Every morning and every night, Patricia Walters ministers to her face.

The housewife from Fairfax County, who decided early last year to "do something about my wrinkles," begins the day by washing her face with La Prairie purifying gel--$20 a jar.

Then she smooths on La Prairie cellular skin conditioner-- $40. She follows that with La Prairie cellular day cream--$65.

On her neck, she rubs La Prairie cellular neck treatment--$90. On her forehead and around her mouth, she uses La Prairie cellular wrinkle cream--$90.

At night she again cleanses her face with purifying gel and treats the skin around her eyes with La Prairie eye contour cream--$55. Just before bedtime, she applies La Prairie cellular night cream--$65.

Since she began her wrinkle rituals in February 1981, Walters has spent about $700 on skin-care, including nearly $400 for La Prairie creams, which are imported from Switzerland. La Prairie proudly claims to be "the most expensive skin-care treatment programme ever created." Walters buys La Prairie at I. Magnin, an exclusive department store in White Flint mall.

"In some ways, I look better now, skin- wise, than I did 10 years ago," says Walters.

To the people who sell cosmetics, Walters is a "class" customer.

Gay Takakoshi, a 34-year-old part-time librarian from Arlington, finds herself looking at the mirror lately and wondering: "Is that really a wrinkle?" She has not yet tried any preventive maintenance.

She says she wears makeup, especially around her eyes, because her husband likes it. Without mascara, Takakoshi says she looks "like a rabbit."

She buys all her makeup at drugstores, sniffing out sales and using coupons. In the last year, Takakoshi has spent about $100 on cosmetics.

"I'm cheap," she says.

To the people who sell cosmetics, Takakoshi is a "mass" customer.

The genius of the cosmetics and fragrance industry is that it has figured out systematic methods to harvest the vanity of American women. The multi-billion-dollar-a-year harvest depends on sophisticated market research and huge doses of advertising. But the seeds are planted every morning when a woman gets out of bed and looks in a mirror.

Without the vanity of "class" and "mass" customers, many of the 2,000 cosmetic and fragrance companies--the 39th largest industry in the nation-- would collapse. Women like Patricia Walters and Gay Takakoshi spend more than $12.5 billion a year on cosmetics--nearly as much as the Reagan administration plans to spend next year on food stamps and nutrition programs. Classy department stores like I. Magnin account for about a third of industry revenues. Drug and mass merchandise stores also account for about a third. Most other sales are door-to-door.

American women spend billions on cosmetics, says the industry's own research, primarily to look sexier and younger than they think they look.

"Cosmetics have no utilitarian value. It is a look-good, feel-good product," says Steve Peck, vice president of cosmetics merchandising for the more than 500 Peoples Drug Stores in 14 states and the District of Columbia. "Cosmetics is a business of hope, aura and fashion. That's all we are really talking about."

Right now, as the baby-boom generation slips into its 30s and becomes what cosmetics people call "skin aware," there's an industry stampede to cash in on fear of wrinkles. The hottest cosmetics market is in "skin treatment" creams. In 1980, $1.9 billion worth of skin treatment was sold, an increase of 27 percent over 1979. Analysts expect skin- treatment sales to increase faster as millions of baby-boomers age, wrinkle and sag.

What "class" and "mass" women actually need has little to do with making money in the cosmetics business. Sunscreen lotions, for example, which stave off premature aging and skin cancer, are outsold six to one by eye shadow. More women buy fragrances (85 to 90 percent of the nation's women) than buy deodorant (85 percent), according to Morgan Stanley, a New York securities company.

To make money, cosmetics firms must convince women to want what they don't really need, and they must convince consumers only one brand name will make them truly younger and truly sexier.

That compulsion to wrest glamor out of quotidian items like red lipstick (typically about 65 percent castor oil, 15 percent beeswax, 10 percent carnauba wax, 5 percent certified dyes and the rest perfume and insoluble color additives) has inspired copywriters to invent a new, improved world of cosmeticized adjectives.

It is a world of silkier, smoother, younger-looking skin and thick, beautiful lashes, of chip-resistant super-nails and dazzling fresh-all-day wet- shine lips. It is super-moisturized and super-lustrous and extra-gleamy. Colors are stariest blue, tawny red and ipanema plum. It is sensual, Revlon advertises, but not too far from innocence.

It is also a world of similar products. "All the cosmetics companies use basically the same chemicals. It is all the same quality stuff," says Heinz J. Eiermann, a former cosmetics chemist and industry executive who directs the Food and Drug Administration's division of cosmetics technology. "The art of cosmetics is as much in marketing as in chemistry. Much of what you pay for is make-believe."

