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Face-Off : Madeleine Verdon of Camarillo has created a skin cream that has 'broken all the rules' of cosmetics development. Industry insiders say the product may rub federal agencies the wrong way.


Of all the flowers on her one-acre estate, Madeleine Verdon loved her roses most: the imported French Josephines, white with dark pink centers, that grew beside full-blooming yellow ones; the small red buds, mixed among peach-colored petals, that seemed to burst open in a day.

To Verdon, who tended them with a meticulousness never afforded her azaleas, they were a symbol of grace and delicacy.

She never expected that, indirectly, they would damage her skin, prompt her to look into the inner workings of the cosmetics industry, or cause her to develop and market a face cream that, she asserts, has successfully "broken all the rules."

"I never intended to do any of this," said Verdon, seated on an antique divan inside her ornately decorated Camarillo home. "It's just that every face cream I tried was like a chemistry set. I couldn't use anything. I was only looking for a formula that would help me."

Two years ago, Verdon began selling by direct mail the formula she eventually created. Since then, she says, things have gone smoothly. Jars of the $24 cream have sold well, and she is now shipping the product across the United States. But industry insiders paint another possible picture. By creating and marketing the all-natural formula for mass consumption--and making assertions about the efficacy of her face cream--Verdon, they say, could find herself in a face-off with both the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. At present, neither agency has the product under review.

"There is a line between what the FDA considers is a cosmetic claim and what it considers is a drug claim," said Wayne Stevenson, a chemist in the FDA's division of colors and cosmetics in Washington, D.C. "Based on her claims, we would consider her product to be a drug."

Verdon, a handsome woman with charcoal-colored hair pulled into a neat chignon, is a classically trained singer from Canada. She never, she said, aspired to form a cosmetics company. She only wanted relief.

Verdon set out to find a non-irritating moisturizer after she inadvertently was poisoned several years ago by pesticides she had spread over her rosebushes. Her arms and face were badly burned by the exposure, she said, and her skin became highly sensitized as a result.

Her doctor prescribed cortisone to help the dryness and inflammation, but it didn't help. And every face cream she tried--even high-priced ones and those marked "hypoallergenic"--made the condition worse.

"I really suffered," she said.

It was her son, a biochemist and researcher who had completed his doctoral thesis on natural Vitamin E at Tufts University, who came to the rescue. Dr. Carl Verdon presented his mother with what he said were Vitamin E's clinically proven benefits: It speeds healing, smoothes wrinkles, helps prevent scarring, cleanses pores and helps guard against ultraviolet rays. Verdon purchased a bottle of the natural oil at a local health food store.

The oil soothed her skin, but it was tacky, greasy and impossible to wear under makeup. When she turned to Vitamin E creams already on the market, she found that most contained a synthetic form of the vitamin, usually in concentrations of less than 5%. According to her son, studies had shown that the synthetic form of the vitamin is less effective.

It was then that Verdon--with input from her biochemist son and more than $100,000 in financial backing from her husband, an investment executive--decided to develop her own formula.

To her surprise, she discovered that there wasn't much to it.

"Anyone can do it. They don't need any experience," said John McConville, a biochemist and president of Cosmetic Products International, the Valencia laboratory where Verdon's face cream was developed.

"It's like baking a cake, except it's chemistry," McConville said. "I've been doing this for 20 years. You come in, you tell me what kind of cream you have in mind, and I can do anything you want."

What Verdon wanted, she told him, was a cream high in natural Vitamin E. She also wanted it free of fillers, perfumes, mineral oil and stabilizers. And no matter what, it couldn't contain wax or traditional preservatives.

McConville balked. "I can't make a cream without a thickening agent," he said. "There has to be some kind of wax. Otherwise it is a liquid."

Verdon was adamant. There was an agent called squalene, made from olives. It would serve the same purpose.

And what about the FDA's requirement that manufacturers put preservatives in creams? There was a way around that, too, she said.

"Most skin-care products available today are irradiated for a long shelf life," Verdon said. "It kills bacteria and keeps it lifeless." They also contain preservatives and chemicals, she said, "to keep them from turning and changing. But we found a way to use grapefruit seeds and ascorbic acid--Vitamin C--as a natural preservative. It's much gentler." The Vitamin E used in her product, she said, is derived from sunflower seeds.

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