The ULTIMATE French Pharmacy beauty product shopping list

French Pharmacy productsIt’s no secret that I have a French love affair. They really know how to create the perfect balance between function, design, effect and value in beauty products. A bit of background: I know a lot about skincare and cosmetics because unbeknownst to me, my lifelong career started by selling fragrance and cosmetics as a teenager (mumble-mumble years ago…ok, in the 80s. I walked to work at the beauty counter of a nearby hypermarket after school on Fridays and worked weekends and holidays). I say unbeknownst because 1) I love that word and 2) I really thought I would become a linguist or a writer – everyone else did, too. Of course I did actually become a writer, but very much as a twin to my fragrance and beauty career. You may have noticed I write about fragrance and beauty a lot.

So I’ve spent most of my life trying out products, being trained on them, selling them – later, training other people on them; writing training manuals and product copy – and eventually developing them and fragrances for them. Which means that when I test a new product (which I still love to do even though I’ve found my Holy Grail for almost every category – I think cosmetics are fun) – when I test a new product, I am a harsh judge. I won’t easily get seduced by pure marketing; I need the product to deliver on its promises, I need it to feel like good value for money (either because it’s so damn luxurious that it feels therapeutic just because of its “I’m-treating-myself-shush-now” value, or because the effect vs. its cost is just right).

What the French pharmacies offer me is a treasure trove. Swiss aren’t bad either – I love many Swiss products with almost equal passion, but nowhere do I feel more like a kid in a candy store than at a good French pharmacy.

French pharmacy beauty haulThe cult destination is, of course Citypharma in Paris (one can catch the Metro there very conveniently direct from Eurostar, but be warned – it’s better to drop your luggage off first because Citypharma is not a cult destination in name only; it is so in actuality, which means it is packed to the brim with shoppers and you will struggle to move among the aisles even without bags to drag around with you. Make sure to wear comfortable clothing, have a list ready and be prepared to queue).

Happily, almost every product I would normally have to hunt down from various retailers or haul over in person from Paris is now conveniently available online. I say almost every, because some of the best-kept secrets haven’t yet made it over, and one of them can’t because it’s classed as a pharmaceutical.

When I first discovered that Escentual.com in the UK has a ‘French Pharmacy Month’ every now and then, I was skeptical – but it turns out they have curated a great collection of products and during this recurring promo, sell them at 1/3 off retail price, making them cheaper than buying them in person from France (not taking your travel costs into account – I’m assuming that most people would go to France on holiday or to work and not to speficically to stock up on beauty products. But I know a few people who’d probably do the latter without batting an eyelid. Myself included). Therefore, below, I’ve linked to Escentual.com whenever I list a product they stock, because they tell me they’re about to run another 1/3 off French Pharmacy in July and it’s honestly the best place to just get it all in one go (I’ve been singing them praises long before I started talking to them about what they stock, so this is a genuine recommendation, not influenced by them in any way. I’m always grateful when someone makes it easier – and cheaper – to get hold of my favourites).

So what should you look out for? I’ve compiled a list based on products I’ve tried; friends and professional contacts of mine have tried and loved – and can now present you with the Ultimate French Pharmacy Beauty Product List:

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Anti-ageing products

Now, I have been told by a few people that I look younger than my age (on being told I’m 44, Anaïs Biguine recently called me Dorian Gray’s sister, which was a bit overkill, but an amusing compliment nevertheless) and that’s largely due to lucky genes, lack of drinking & smoking and a lifetime of hiding from the sun. However, I also know what to look for in an anti-ageing product. Sunscreen is the most anti-ageing product you can buy, so find a good one you can wear every day* and increase the SPF during summer (especially during holidays). Don’t forget to monitor your vitamin D levels (mine are naturally low so I have to take a daily supplement anyway).

*Although not French Pharmacy, my Holy Grail for this category comes from Shu Uemura – their underbase mousse is all my face sunscreen wishes come true in one product (high SPF, no irritation or allergy to it, smoother appearance of pores; a make-up base and skin tone corrector).

