NEW YORK -- Nearly two years after alpha-hydroxy acid treatment products burst onto the prestige beauty scene, many in the industry say there's no end in sight to the phenomenon.

Skin care companies are continuing to put the spotlight on acid-based items, and the efforts seem to be working: According to many retailers, consumers are returning to counters again and again to make repeat purchases.

"The fruit acid story has added a huge layer to our business," said Linda Petersen, cosmetics buyer for Dayton's, Hudson's & Marshall Field's in Minneapolis. She reported a high-single-digit percentage gain in treatment sales in 1993 and predicted similar growth for 1994. "This is a long-term trend."

The bandwagon is not at full capacity. Despite the reported blockbuster success of AHA's, several treatment companies, among them Christian Dior, Clarins, Shiseido, Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy, have opted against marketing alpha-hydroxy products.

Still, the big three of Lauder, Lancome and Clinique is moving ahead with a bevy of acid-based plans.

Lauder has put AHA's into two self-tanning products. SuperTan, intended for use on the body, and SuperTan for Face together are expected to do about $11 million at wholesale this year, sources said. Lauder's primary thrust, though, is building its Fruition franchise.

"Fruition has been the most successful launch in the company's history," said Muriel Gonzalez, senior vice president of marketing. As reported, Fruition sold almost 1 million units in its first six months, and Gonzalez said the fruit acid product is now beating its launch numbers.

Lauder's strategy is to broaden Fruition's audience by emphasizing the product's specialized benefits. Lauder claims Fruition can help men, who experience irritation from shaving; black women, whose skin can sometimes look ashy; teenagers with extremely oily skin, and customers who want to improve the appearance of their cuticles.

Lancome is preparing for a major launch of a moisturizer, Bienfait Total, in April. Although the product contains an acid complex, the company is not billing it as an alpha-hydroxy product.

"Our feeling is that we will not introduce something at Lancome that is potentially irritating," said Margaret Sharkey, deputy general manager and senior vice president of marketing.The very small concentration of acid, Lancome executives say, contributes to the overall radiance Bienfait Total provides. Even without an emphasis on exfoliating properties, Bienfait Total is expected to become Lancome's best-selling unit, ringing up $36 million in retail sales this year.

Clinique has always emphasized a three-step regimen: cleansing, toning and moisturizing. But with the introduction of Turnaround Cream in late 1992, the company has added a fourth: foliation. Turnaround Cream remains the company's skin care focus.

"Clinique has and will continue to reinforce Turnaround Cream," said Eunice Valdivia, executive vice president of marketing. She noted that to keep the momentum rolling, the company has increased the sampling of Turnaround over 200 percent, to 7 million pieces, and will back the item with $3 million in advertising.

Clinique will extend the franchise to men this month with Turnaround Lotion for Men. A 1.7-oz. tube will sell for $23.50. Industry sources estimated that the lotion will do about 20 percent of Turnaround Cream's business in its first year, which would mean about $5 million.

Meanwhile, Chanel is adding alpha-hydroxies to its Active Body Moisturizer, according to Noel Robinson, director of treatment marketing. The new version, which is due on counters in May, will have the firming and moisturizing properties of the original product, plus the texturizing and added moisturizing benefits of the acid, Robinson said.

"We definitely are incorporating [AHA's] in products where they will be effective and where they can boost the benefits," Robinson said.

The company is putting most of its weight behind Lift Serum Extreme, an updated version of its worldwide best-selling treatment item. The company plans to spend $2 million backing the product, which has added wrinkle prevention to its claim of wrinkle correction. Industry sources estimate the sales goal for the new version is more than $6 million at wholesale.

Elizabeth Arden's Alpha-Ceramide, launched on Feb. 20, is expected by many retailers to be one of this year's blockbusters. It is actually a four-product line, with the items containing progressively greater percentages of AHA. The fourth product, with 7.5 percent acid, is being touted as the most potent in the department store arena."Early sales have been way beyond our expectations," said Rita Burke, senior vice president at Macy's East. .

"Alpha-hydroxy acid is still the biggest buzz right now," said Victoria Connell, Arden's vice president of marketing and development. "What it comes down to is that they do work, and that's exciting for women.

"We're still in the midst of identifying different types of AHA's, and seeing how they work in various combinations," she added. "There are also so many possible different applications. Women have other parts of their bodies that they're concerned about."

When Avon launched Anew for Face in Feb. 1992, the product did $20 million in sales in its first ten weeks. The company then introduced Anew for Chest and Neck that summer and Anew for Hand and Body last February.

Next up was Anew Intensive Treatment for Face, which came out last month.

"This product has 8 percent glycolic acid, which is twice what the first Anew has," said Janice Teal, Ph.D., director of the Avon Skin Care Laboratories. "Glycolic is the smallest acid, which enables it to penetrate the stratum corneum."