To tease, seduce and embarrass women (and their husbands and boyfriends) into buying more cosmetics and fragrances, the industry last year spent more than $355 million on television, radio, magazine, billboard and newspaper-supplement advertising, according to a report issued by Leading National Advertisers. The advertising bill exceeds that of the beer, home electronics or soft-drink industries.

One simple way to understand the vanity harvest is to tag along with Patricia Walters and Gay Takakoshi as they wander through the "class" and "mass" cosmetics markets.

"When I was around 33, I first started noticing that I was getting older," says Patricia Walters. "By the time I came into I. Magnin, I was going on 40 and I knew I needed something. I wanted to improve what I've got and not get any worse. I was getting older, but does that mean you have to look old?"

Walters found that "regular skin-care stuff from Peoples wasn't doing the trick. I said to myself that I wanted top of the line."

Without cosmetics, Walters feels "undressed, not prepared to meet the world. Makeup doesn't dominate my life or anything, it's just that if I can go by a mirror and feel confident about myself, then I can get along with the rest of my life."

Women who decide to buy top-of-the-line "class" cosmetics have a lot in common with Walters, says William J. Fitzgerald, a cosmetics consultant from Potomac, Md. Fitzgerald runs a company that surveys 120,000 homes a year. His computers have come up with profiles of typical "class" and "mass" cosmetics buyers.

The typical woman, Fitzgerald says, who buys "class" cosmetics is in her mid-40s, does not have a job, has attended college, has two or three children and is married to a man who earns more than $35,000 a year. Walters is 41, does not have a job, graduated from Ohio State with a degree in political science that she "never did anything with," has two children (ages 10 and 14) and is married to a retired Air Force colonel who works for a high-tech research firm. Walters says her husband earns about $55,000 a year.

Fitzgerald, a consultant for Chanel and Elizabeth Arden, says as women age their skin dries out and they lose their sense of smell. Therefore, affluent women, he says, buy more and more expensive skin-care products and stronger-smelling perfumes. Poorer women, Fitzgerald notes, buy fewer cosmetics as they grow older: "It is as though the poorer women give up."

Like nearly all "class" consumers, Walters buys skin cream in a classy place-- I. Magnin at White Flint Mall.

White Flint is Washington's toniest suburban shopping center. The mall's surveys show it has the richest regular customers of any Washington-area mall: 75 percent of shoppers who visit White Flint once a month have yearly incomes above $25,000.

White Flint is an assemblage of skylights, vaulted atriums, mirrors, chrome, brass, rosewood railings, groomed umbrella trees and shops with French names. The sound system snubs Muzak, doting instead on Beethoven, Handel and Tchaikovsky. I. Magnin, a San Francisco-based chain that tries to locate all its 25 stores near the nation's wealthiest consumers, advertises the mall in The New Yorker magazine as though White Flint were a city like New York or Chicago.

"You don't get the feeling at White Flint that everybody and their brother has picked over the place," Walters says. "They may have, but you don't feel it."

When Walters walked into the cosmetics department at I. Magnin last year, she remembers she was nervous. Hesitantly, she moved amid plexiglass and mirrored counters, dressed-to-kill cosmeticians and hundreds of skin-treatment creams.

"I had made my decision to buy top-of-the-line and I could easily have been intimidated," Walters says. Then she met Doris Feintuch, a cosmetician.

"Doris is very good. If I say, no, no, that's not me, she won't push it. It is very easy to talk to Doris," Walters says.

Doris Feintuch, 41, a striking woman with deep-set, heavily made-up eyes and blond hair pulled back tightly behind her head, is one of 11 cosmeticians at I. Magnin. In the retail business, women in Feintuch's profession--with their high-fashion looks, elaborate makeup and reputation for condescension--are sometimes called "dragon ladies." Industry research shows their intimidating image can hurt sales.

Accordingly, there's been an effort in recent years to defang the dragon ladies. Betsy Burke, cosmetics manager for I. Magnin at White Flint, says she hires cosmeticians with these qualities in mind:

" Are they capable of being gracious and making our customers feel that this is a special event happening to them? Finally, are they people people? If they are not, they don't stay."

Feintuch, by all accounts, including her own, is a people person.

"I like helping people. That's what the beauty business is all about. I never tell a woman she has a wrinkle. I call it an expression line or a character line," Feintuch says.