  1. Baume A313The first product I will recommend is one of the ones you will have to hunt down in person, have a kind friend send over to you, or find a reputable online stockist for. It is worth it. Every decent dermatologist swears by various vitamin-A based (retinol; tretinoid) treatments – when used together with a good sunscreen and moisturiser, these products can really reverse and hold back signs of ageing AND keep blemishes under control. The trouble with prescription-strength products is often that, well, a) you need a prescription, and b) they are harsh and can have side-effects. Not so with the wonder product that is A313 Vitamin Pommade (the closest replacement to the deservedly-cult-hit-among-those-in-the-know, Avibon). My special ‘sauce’ mix for A313 is this: take a small pea-size drop of the balm and blend it with an equal amount of a gentle moisturiser (I like to use La Roche Posay Baume B5 for this as it has a calming effect on skin). Blend to a paste, smooth over face at night, avoiding eye area – wake up to skin that looks like a baby’s bum. You can do these as treatments every now and then for a few days, or use mixed in with your night cream on an ongoing basis. Some peeling may occur if you do your retinol treatment on-off-on-off (your skin eventually builds a tolerance to it), but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being on retinol if you’re about to go on a sunny holiday – soothing, calming creams at night and high SPF during the day work better in those circumstances. This is the best actual anti-ageing product I’ve ever tried and I love it.
  2. Vichy isn’t far behind as far as anti-ageing is concerned and their Vichy Liftactiv Advanced Filler is what I was using as an anti-ageing night treatment before I discovered A313. It is still a really good option, especially if you don’t feel like hunting down a specialist product and it really delivers – remember to wear a high SPF during the day and to soothe your skin with calming products while undergoing this kind of treatment (more about calming products below).
  3. Vichy Normaderm Anti-Age is my go-to everyday moisturiser because it is the perfect product for ageing combination skin – it keeps my skin clear, it doesn’t feel greasy during those times when almost everything else does, and it hydrates just enough (unlike many product designed to help with blemishes).
  4. Vitamin C is very difficult to keep stable (it breaks down in contact with air) and a lot of vitamin C treatments don’t really do a lot – however, Lierac has a wonderful, zesty vitamin C serum – Lierac Mesolift Serum, which I wrote about here.
  5. Another vitamin C hero is La Roche Posay Redermic C treatment – clarifying, tightening anti-ageing product that actually does something. You could alternate with retinol.
  6. La Roche Posay also has Redermic R for face and eyes – worth trying, especially the eye cream, as the eye area rarely gets such good anti-ageing treatment (the stronger products shouldn’t be used near the eyes).
  7. Clarins Lotus oilAnother special treatment that’s both wonderful for your skin and keeps blemishes in check is Clarins Lotus face oil – and this is one of those incredibly good value luxury products because you really only need a couple of drops to do your whole face. Our skin loves natural vegetable oils (which are the base of this product) because they are highly compatible with the oil our own skin produces. The Clarins face oils are a beauty classic worth exploring for every skin concern.

Glow and moisture

  1. Vichy is a real winner here again – they have several products which are real heroes in their category. My favourite is probably Vichy Lifactiv serum 10 supreme – it contains high amounts of the humectant ingredient hyaluronic acid and if you use it under a good moisturiser, it will plump up your skin and keep it really well hydrated. Don’t use hyaluronic acid products on their own in dry atmospheres because the ingredient is so good at finding and holding on to moisture that it might end up sucking the moisture out of your skin if it can’t find it somewhere else.
  2. Happily Vichy is also a good brand for moisturisers – and their Vichy Aqualia Thermal moisturiser for normal & combination skin is my go-to cream when my skin is feeling thirsty. It has a light, fresh scent, it absorbs perfectly, and doesn’t leave the skin feeling greasy. They also do a version for dry skin, which is richer for those who need it.
  3. Vichy idealiaVichy Idealia range is wonderful for when you’re looking a little sallow, or just want to have glowing skin that gets people telling you that you’re Dorian Gray’s sister. I wear the serum and the cream on days when I know I’ll be on camera or on days where I’ve not had enough sleep – it’s a little glowing secret which I guess is now not so secret any more.
  4. Embryolisse Lait-Crème Concentré is a cult product for a good reason – it is a fantastic all-round moisturiser; really hydrates, has a light floral scent and doesn’t irritate skin. It works beautifully on its own, over serums, or under SPF and make-up. When I worked as a make-up artist, it was important to have products in your kit that would be as universally suitable and safe as possible – this fits the bill. It is a pleasure to use, too, and treats skin gently but effectively.
  5. Nuxe products are pretty legendary and for a good reason – they are a sensual pleasure to use and do what they claim. My new favourite is the Nuxe Rêve de Miel Hand & Nail Cream which has a gorgeous lightly honeyed, slightly floral scent and which absorbs into painfully dry hands fast, meaning you can use it frequently until your hands feel soft and lovely again.
  6. I am also a fan of the Nuxe face masks – especially the Nuxe Crème Fraiche de Beaute Masque which is my favourite emergency moisture treatment to date.
  7. For dry, irritated skin, one of the best products you could try is Avène Cicalfate Repair cream which has a blend of micronized copper sulphate and zinc sulphate designed to soothe and repair. Its antibacterial action treats skin on face and body and it is suitable for adults and children. I have used it on irritated skin on the body and it works wonders. The texture is rich, so a little goes a long way. Many skin problems are due to disturbances in our skin’s natural barrier action (we have a protective layer of friendly microflora and sebum which can get disrupted when too many harsh products are used, when ill and so on).
  8. If your skin is dry, irritated and you needs an SPF product for the day, try the sunscreen version of La Roche Posay B5 balm – a rich, protective layer to help your skin heal and protect you from the sun at the same time.