Avon is not stopping there. The 3-item line Anew for Men is due to arrive in April, and the company is banking on male interest in the acid phenomenon. "We knew that men were already using the women's Anew," said Teal.

Avon is even taking AHA's into nail care with Advanced Mira-Cuticle Vanishing Complex, set for a June introduction. The formula, which contains 10 percent lactic acid, purportedly improves the condition of dry, ragged cuticles.

"Most consumers who use Anew are loyal," Teal said. "If other products with similar technology come on the market, they're interested."

Origins was one of the first prestige companies to come out with an AHA product when it launched Starting Over in 1992. Since then, the item has continued to gain strength, according to vice president and general manager William Lauder. He said Starting Over had tripled in units sold last year.

"We can't expect the same surge this year," he said. "But it's our most important item, and our guides are focusing on it."Origins is coming out with its second acid-based item, Summer Vacation self-tanner, in April. The item will retail for $16.50 for a 5-oz. bottle. The company is also developing more AHA products, Lauder noted.

La Prairie is also moving ahead with several new AHA launches. The company's first acid-based item was Age Management Serum in 1992, and since then an Age Management cream, balancer and body lotion have been added to the line. In early May, the next step will be unveiled: Age Management Hand Cream.

"The business has held very nicely," said Lynne M. Florio, president. "AHA's now account for over 20 percent of our sales. Women will try an anti-aging process that they hear about, but will only come back if it works."

Although Florio would not divulge details, she said La Prairie will launch three more AHA products under the Age Management banner in September.

Prescriptives decided last year that if one All You Need Action Moisturizer was good, three different types were better. The company launched an oil-free formulation for people with oily skin, and a cream for people with drier skin hit counters in January.

"This was plus business for us, not cannibalization," said James Bunn, vice president and general manager, who noted that Prescriptives has also continued to simplify its treatment regime.

"We feel that the less you have to put on your face, the better," Bunn said. "All You Need is our winner, so we will continue to focus on that and simplification, rather than 'launch-o-rama."'

While many of the big beauty players are swearing by the AHA trend, the manufacturers who have refrained from introducing acid-based products have cited uncertainties about the lasting results -- either beneficial or harmful -- of the ingredients.

"At Clarins we feel that since nothing is known about the potential long-term effects of acid treatments on the skin, or if there are any negative effects from using an exfoliating product daily, it is better to use other proven types of gentle exfoliating products," said Stacey Bradie, the company's vice president of marketing.

Clarins's emphasis has been more on prevention and protection from the sun. Multi-Activ Nuit has an alpha-hydroxy ingredient, but it is not an exfoliator.While Christian Dior Perfumes has no AHA item, its latest skin care launch was the anti-cellulite cream Dior Svelte, which made its debut late in January in Burdines in Florida. The item will be rolled out nationwide by the end of May.

"The product was blowing out of stores," said Dior president Robert Cankes of the launch. Dior appears to be satisfied with its existing skin care roster.

"We understand why alpha-hydroxy acid products are enjoying much success at the moment; however, we at Dior are still conducting extensive research," said Pierre Perrier, director of Dior's research and development labs. "We believe there is still much to learn about the long-term effects of AHA's on the skin. AHA's are essentially a skin irritant."

A Shiseido spokeswoman said the company's conservatism when it comes to new ingredients has not gotten in the way of sales gains. Shiseido's overall volume increased 11 percent in the U.S. last year, she said.

Shiseido's current focus is the reformulation of Bio-Performance Super Revitalizer, one of the company's top three products since. The company has added antioxidants to the moisturizer.

Givenchy, which has refrained so far from putting AHA's into its Swiss Care line, is focusing on Lifting Double Sequence. The 30-night intensive firming serum, which is shipping this month, is purported to smooth and tighten skin. Thirty ampules are priced at $100.

"We feel that AHA's used in lower concentrations are hydrating ingredients and in higher concentrations are exfoliants," said Tana Wright, director of marketing for Parfums Givenchy. "We already have products in the line that address these issues."

Rather than emphasizing one specialty product, Yves Saint Laurent Beaute has been focusing on building its basic treatment business. The company launched its 16-item Precursor skin care line last year.

"All of our products work together and utilize one family of active ingredients," said Jana Reichle, director of skin care marketing at YSL. "AHA's run contradictory to those ingredients. Precursors really focus on more basic skin care functions."

Despite some misgivings, on the whole it appears AHA's have filled a void in a business that relies increasingly on breakthrough ingredients to generate interest and entice new customers. But while most in the industry are satisfied with current conditions, some have begun to wonder what could be the next wave in skin care technology.Jane Scott, vice president at Bloomingdale's, said there has been "some talk of antioxidants as a possible next phase.

"But right now," she added, "we're seeing continuing opportunities with the AHA's."

--JULIE L. BELCOVE, CARA KAGAN and SOREN LARSON

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