For my last birthday, one of my closest friends gave me an anti-aging serum. I know what you're thinking: cheeky gift. It's akin to your paramour casually suggesting you get a spray tan or a hair weave. When my friend gave me the serum, we were enjoying a quiet dinner in our favourite restaurant (I had turned 40 the year before, so subdued was the idea); midway through our meal, she handed me a small package with a proviso that amounted to "I know you'll know how to receive this."
Her gifts have always been unpredictable: the diaries of Susan Sontag, a horse bit for a bracelet, hand-painted kerchiefs. When I unwrapped this one, I was struck first by the elegance of the vial; small and rectangular, it held a golden liquid. Then I read its small print: Vered Anti-Aging Treatment Face Oil. A moment of panic: Was I suddenly a wizened Iggy Pop? And was my friend, the way friends do, trying to help me understand that? As it turns out, no. The balm was both a gesture of affection and a luxurious acknowledgment of where we all are in time (still getting older).
When I was a teenager, I used to walk past a store called the Anti-Aging Shop; the concept was as remote to me as being a 41-year-old with a station wagon, my current situation. Throughout my life, my approach to skin care had been camping-trip basic; over the past year or two, however, love affairs and concerts have been replaced by wrinkles and now serums as conversation topics. Thanks to Hollywood's promotion of facial immortality, serums are ubiquitous. Swayed by their makers' sci-fi promises to boost and firm and plump, we have re-scripted our routines, swapping hot water and a bar of soap for a regime as complex as homeopathic immunization – and a lot more pricey. (My 44-millilitre vial of Vered face oil costs $132.)
Because I am new to the serum world (not to mention a little conflicted about it – would I be going the way of a Kardashian?), I decided to consult Ingrid Rae Doucet, the founder of online retailer Clementine Fields, exclusive purveyor of Vered products in Canada. A cancer survivor, Doucet told me how starting a non-toxic beauty-products business was part of her healing process, then patiently took me through the recommended Vered application process: "Gently massage a few drops with upward motions onto your face, neck and décolletage. Use it morning and night in place of regular moisturizer."
After a few days of that, I can't say that my appearance began to change à la Benjamin Button, but I did start loving my Vered ritual, the scent and the texture of the serum. Eventually, I had to track down the brain behind the bottle. Vered Back studied to be an aesthetician in her native Israel at the age of 18, quickly becoming known as Angel Hands. "I think every person I have ever touched since I was three years old has told me I have angel hands or that they never felt that kind of touch ever in their life," she told me, seemingly unself-consciously, via e-mail from New York, her current base. "I see it as a gift that I got from God." After she moved to the United States, Back's ever-expanding list of clients "begged her to bottle her customized facial-oil blends." And no, she doesn't heal and tell; her roster of celebrities and models remains confidential.
I asked Back to break down the anti-aging properties of my serum. Marshmallow root softens and nourishes, lemon peel brightens, fennel tones and rose essential oil tightens and soothes. "One of the most important components is the quality of ingredients I use," said Back, who employs only organic, therapeutic-grade essential and plant oils. One ingredient that's especially crucial in the anti-aging effort is evening primrose oil, a kind of miracle tonic. Apparently, we cannot completely undo the art-school smoking habit, the tanning with baby oil in the mid-eighties, the interrupted sleep of the new parent, the stress, the worry and the forward march of time, but, with evening primrose oil, we can gain a little ground against gravity and moisture loss. At least that's how Angel Hands sees it.
After my correspondence with her, I came to a number of realizations. When I first received my bottle of Vered, I was concerned that it – and my fondness for it – were a little anti-feminist. But then I gave myself a break, inspired (or at least soothed) by Back's pseudo-spiritual words. As we age, we tend to feel it enter our bones. But when it moves up and into our faces, we are astonished. I don't think, though, that it's merely vanity we're contending with, but death. After all, it's not only beauty that's slipping away, but all that has come before it. As our face wears, we are forced to ask ourselves difficult questions: Have I loved well? Have I accomplished enough? It holds our existence. So why not put it in the hands of an angel?