Beauty sprays, removers and special treatments

  1. La Roche-Posay Serozinc Spray is a surprise skincare hero – it’s a zinc spray that calms down angry rashes, blemished skin and redness. It is an absolute staple here and it’s one of those products you can easily fill your suitcase with so leave room if you’re buying in person (I squished in two bottles on a recent trip).
  2. Caudalie Beauty Elixir is a wonderful addition to almost any beauty arsenal; it hydrates skin, boosts radiance and can be used to set make-up.
  3. Micellar waters became all the rage when the world at large realised it’s what all the French women in the know were using to remove their make-up. The idea is that while oil and water don’t normally mix, it is possible to create a solution where a little bit of oil is in suspension in the water-phase, and when you use them, there is no need to rinse unless you want to – making them perfect travel and late night companions. Not all micellar waters are created equal, alas. I’ve used one which was so poor at removing eye-make-up I threw it away. The best two I’ve tried are: Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micelle Solution and Vichy Purete Thermale One Step Cleansing Micellar Solution.
  4. RespectissimeBeauty blogger Get Lippie swears by La Roche Posay Respectissime waterproof eye-make-up remover and I trust her opinion on this (part of beauty blogging is endless make-up trials and that means a lot of removal, too).
  5. If you have a serious lip balm addiction, you may already have heard of Nuxe Rêve de Miel Honey Lip Balm. It’s a great treat for parched lips and the only issue is not trying to eat it all off.
  6. There are clearly more wonderful body lotions in France than you can shake a stick at, but one of the most tempting surely has to be Vichy Ideal Body Balm – that same kind of glowing, healthy skin for your body? Yes, please.
  7. Toleriane NuitOne of my favourite new discoveries has been La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Overnight – it actually helps repair your skin’s natural barrier which I talked about above; it moisturises just the right amount and calms down redness and irritation. If you’ve overdone other treatments, have been ill or under the weather, your skin is just acting up, or looking tired, this could be the answer. I have used this almost exclusively as a night cream while taking a break from retinol and it has made my skin more even-toned and healthy-looking.
  8. I’ve talked about a few SPF products here – but if you are looking for all-over suncare, do try La Roche Posay’s and Vichy’s ranges, both come in many convenient options from milky lightweight fluids to richer creams and are easy to wear.

Hair

  1. Klorane is a great blend of natural and effective synthetic materials, plus attractive scents; all of their ranges are great. I love the Klorane Oatmilk Gentle Dry Shampoo Spray which suits my light hair in its original formula, but is also available in a tinted version for darker hair colours. It has a very subtle fragrance and works well as both a dry shampoo and a styling product. It’s one of the best dry shampoos on the market. I also adore the shampoos and conditioners – the Camomile Shampoo for Blonde Hair is an old favourite. At least half the reason I keep returning to it is the comforting camomile fragrance.
  2. Phyto is a great natural-based hair range and I especially love their masks such as the Phytokeratine Extreme Hair Mask – it’s not silicone-laden (which my hair does need, but not in excess, so this is a nice break from that), and it strengthens weak strands post-colour and heat damage.
  3. Nuxe huileAnother cult Nuxe product is, of course, the multipurpose hair and body oil – Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse Multi-Purpose Dry Oil Spray – one of the most fun products to try from this list and a treat for hair pre- or post-shampoo.
  4. For troubled hair and scalp, you could try another cult favourite – Rene Furterer Complexe 5 Essential Treatment – the whole range from Rene Furterer is worth exploring for serious hair care.

What are your French pharmacy favourites? Any that should have made the list?


Disclaimer: La Roche Posay Toleriane Night provided for review purposes by La Roche Posay UK. Nuxe hand cream, Avene repair cream, La Roche Posay B5 with SPF40, Bioderma Sensibio and Klorane Oatmilk shampoo provided for review purposes by Escentual.com. 

All other products blogger’s own. 

Review products do not influence content in any way.

Nothing in this blog post should be considered medical advice. 

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Oud to Joy

Abstract smoke

There are several kinds of agarwood which, when infected with the parasitic mould (Phaeoacremonium parasitica), can produce one of those perfumery’s perversions – something heavenly out of something unfortunate (see, also: whale excrement; natural musk).

Alas. You can already see this ingredient isn’t going to be easy to mass-produce, no matter how much we’d like to. Trees take a long time to grow. Infected heartwood from a specific subset of trees  – which then has to be cut down to be processed into oil (so no more tree; no repeat harvest like with oranges or roses) – it doesn’t bode well for price and availability. Oud oil is one of the most Milli Vanilliexpensive perfumery raw materials still in use today. Which is why the majority of oud scents on the market are interpretations of the theme with a little bit of real oud in them or no oud in them at all. Sometimes another material called nagarmotha or cypriol (Cyperus scariosus) is used in oud accords. All kinds of other naturals can help tremendously – a bit of patchouli; other woods. Often oud accords are made with the help of synthetic materials – various animalic, amber and woody notes, and the results can be beautiful. And, as with all perfumery – these fragrances range from the tragic to the sublime. We get everything from the Milli Vanilli of oud to actual oud.

Real oud oil comes in a few varieties, too. There are at least a couple which have strong animalic notes and at least one which has a strong whiff of camel undercarriage dipped in gorgonzola. That oud variety is very difficult to mimic in the lab without the real thing. I’ve tried. It also doesn’t usually appeal to Western noses.

Oud as a word has been a big marketing hit for a while now. I’ve spoken to several indie perfumers who claim to have started the trend. You know something is truly popular when everyone claims credit. And you know a trend is meant to be over when it has trickled down to deodorants and fabric conditioner. We’ve had absolutely everyone and their mum jumping on the bandwagon. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’ve smelled a fragrance which was a cringeworthy combination of a Barbie-pink fruity-floral with a bit of fake oud thrown in, pushed to me on a scent strip at a posh London department store by a sales assistant whose demeanour was a cry for help: “I don’t like it either!” I’ve smelled an impressively authentic cheesy-animalic oud scent in an equally posh London department store. The fragrance felt serious, expensive, well-made and completely unwearable, bar to a highly niche group of connoisseurs.

