It’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.
The 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:
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).
- The 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Another 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Vichy 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Beauty 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- One 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Another 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.
- 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.