Feintuch has been selling cosmetics at I. Magnin for two years. Before that she sold designer clothing and worked as a buyer and manager for I. Magnin and two other department stores. Before that she taught elementary school in Montgomery and Baltimore counties for 14 years. Feintuch prefers selling skin creams to teaching.

"Selling a $275 (La Prairie facial) kit gives me a tremendous high," Feintuch says. "To get a woman to buy hundreds of dollars worth of skin treatment in this economy is the biggest challenge I can have. There is a lot of competition in cosmetics."

I. Magnin builds in the competition. Women behind the cosmetics counter are each assigned a line or brand of cosmetics. The more they sell of their own line, the more money they make. Feintuch, for example, earns a 6 percent commission on La Prairie sales, twice as much she earns selling Estee Lauder or Chanel.

She also competes for prime counter position. Locations near a main aisle with a "favorable traffic pattern" means money. The I. Magnin chain last year sold about $30 million of cosmetics, 12 percent of total store sales.

I. Magnin takes counter positioning very seriously. Choice spots are awarded on a sales-per-linear-foot-of-counter-space formula. These productivity calculations are made in San Francisco by I. Magnin's cosmetics merchandise manager. Strategic position changes are ordered from there.

Feintuch's savvy last year generated enough La Prairie sales (about $66,000 worth, she says) for her to dislodge Revlon's Ultima II skin creams and claim a high-visibility counter position.

Feintuch, who earns about $20,000 a year, was recently chosen as one of 12 national consultants to tell La Prairie how to sell more. She is responsible for La Prairie sales increasing faster last year at the White Flint I. Magnin than at any of the chain's 24 other stores. Feintuch knows how to move skin cream.

When Patricia Walters came into I. Magnin in February 1981, she had her mind set on buying Dr. Erno Laszlo's skin treatment, not La Prairie. Laszlo, advertised as "the finest skin-care system in the world," is made by the same company that makes Vaseline Intensive Care lotion--Chesebrough-Pond's of Greenwich, Conn. The Laszlo regimen, which calls for 30 splashes when a woman washes her face, is an established "class" product found in many expensive department stores. Walters had read Laszlo ads in magazines for years. When she happened upon Feintuch at I. Magnin, she'd never even heard of La Prairie.

As Feintuch obligingly sold Walters $275 worth of Laszlo's creams and soaps, she talked up La Prairie. When she sells La Prairie, these are some of the things she says:

"It is an investment you are making in the future of your skin . . . La Prairie contains stabilized sheep placenta from black mountain sheep in Switzerland. These black mountain sheep cells are cancer-resistant and high in vitamin B . . . Many of my customers tell me La Prairie is cheaper than a face lift."

Feintuch says La Prairie contains "collagen" and "elastin" and that it is "scientifically formulated" to moisturize the skin. She goes on to say that the skin treatment is an outgrowth of Dr. Paul Neihans' research at Clinic La Prairie in Clarens, Switzerland, where for 50 years doctors have been injecting "rejuvenating" sheep placenta into the buttocks of wealthy and famous people. These famous people included, according to La Prairie promotional literature, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Pope Pius XII.

Before Walters left I. Magnin that first day, she bought one jar of La Prairie's cellular neck treatment. Walters also gave Feintuch her home phone number.

About two weeks later, Feintuch called Walters, asked her how her skin felt and mentioned that La Prairie cellular skin conditioner had been temporarily reduced from $40 to $15.

Feintuch says she did not tell Walters the skin conditioner was on sale. "La Prairie doesn't like the word 'sale,'" Feintuch says.

Walters returned to I. Magnin a month later, after finding that Laszlo products "took too long and seemed to dry out my face." She bought a La Prairie facial kit for $260. Since then she's spent about $150 more on La Prairie gels and creams.

"I don't know what makes it work," says Walters. "They talk about this cellular structure. It must sink into the skin. I can tell in the texture of my skin and somehow it seems more firm. I don't know why that is. It is just a feeling I have. La Prairie was the most expensive, so I figure that it would have to be the best."

There is no scientific evidence that rubbing placenta on the skin will get rid of wrinkles, nor is it likely that there ever will be such evidence, according to the American Medical Association. Injecting sheep placenta into the buttocks of human beings is illegal in the United States, according to the FDA.

"These (La Prairie) products are cosmetically elegant. They feel good going on the skin and in general they don't do any harm. But it is ridiculous to pay hundreds of dollars for this stuff," says Dr. Nia Terezakis, a nationally prominent New Orleans dermatologist, fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and chairman for the last three years of the academy's cosmetics symposium.