As a consumer I don’t really care if an oud fragrance has real oud in it, but I do want the fragrance to hang together. I don’t like the idea of bandwagon-jumping, so the transparent attempts at throwing oud in just to be ‘on trend’ make me sigh. As do the scents which feature oud in the name and haven’t really managed to create an oud impression at all. On the other hand, I don’t find the ultra-authentic oud scents my cup of tea either (even though I like the smell experience itself – as an experience – just not on my skin. But I also like to smell new glossy magazines and the tar of old railway tracks and I don’t want those as a perfume either).

Something has happened to the way Western noses are calibrated towards the oud accord, though. The other day I spoke to my hairdresser about the kinds of perfumes she buys and was completely shocked to find that she buys Arabian Oud. I had her down as a happy-go-lucky celeb fragrance wearer (nothing wrong with that, by the way). My jaw dropped. What did I like to smell of when I was 21 years old? Coco Chanel. Not of camels. But here we are.

So when I was invited to meet the people behind a new brand Amouroud, I was a little concerned. Uh-oh. Aren’t they a little… late to this trend? Is this going to be a really cynical attempt to cash in? Are those glossy-looking black bottles going to cost £250? Are they going to have even a hint of oud in them?

Perfumer’s Workshop

Custom blending conceptPerfumer’s Workshop International was founded in States in the early 70s and has been creating highly commercial and successful fragrance concepts ever since. They were the first to think of bringing custom fragrance blending to department stores (long before Aveda and others had a go) and they were talking to Arabs about oud fragrances at their Selfridges perfume counter back in the 80s when virtually no other fragrance marketer in the West had heard of it.

I met the co-founder Donald G. Bauchner along with his team William Skinner and Denis Roubinet in London last week to talk about Amouroud. It’s always interesting to talk with real industry veterans and I was open to be convinced.

Trying my best to ignore all the official marketing and focus just on their own words and the scents themselves, piece-by-piece, note-by-note, the concept opened up to me. These guys have watched the oud trend be handled by others in the variety of inconsistent ways we’ve seen – and spotted an opportunity to do something better.

Has it worked?

Amouroud packaging conceptThe concept is this – use oud as an amplifier to add intrigue to other fragrance themes. Blend the notes in such a way that oud is not what jumps out, but it does something to all the other materials in the scent; something good, hopefully.

One could say that where Jo Malone scents are for people who want an elegant fragrance but find typical perfumes too heavy, the Amouroud range is for people who wish their designer perfumes had a bit more depth and interest. Amouroud is also attempting to sew together everything that is good about the oud trend and make it accessible. Those glossy black 100ml bottles? £140. For a luxury niche brand, that’s a jaw-droppingly good price. Consider that the current UK best-seller Paco Rabanne 1 Million Eau de Toilette for men retails at the equivalent of £69 for 100ml and we’re talking about a mass-market EdT strength designer fragrance. For that price point alone; that lack of cynical cashing in on ‘niche pricing’ this brand deserves some attention. They have done everything with care – worked with some fine perfumers (Cecile Hua, Patricia Choux, John Mastracola, Claude Dir and Irina Burlakova), packaged everything in beautiful bottles and cartons and have not rushed to be the first on the oud train but watched and learned from other people’s mistakes and chosen to do things their own way. I suppose in this they’re not the innovators, but the potential success story – not the Myspace and LiveJournal, but maybe the Twitter and Facebook. Remains to be seen.

Their sales technique is designed to show off the drydown – a good approach when you’ve invested money in your base notes and the main theme of your collection rests there. You are given a scent strip which was sprayed yesterday and has been kept sealed in a glass jar. So you skip to the end where the oud accord is on full display, but remnants of the main theme are still lingering. I enjoyed testing the scents I had samples of fresh, too – the comparison gave a full picture. I do think the top note and heart are an important part of the experience as well.

The packaging is perfect for the concept. The boxes are heavy card with a metal label affixed to the front (great attention to detail) and the bottles are heavy black glass with a metal label. When you purchase a 100ml bottle, you are given a travel spray of your second most favourite fragrance as a gift. How very cheeky of them to marry you to one scent and immediately enable a love affair with another.

So what about the scents?

TobacconistSay Harrison Ford was playing an incredibly wealthy Russian businessman walking past the Harrods tobacconist eating pear drops while wearing a classic woody masculine fragrance – that scene would smell of Safran Rare. This scent is old-fashioned in the best possible way. It’s a little bit showy but not trashy. It absolutely does have that luxe Harrods oud fragrance signature that one would assume from the look of this brand – perhaps more than any other in the line. But it still manages to have lightness, space and a degree of playfulness that is not what one would expect. Every one of these scents has an American twinkle in the eye.

Oud du Jour – a modern raspberry-apple fruity-floral meets oud – and is done well. What could be a mismatch is actually a seductive tango. It’s like watching a film where an older actor is paired with an actress 20 years younger and you fear they won’t be plausible as a romantic couple but instead the chemistry sizzles on screen and later you find out they had a real off-screen romance. I can’t decide if the name is meant to feel a little playful in your mouth when you say it out loud, but it does. This fragrance is full of genuine fun and contrast. I have nicknamed it Oud to Joy.

Midnight Rose opens with a popular rose – lychee theme which sings in crystal-clear tones from the top for a good while and swells to a classic green-tinged rose melody at the heart until the oud accord joins in – and doesn’t break the tune. It just provides a thrum of bass line; an amplifier. It’s like listening to a fully orchestrated cover version of a pop song. It’s beautiful. Do not be fooled by the name and expect a typical Middle Eastern rose + oud combination. This might be the most accessible of the line-up for the oud-curious.

