Paula Begoun casts bright light on cosmetics

February 03, 1994|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,Sun Fashion Editor

Meet Paula Begoun, makeup tester and nag. She's the smart, funny and candid friend every woman who uses beauty products needs.

Her makeup and beauty column, "Cosmetics Counter," begins today and will appear Thursdays in The Sun fashion pages. She's the author of "Blue Eyeshadow Should Be Illegal" and "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me: An Eye-Opening Guide to Brand Name Cosmetics," two books intended to raise cosmetics-consciousness and eyebrow pencils.

For her "Cosmetics Counter" book, she ventured into drug and department stores to evaluate 30 companies and 10,000 beauty products -- from budget brands to hoity-toity designer labels. She found good products and bad; she found that a high price doesn't guarantee performance, and she found the cosmetics industry wanting.

And women want and buy cosmetics to the tune of $30 billion annually.

Martha McCully, senior beauty editor at Allure magazine, says Ms. Begoun raises some interesting questions. "Anything and anyone who provides more information is better for the consumer. In the past women bought the product and the promise."

It's the promises Ms. Begoun attacks most avidly.

"Cosmetics manufacturers put out so many exaggerated claims and absurdities, it's absolutely blinding," she says. "In that sense, things are no different now than when I started out as a makeup artist at a Washington, D.C., cosmetics counter in the '70s."

She said she was then trying to help a customer who was looking for a toner that would close pores. "I told her that if such a product existed, none of us would have pores. The sales manager heard and fired me," she says, "and I learned that honesty doesn't work in the cosmetics industry. You can't make money in the beauty business without selling wrinkle cream and hope."

After trying her hand with her own cosmetics company and a stint at feature and investigative TV reporting in Seattle, she left in 1985 to found her own publishing company, Beginning Press, which publishes the Cosmetics Counter Update, a bi-monthly publication with some 2,000 subscribers. The newsletter tracks products which have come on the market since publication of her book in 1992.

Her evaluations are subjective, but informed. She backs her suggestions with comparisons of ingredients, notes additives which may cause allergic reactions and cuts through unsubstantiated claims.

Those claims are what set off her crusading instincts.

"The recurring question I get from readers is a concern about moisturizers. Women still believe that a moisturizer eliminates wrinkles," she says. "Beauty jargon -- rejuvenating, firming, restoring -- keeps women running around in circles wondering which one is best and what will work. There is nothing, not even creams containing alpha-hydroxy acid, which is a good exfoliant, that can change a wrinkle on your face."

Some companies are getting better at considering the consumer, she says.

"They deserve some credit for introducing beauty products tailored to the needs of minority women, but that isn't enough. The hype is still overwhelming."

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