"It is sad in a way that people fall for this," Terezakis says. "It is the cost. If it cost less, it wouldn't sell."

The dermatologist says sheep placenta cells, along with collagen and elastin (which are protein substances derived from bone and cartilage of animals, usually cows), do nothing more than provide temporary surfacing for tiny potholes in dead surface layers of the skin.

Terezakis warns that using too many creams can clog up skin pores, causing acne and producing "impacted" skin cells that feel like "bird seed under the skin . . .

"Overuse of these cosmetics regimens is what keeps me in business," Terezakis says.

Heinz Eiermann says the FDA assumes La Prairie products must do nothing more than cheaper skin-care products such as Vaseline Intensive Care or cold cream, which coat the skin with oil and keep it from drying out. If La Prairie did more, if it caused physiological changes in live skin cells, it would be a drug, Eiermann says. La Prairie makes no such claims.

"I'm sure La Prairie will do what many products do: give a woman soft, supple, pleasant- feeling skin. What is wrong with that?" Eiermann says. "And just imagine the satisfaction that a woman gets out of spending all that money. She gets to go into a fancy store and have a beautiful woman pay attention to her. She gets a little high on the guilt of spending that much money for skin care. She takes it home and displays it prominently in her boudoir and her friends see it and say, 'Oooooh, are you using La Prairie?'"

David Stoup, 29-year-old president of Bio-Pharma, Inc., the Kansas City company that distributes La Prairie in the United States, dismisses the criticism of Terezakis and Eiermann, saying that proof of La Prairie's quality is in the marketplace.

"I have a great respect for the consumer. Our sales are in an upward trend in the past year. With all due repect to the good doctor and Mr. Eiermann, others would feel differently," says Stoup, who's headed Bio-Pharma for four years, when La Prairie began selling at a Kansas City department store.

The high-priced skin cream, which costs $500 for complete body and facial kits, now sells at 116 "class" department stores. Bio-Pharma, owned by a Swiss citizen named Armin Mattlie, does not advertise. Through select mailings it invites women to talk with the Doris Feintuchs of America and receive a free sample.

Most cosmetics industry insiders won't talk publicly about La Prairie. One industry expert, however, who worked for La Prairie and now works for a cosmetics trade association, says this:

"I think they are selling a gimmick, a damn good gimmick. It is based on this fancy Swiss theory. If they can get this theory across, they can make a lot of money off self- conscious women."

Gay Takakoshi stays out of cosmetics departments at high-priced de partment stores because she's scared of women like Doris Feintuch.

"I'm intimidated by the lady at I. Magnin as she stands behind the counter in her ultra-something," says Takakoshi. "I'm afraid to go up to the counter and ask for some product because she'll say, 'Oh, deary, that's all wrong for you.'"

The cosmetics industry has spent considerable time and money to diagnose and circumvent the fears of "mass" customers like Takakoshi. The most recent drugstore solution, intended to trigger high sales while skirting the dragon-lady factor, is called "fixturization."

On a recent trip to the Peoples Drug at Tysons Corner mall, Takakoshi shopped for mascara. Without even realizing it, she found herself amid "fixturization."

The cosmetics department at Peoples--three aisles wide, with feminine hygiene at o Location nns, for example, which stavne end and perfume at the other --is fixturized with more than a dozen full-color photographs of young, sporty, skinny, clean Revlon women. The poster women loom in chrome frames above aisles of shampoo, eye liner and dental floss.

"We want something that draws the customer's attention to cosmetics and takes her out of the milieu of motor oil and garden hoses. That's why we have gone with fixturization," says Steve Peck, the cosmetics merchandise manager for Peoples.

Revlon pioneered fixturization four years ago to increase its share of the "mass" market. The posters, which have been imitated by other cosmetics companies in drugstores nationwide, have generated millions in sales.

"Fixturization increases both dollar movement and unit movement anywhere from 20 to 40 percent over the standard that existed before, whatever that was," says Peck. Surveys by the Point of Purchase Advertising Institute show that seven of 10 cosmetics purchases are made by women who did not plan to buy a particular item when they entered the store.

Fixturization at Peoples told Takakoshi where the mascara was. She wasn't particularly delighted to be shopping beneath the gaze of those Revlon "babes."

"That's not my life," says Takakoshi. "I'm not sure that's what I want to be."