Candy in FinlandDark Orchid – well, I am just going to have to be honest here and say my immediate impression was Tom Ford Black Orchid x Covonia cough syrup x Finnish dark liquorice … and I ADORED it from the first sniff. Adored it. There is something unsettling about Black Orchid to me, whereas Amouroud Dark Orchid is just right. This fragrance amps up all the dark, medicinal, ambery notes and that flips the scent from an apologetic attempt at a Halloween costume to a full-on drag queen out and proud, head held up high and killing it. If you’re going to dress up, go to town or go home. The more Dark Orchid blooms, the less it looks like its wallflower of a
cousin and the more it takes on its own, fabulous personality.

You’ve got to make a choice about how to lift a sandalwood – do you
stick with a woody theme (oh goodness, that was an accidental pun,
wasn’t it?) or do you build a bouquet which reveals a sandalwood
drydown? The perfumer for Santal des Indes has chosen the former
strategy and leads us to the idea of sandalwood through a woody theme –
we get that almost fizzy cola aspect of a cedarwood and incense accord on top,
which develops over time to a sensation of heat – and after a while conjured another Finnish reference for me: sauna benches. If there is a fatty sandalwood
note, I can’t quite detect it, but if it’s there, I wouldn’t be surprised if it stayed close to skin, as sandalwood often does.

Nancy PorterMiel Sauvage made me giggle with delight when I first smelled it (I have witnesses) and this is a good sign (and the last time a fragrance did that to me I bought it immediately). I also love it when the name of a scent is completely at odds with what pops into my head when I smell it (as regular readers will know). The image Miel sauvage conjured for me was that of a saucy pinup lolloping about in an abundantly overflowing bubble bath, coyly managing to keep the bubble cover just a smidgen too low around her cleavage. This scent makes me think of Camay soap ads from the 50s; of glamorous film stars on just the wrong side of saucy and fruity goings-on in a chiffon dressing gown and fluffy slippers. It’s fantastic; every time I smell it on my skin, I find myself smiling and feel the champagne bubbles of laughter beginning to form in my chest. I’m calling this Pinup and it may become one of my treasured signature scents. I love it that much. Oh – and the honey note? It’s not the urinous kind. It’s the waxy, soapy kind. Just in case my florid description didn’t make that clear.

Oud to Joy

Amouroud has nailed it. At least for people like me who were sitting on the fence about oud and were thinking it wasn’t for them. And there must be millions of us left. If you’re one such person and any of the above made you think “hmm…” run, don’t walk to a store where you can smell these scents and have a play. I think they’re worth the money and I think these guys deserve to do well.

Amouroud will be available at Harrods in the UK first. You can already explore the range in Sweden (this might have something to do with the fact that Donald’s wife Gun is Swedish. They got first dibs).

Just one more thing

I’m wondering something about oud. I’m wondering whether what we’ve got here isn’t a trend at all, but the birth of a whole new fragrance family. That would explain a lot.

————————————————————————————————————

Agarwood, Milli Vanilli and  Nancy Porter images via WikiMedia Commons

Travel samples and one full bottle of fragrance provided for review purposes by Amouroud. My policy is not to review at all unless I like the fragrance(s) in question and freebies do not influence this decision in any way.

Revamped Fortnum and Mason perfumery – review

New perfumery at Fortnum & Mason
I’ve spent years in various perfumeries and cosmetic halls; working in them, training people who work in them and shopping in them. The re-vamped cosmetic department at Fortnum & Mason is a uniquely serene and beautiful shopping environment which I urge you to visit for yourself.

The styling is more like that of a luxury hotel lounge, and that’s a compliment as well as the only criticism – it feels like the decor and placing of products has been done to make it a luxurious and attractive setting without enough thought to practicality. There are no scent strips near fragrance testers; stock from the same company can appear in more than once place, it’s not clear whether some ranges have been split into femine and masculine or that’s ‘it’ – and the placing of products is needlessly sparse (I spotted a Guerlain I am running low on but it was the only bottle on the shelf and I did the typical “nobody buys the last bottle” thing that consumers do).

Now, on to the positives. If you have the money to spend on luxury cosmetics and perfumes but do not want to fight for room with a thousand other people pushing past you; if you are desperate for some good advice about make-up and skin care and would like amazing customer service (more like personal shopping), go to the Fortnum’s perfumery. They had me spending money, too, even though I am usually extremely picky about what I buy.

They also stock one of my favourite make-up brands of all time, Cosmetics a la Carte (it became a favourite when they cleverly partnered with London College of Fashion in the 90s and supplied products for the student kits).

I do hope this perfumery thrives (just enough so they can maintain that level of customer service) and that they will carry on buying in great indie perfumes, luxury brands and professional quality cosmetics. The skincare side could do with a little bit of expanding, but I suppose they will need to see what their customers are going for. Many gorgeous luxury toiletries and accessories are also on offer.

The Caron urns – a favourite attraction from the old perfumery – remain, thankfully, and have been joined by some other set pieces worthy of attention. Don’t take my poor phone snapshots as representative; pop in and see for yourself.

My Current Beauty Product Favourites: they do what they claim

Top summer beauty product buysSo, I’m a beauty product junkie as well as perfume-obsessed. I trained as a make-up artist purely to justify having an enormous make-up and skincare collection.*

Over the years I’ve worked behind beauty counters, behind-the-scenes at brands and distributors; in product development and marketing. I love to try new products but there are some which I repurchase time and time again, and new discoveries which instantly go on my Top (uhh, 100?) Favourite Products Ever list.

