people and unattractive people earn significantly less." At a time when joblessness is rising and, and companies are laying off workers, Dr Etcoff and others believe some may be rationalising expenditures on cosmetic dermatology to stay competitive in the job market and reduce visible signs of stress, like forehead wrinkles. "Some may be downsizing from surgery to cosmetic dermatology. Others may be considering both and end up deciding that they can get a comparable benefit from dermatology with a lot lower cost," said Dr Etcoff.
Dr Gregory A Buford, a Denver-based plastic surgeon, said many of his clients seem to recognise the phenomenon. "Whether we like it or not, how we look has a dramatic effect on how others take us," he said. "I am seeing an increase of both men and women saying, 'I need to look my very best right now.'" That could be in part because older members of the American workforce have been laid off in higher numbers than younger ones, according to the Urban Institute, which tracks unemployment figures by age group.
The unemployment rate for adults aged 65 and older reached 6.8 per cent in early 2009, the highest level recorded since the federal government began computing reliable unemployment rates in 1948, the institute said. Adults in the over-50 age group fared little better. "I don't think this reflects just a temporary escape," said Dr Buford. "It is a sign of the times." Many feel that the dotcom bubble, when twenty-somethings stormed into the marketplace and revolutionised how business was done, reversed whatever traditional respect this culture had for age and experience.
The recent unemployment figures may be just the latest reflection of what some call America's youth premium, which in turn has driven up the need for cosmetic procedures that can instantly take a few years off your face. "If you can take away those lines and appear more relaxed and more confident, it is amazing how your appearance affects how you feel," said Dr Buford. "It is just like marketing. When you feel your best, and you are in your zone, it is self-reinforcing."