Cosmetics consultant Fitzgerald says the typical "mass" consumer is nearly 30 years old, married, holds a job, has no children or, if older, has one child, did not attend college and has a family income of less than $25,000. Takakoshi, 34, is married to a GS15 who works at the Pentagon for Army research and development. She works part-time as a librarian at the Quest Research Corporation in McLean, has no children, has a master's degree in library science and her family income is nearly $45,000. She is not unlike many "mass" cosmetics buyers in the Washington area, which has the highest median family income and educational attainment of any metropolitan area in the country.

In Peoples, Takakoshi wanted mascara, nothing more. Her Revlon navy-colored "Super-Rich Waterproof Mascera" is running out. She doesn't like Revlon mascara very much, anyhow, because it gets "gloppy" on her eyelashes.

"I am looking for a blue to accent my eyes," Takakoshi said. "I'm here rather than in some fancy store because by experience I've found that you don't get any better quality by paying more. I want to find the color I had before. I'm not an experimenter."

She walked directly through the cosmetics department, unaffected by the magic of fixturization. She didn't even see the Oil of Olay.

Oil of Olay, the super-star of drugstore moisturizers, is used by one out of four American women between the ages of 19 and 64, according to the company that makes it, Richardson-Vicks Inc. of Westport, Conn. Oil of Olay, which holds about 25 percent of the moisturizer market, is perhaps the hottest cosmetic to come along in the last 12 years. Last year, 19 million bottles were sold, a total of 697,656 gallons of the "mysterious beauty fluid"-- enough to float a 418-foot-long U.S. Navy destroyer.

"I don't know what the mystery of Oil of Olay is," said Takakoshi, when asked about the cream she had ignored. "I can put it on my face and five minutes later my face feels dry. Oil of Olay sent me a free sample a couple of years ago (one of nearly 3 million bottles the company sends out annually). I was not impressed. I'll never buy it."

Dr. Terezakis says that Takakoshi's reaction to Oil of Olay is similar to that of many of her patients who find that the moisturizer "dries out their skin and acts as an irritant." Complaints, however, about Oil of Olay are rare. For the vast majority of users, Oil of Olay is a safe product. The FDA cosmetics division has received only eight cosmetic injury reports on Oil of Olay in the past two years.

What Takakoshi wanted was blue mascara, a color that's out of fashion. Maybelline, the national leader in eye makeup, does not fool with blue. For Takat o Location nns, for example, which stavkoshi, that's a shame because Maybelline recently invented "Dial-a-matic" mascara, which allows a woman to dial just the amount of gloppiness she wants. "Dial-a-matic" is the fastest-selling item in the $269-million-a-year mascara market. But fashion dictates that there be no blue "Dial- a-matic."

"Blue doesn't generate the kind of turns (sales) it needs to justify its existence," says Robert Schreiber, advertising vice president for Maybelline. Most cosmetics companies feel the same way about blue mascara.

After 13 minutes in Peoples, Takakoshi was irritated. She'd checked more than 10 brands of mascara but found no blue except the Revlon "Super- Rich," which, of course, was too gloppy.

"I'm fed up," Takakoshi said. She left.

The next day in a Drug Fair in Arlington, using a 50-cent coupon she'd received in the mail, Takakoshi bought Maxi "Extra-Long Thick Lash Mascara with Sealer" in navy blue.

Max Factor, a Los Angeles company, still makes blue, a spokesperson says, "for the woman who wants to accessorize more than in just basic colors."

Takakoshi says she couldn't care less why Max Factor makes it. But so far she says she's "really rather tickled" with her blue lashes.

Takakoshi looks younger than her 34 years. "I do look younger than I am, but I find myself wondering about wrinkles more. But I don't feel there is a whole heck of a lot I can do about it. It is kind of like the bomb dropping."

The cosmetics industry is betting that as Takakoshi-- along with the rest of the nation's baby-boomers--grows older, she will change her mind. The industry--with its burgeoning investments in skin treatments--figures the shock of middle-age will send the baby-boom generation scurrying for billions of dollars worth of creams.

After all, as cosmetics advertising reminds American women--you're worth it. CAPTION: Cover photo, La Prairie cosmetician Doris Feintuch at I. Magnum makeup counter. By Margaret Thomas; Picture 1, Patricia Walters, and $900 worth of La Prairie cellular neck treatment.; Picture 2, Gay Takakkoshi favors blue mascara and buys her makeup at drugstores, often at a discount. Last year she spent about $100 on cosmetics. Photos by Margaret Thomas