Favourite products have to fulfil the following criteria: 1) Be reasonable value for money (nothing is priced based purely on the cost of ingredients, but I don’t look for prestige and status symbols, I look for good formulas, convenience and functional packaging), 2) Do what it claims, 3) Not aggravate my tendency for adult acne, 4) Smell mild or at least not obnoxious, 5) Have packaging which doensn’t leak, break or make the product annoying to use.

I am particularly picky about foundation products – they have to perform exceptionally well (I have ageing, very pale combination skin: foundation should not sit in pores, should not slip off, should not make my skin look old and flat and the product must not cause breakouts).

My current favourite products (from left to right, above):

1. Lily Lolo mineral foundation in Blondie (I use Porcelain Doll in the winter)
2. MAC Mineralize Skinfinish in Light
3. Vichy Aqualia Thermal SPF25
4. Bourjois Healthy Mix foundation in Light Vanilla
5. No7 Stay Perfect foundation in Calico
6. MAC Prep + Prime Transparent Finishing Powder
7. Clarins Baume Contour des Yeux Eue Contour Balm
8. Bourjois Happy Light Matte Serum Primer
9. Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair Eye Serum Infusion
10. La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5
11. La Roche Posay Antihelios XL 50+ SPF
12. Vichy Idealia Smoothing and Illuminating Cream for Normal to Combination skin
13. Vichy Normaderm Anti-age
14. Bioderma Sensibio Micellar Water
15. MAC Studiofix NC15 (not pictured)
15. Bobbi Brown Creamy Concealer in Warm Ivory (not pictured)
16. Urban Decay Primer Potion (not pictured)

I switch my skincare and make-up products based on whether my skin is feeling oily, normal or dry. Even on my dry skin days, I avoid products too heavy in cocoa butter and silicone (the former seems to break me out every time and the latter when used in excess). During winter, I have a slightly different rotation (and for freezing weather absolutely swear by the rich creams for dry skin in the Swiss Louis Widmer range; available scentless or perfumed in old-fashioned Nivea-style).

Recipe for an oily skin day:

Clarins eye balm + Normaderm Anti Age face cream + a few drops of La Roche Posay SPF50 + Bourjois Happy Light Matte Serum Primer (to date the only primer which has actually minimised my pores, not interfered with my make-up and performed as promised).
Bobbi Brown concealer where needed. LilyLolo mineral make-up applied with a large kabuki brush (the one they stock is lovely) OR Bourjois Healthy Mix applied with fingers (Bourjois Healthy Mix is also fantastic on excessively humid days or when your skin is perspiring – ladies with hot flushes, take note – the water-based gel texture doesn’t crumble off and slide down your face if there is water on your skin). If using liquid foundation, finish off with the MAC prep + prime powder (roll and press down a powder-saturated puff on your face and buff off with a soft, large powder brush). If extra coverage is needed, a layer of MAC Mineralize Skinfinish, buffed on with a large kabuki brush will finish the job.

Recipe for a normal skin day:

Estee Lauder eye serum + Clarins eye balm + Vichy Aqualia SPF25 (with a few drops of the La Roche Posay SPF50 mixed in if going somewhere sunny). Concealer where needed + No7 Stay Perfect foundation applied with a beauty blender. Followed by MAC prep + prime powder (as above) and if extra coverage is needed, a layer of MAC Mineralize (as above).

Recipe for a dry/dull skin day:

Estee Lauder eye serum + Clarins eye balm + a face serum (here are the ones I like) + Idealia cream + La Roche Posay SPF50. Concealer where needed + No7 Stay Perfect foundation applied with a beauty blender. MAC powders as above. In addition, I might use some MAC Mineralize highlighter.

I also like the Clarins and Decleor face oils (as special treats – have to be careful with face oils or I get breakouts), but used instead of nightcream they work really well. I often use the Vichy Normaderm Anti-age at night. Vichy also does a fantastic retinol treatment product (Vichy Liftactiv Advanced Filler Cream), which I use about once every two months for a week (and then the following week the top layer of your skin rolls off – not attractive). Which brings me to my new top hero product: La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5.

It’s an anti-bacterial skin repairing cream and it is so good I’m on my second tube and have ordered one for my husband, too. What I’ve used it for: 1) on that post-retinol treatment week when your face is peeling off; it soothes the reddened skin and moisturises the dry bits so you can apply make-up and not look like a decaying zombie (I carry the tube in my handbag for touch-ups during the day when I’m using it for this). 2) As a hand-cream (I wash my hands so much that my hands are sore – this is wonderful on them), 3) on my husband’s excema (it’s the only product to date that has cleared it), 4) on post-folliculitis skin on my arm (I had a long bout of sore skin on my right arm which is finally healing because of this product). This stuff is fan-tas-tic.

I’m 42 and don’t look bad for my age. I have fine lines around my eyes and on the forehead, my skin is starting to sag and I definitely look older than I feel I ought to (when you get older and look in the mirror, there’s a little double-take sometimes – this isn’t me…). My genes in this respect are good; my mother looked young for her age until cigarettes destroyed her looks and I’ve avoided excessive sunbathing all my life. However, I like to think (partly to justify my product obsession) that using good products and having a skincare regime from an early age has done something to help, too.

Top left: No make-up; straight after a Finnish sauna. Top right: Full make-up using a 50/50 mix of Chanel Pro Lumiere and Revlon Photoready. Bottom left: Soft make-up, using Shu Uemura Skin Architect. Bottom right: Everyday make-up using No7 Stay Perfect.

Selfies with and without make-up

*There may have been other reasons, such as creativity, travel, behind-the-scenes excitement and the ability to work freelance.

Unique Christmas Presents for Perfume Lovers

It’s tough to buy perfume as a present unless you have specific instructions. If your loved one is seriously into perfume, my tips will make you look like you have gift-buying superpowers.

Christmas 2013 gift ideas for perfume lovers Ormonde Jayne Discovery Set1. Go for discovery sets. If you’re extra generous, add a gift voucher – the gift recipient will be able to choose a perfume that smells great on their skin and buy the full bottle at their leisure. My favourite perfume discovery set comes from Ormonde Jayne. All the scents in it are stylish; the packaging is elegant and it’s an indie perfume house which means the scent won’t be worn by millions of others. Many perfumeries now offer these types of sets, so consider this option if you want to buy a perfume but aren’t sure which scent the recipient might like. Also check out Penhaligon’s miniature tins and the Etat Libre D’Orange discovery set.

2. If you can, write down the names of the perfumes they already wear (if you live together, a sneaky peek at the perfume collection should be easy). Then go to a well-stocked perfumery (Les Senteurs, Harrods or online at Escentual or LuckyScent and ask for help. These stores should have knowledgeable enough staff to suggest scents based on the existing perfumes your gift recipient owns). There are a couple of problems with this approach: 1) You might not live together and might not get a chance to spy, 2) If they’re a full-on nose-nerd, their perfume collection might be eclectic and have scents from more than one scent family. They might have very specific wishes for scents they’d like to add to their collection (in this case, you could just ask whether there are any perfumes they’ve been lusting after. Be prepared for eye-watering prices).

3. Buy a perfume discovery day from Sarah McCartney (your gift recipient needs to be able to get to London for this). Sarah is a friend and an ex-Lush colleague; a polymath and a perfumer. Her 4160Tuesdays indie perfume brand kicked off with crowdfunding and she has set up a scent studio for events and exploration. Sarah has an impressive collection of vintage perfumes and all the tools and materials to make custom scents. Check out her perfume days here.

Christmas 2013 gift ideas for perfume lovers Karen Gilbert classes3. Perhaps the answer to what to buy for a perfumista who has everything is a course on how to make perfume. Karen Gilbert, also a friend and a perfumer is an ex IFF-evaluator, a best-selling author and a perfume trainer. She runs new online training courses (so, for that, any location will do) and also hosts regular perfume training classes. Some are better for beginners; some more advanced. Check out her perfume training courses here.

4. If you are buying for just about anyone who likes beautiful scents, getting a candle from Diptyque is almost guaranteed to be well-received. They started as an exotic goods and knick-knack store in France and have become very well known for their candles.

5. If your loved one can’t travel to London or doesn’t fancy an online training course, Perfumer’s Apprentice has been packaging basic perfumery materials into beginner’s kits for a while. One of these will make a great present to anyone interested in exploring perfumes further. Some of these kits are only available for US-residents.

Christmas 2013 gift ideas for perfume lovers British Society of Perfumers Book6. The British Society of Perfumers celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and worked together with its members to produce a unique book, cataloguing the past, present and future of the British perfume industry. The book was produced in-house and written by the members themselves. The contributions therefore vary from warm and informal to quite corporate – but the picture you get of the British perfume industry is really interesting and there are some great stories in there. This would be a good addition to any perfume enthusiast’s library. Disclaimer: I am featured in the book and a student member of the Society. You can read my full review of the book at Basenotes and purchase the book for £45 directly from the BSP.

What’s on my wishlist this Christmas? I am lusting after Iris Prima, Elie Saab le parfum and Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle. I also have my eye on the gorgeous NARS gift sets at Space NK and I would love the Noisette candle from Diptyque. Hint, hint.

Serums I have known and loved – the best serums for ageing combination skin

Best serums for ageing combination skinI’ve worked in the cosmetics industry for most of my life and although I’m not currently directly involved in it, I do still enjoy having a selection of products around. Over the years I’ve tried most of the popular (and some lesser known) face serums and I decided it was time to share my current favourites with you. I have pale, thin, ageing combination skin but I don’t have many lines or wrinkles. There’s a bit of creasiness around the eyes and a few blotches but my skin looks younger than I am. I owe most of that to my natural aversion towards sunbathing and fastidious use of sunscreen but I’ve also learned what my skin loves – and change my routine depending on the time of the month, season and other factors. I tend to have two or three serums in use (not all at once but on rotation) and a choice of day creams and cleansing products, plus emergency items such as salicylic acid for breakouts or the calming lavender, neroli and almond oil blend I made for myself.

Overall, what I look for in a serum (just to help you understand why I like these over some others):

  • Must not irritate the skin
  • Must have a pleasant or tolerable fragrance
  • Must not feel too silicone-laden
  • Must not cause breakouts
  • Must be able to see a visible improvement in whatever issue I am targeting

My current favourites are:

1. L’Oreal Age Perfect Cell Renew. This surprised me. I was expecting a L’Oreal serum to be a silicone-slick and obnoxiously scented and this was neither. The scent is a tad stronger than I’d like but fades fast (it smells rosy) and the serum, whilst having some slip, isn’t like trying to rub grease on your face. It’s lightweight, sinks right in, hydrates the skin immediately and adds a very subtle golden glow which is absolutely perfect for days you need a bit of help in that department. When I was planning this post I originally thought Advanced Night Repair must be my top favourite because I’ve had several bottles over the years but then I realised I’m on my third bottle of this serum in under six months which means I’ve been reaching for it more often than any other serum before. Wow. I love it as a daytime serum in particular because of the cosmetic effect it gives. It works really well when my skin is good enough to go with just a few dabs of concealer and a dusting of translucent powder – but it’s also brilliant under foundation.

2. Vichy Liftactiv Serum 10. This is another floral fragrance which could be a bit milder but fades fast and doesn’t bother me. The serum is fairly watery (which is a bonus if you’re feeling dehydrated but also a bit oily – a horrible situation which can happen when someone with combination skin suddenly realises they’re 40…). A good all-rounder, day and night. Sinks in, really hydrates the skin and is a fraction of the cost of some high-end serums. I really love this as a go-to product and it would be my top choice if I’d have to pick just one. Very versatile and a fantastic formula.

3. Advanced Night Repair 2. Something I always come back to. It’s a skincare staple for a lot of women for a reason – there’s hardly any scent (it smells somewhat functional rather than perfumed), it works well on its own for combination skin or under a night cream for dry skin types, and it seems to suit practically everyone. I’ve sometimes added a few drops to a moisturiser to make it less greasy and it’s actually a product I would recommend for men who are feeling that their face could do with a bit of a boost but don’t want an overly girly product. Use it at night for best results.

4. Lierac Mesolift Serum. This smells of orange juice and has the same effect on your skin as a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice has on your constitution – it perks you up and refreshes. Absolutely delightful if you’re under the weather or recovering from a cold; brilliant when combined with Lierac’s Mesolift cream (which is similarly orange-juice scented). The main problem is that if you’re as pale as I am (or have a tendency to look sallow), these products do leave a very faint yellowish tint behind – so I tend to use them on days I’m not planning on going out or at night.

5. Vichy Idealia Life Serum. Noticeably perfected skin after just one use – instant new favourite. This has just been added to my favourites (despite the somewhat overwhelming scent) as it really does perk your skin up and thankfully lacks the excess silicone-itis that so many serums suffer from. I would suggest night-time use purely because of the scent but if that doesn’t bother you, it would also make a great all-rounder.

I hope you enjoyed this post and if you have any serums you’ve known and loved, do tell me in the comments!

York Stinks! (Okay, the Jorvik Centre does). Happy Yorkshire Day!

We were pining for a short break away from familiar surroundings and decided to head to York for a few days. It’s a stunning city – Timo commented that any of its main buildings would be THE “good” building in almost any other place. I scoured TripAdvisor for attractions, restaurants and tips in advance and we found a nice little hotel via the Visit York website.

The two main disappointments: 1. Every restaurant or cafe I had selected based purely on TripAdvisor reviews turned out to be poor (food, service, ambience or all of the above). I guess I must have just been unlucky or there are hundreds of fake reviewers squirreling away at TripAdvisor. One does wonder. 2. The Jorvik Viking Centre smells of hot, boiled piss. It’s also completely underground and has low ceilings, so you’re trapped in a stinky dungeon. Whilst this might probably make it the ideal location for an 18-year old lad’s birthday party, it wasn’t a pleasant “historical experience” as much as it was the waiting room for Hades. Apparently they have chosen to “pump out the authentic smell of Viking times” throughout the centre but I really feel that one room of it or a special smelling cubicles might have been a better choice. It wasn’t too far from what I had imagined the Bog of Eternal Stench to smell like although that aroma would have needed more boiled cabbage. I wasn’t the only one who was distressed; there was a little girl in the queue outside, getting increasingly anxious at the smell wafting from the entrance. Her mother reassured her “it’s coffee you can smell, now be quiet.” No. It’s boiled piss you can smell. If you are sensitive to bad smells, don’t go. I wasn’t able to focus on any of the historical artefacts or storytelling and we missed out on a lot of it.

The absolute highlight of the trip was the National Railway Museum. I think making a trip to York is worth it for it alone. As a fan of the Poirot-aesthetic I was able to get my fill of glossy steam engines and twee English train carriages of yore. They also have an art gallery charting the development of railway advertising, ranging from Art Deco posters to a new Virgin Trains one that mimics them. Of course one can also sit inside a Japanese bullet train and learn more about Eurostar (my feet are itching to hop on it to Paris but my credit card has given me a stern talking to and reminded me of how dangerous that would be, given the perfumeries there). Incidentally, we also had the best meal of our trip at their “food carriage” restaurant in the central room (chicken chasseur with broad beans and new potatoes, followed by a strawberry tart).

The York Museum was also brilliant, had a fun exhibit about mass extinctions and many interesting Roman artefacts. I also did a bit of shopping and visited Burgin’s Perfumery and the Travelling Man comic book shop. We went to the cinema, too, and saw Pacific Rim. One has to balance the museums somehow. I feared it might have been another “Transformers”, but no – it managed to take itself above the rim (badoom-tish) of its genre and provide the expected entertainment with a bit of flair and without taking itself too seriously. I also really enjoyed having a central female character do something other than need rescuing.