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Five French beauty lessons I’ve learnt from women who live there
Is there a cooler, more envy-inducing group of women on the planet than the French? This is a rhetorical question of course – everyone knows there isn’t. To find out exactly what goes into their je ne sais quoi, I teamed up with cult pharmacy brand Bioderma for a trip across the south of France. And because I’m all about rigorous research, I also added a quick stopover in Paris. Sure, it was a tough gig but these are the lengths we’ll go to here at beautyheaven to uncover those French beauty secrets. The plan: to see French life firsthand (spoiler alert: c’est chic!) and how French women approach beauty and skin care. I’d also visit the Bioderma factory, to experience the R&D that goes into all their products, including the original Sensibio H2O micellar water.
But first, I had to face that killer long-haul flight. Without fail, 26 hours on an aeroplane will suck every last drop of moisture from my skin, but this time, I had a secret weapon: a packet of the brand new Bioderma Sensibio H2O Wipes in my hand luggage. They use Bioderma’s cult micellar water formula (more about that later), and are simply brilliant for when you’re on the go or short on time. Immediately after take-off, I used them to remove all my makeup, then slathered on moisturiser, and throughout the flight, they were fantastic for a quick refresh. So once I’d arrived in Cannes feeling fresh-faced and hydrated (that’s me below!), it was on to the important stuff...
French beauty lesson #1: Great skin is more important than makeup
That’s right: crazy contouring isn’t a thing and there’s no heavy-handed illuminator or mask-like foundation, either. Instead, I saw beautiful, fresh complexions that appeared to be devoid of all but the lightest makeup. This was the skin I’ve always wanted to have: even-looking, glowing and healthy. It might not be entirely free of flaws but that wasn’t really the point because the overall effect was just beautiful. I saw it in the hotel lobby in Cannes and in boutiques in Paris; even our tour guide on a day trip to Monaco was sporting this glowing, tawny skin.
Determined to find the answers, I grilled the French members of our group, Emilie and Kelly (both from Bioderma) about their knowledge. Emilie was our resident pharmacy guru, and handed out advice on the best skin care products to try. She told me that French women’s beauty secrets are passed down through the generations (she and her mum regularly swap products and tips among themselves), and that it all begins with the way they cleanse. In the pharmacies, we saw entire walls stacked high with bottles of Sensibio H2O micellar water – globally, one bottle is sold every two seconds, and a big part of this is clearly the homegrown customers!
French beauty lesson #2: Pharmacies are a treasure trove of knowledge
Speaking of the local pharmacies, I was keen to find out why beauty aficionados around the world have been going crazy for this particular retail scene. I discovered that while they’re an excellent place for a beauty haul, French pharmacies are also where you’ll find trustworthy tips and advice. Interestingly, the pharmacists here weren’t stuck behind the dispensary – they’re actually on floor, chatting to customers and offering advice.
I also found it interesting to learn that in France, dermatologists will often “prescribe” off-the-shelf pharmacy products for different skin care needs. In fact, this is so common that a number of French skin care brands now form a new category, called dermocosmetics, which is designed to promote healthier skin by marrying dermatological expertise with cosmetic know-how. A lot of those cult products that we call French-pharmacy beauty are actually known locally as dermocosmetics. While many of them, including Bioderma, have ranges for oily or dry complexions, they really excel in offering options for sensitive skin. Which brings me to...
French beauty lesson #3: There is a solution for sensitive skin
Sensitive skin is on the rise across the globe, due to a whole range of factors, from pollution to aggressive skin care treatments. According to an IPSOS survey of 5000 women, nine out 10 women in Europe claim they have sensitive skin. A separate study also found that women in France are more likely to experience sensitive skin than almost anywhere else in Europe. Not that you’d guess it by looking at their clear, glowing complexions (see my first lesson, above).
Clearly, they’ve found a way to successfully manage their sensitivity – starting with the way they cleanse. Paris in particular is famous for its “hard” tap water, which can wreak havoc on the skin. This prompted Bioderma to look for a cleansing alternative, one that didn’t need to be rinsed off with tap water. More than 20 years ago, they came up with the solution: micellar water.
Micellar water is basically a soft water that contains suspended “micelles”, surfactants that have an oil-attracting (lipophilic) end and a water-attracting (hydrophilic) end. When it’s swiped across the skin on a cotton pad, the lipophilic end sweeps up all kinds of oil-based substances, from makeup to sebum. Best of all, it leaves skin feeling comfortable, with no rinsing required.
When Bioderma launched its Sensibio H2O in 1995, it was the first cosmetic micellar water in the world. While visiting the brand’s head office and R&D centre in Aix-en-Provence, I learnt that the product has some very important unique qualities. Especially notable is the water base, which is not only soft, it’s so highly purified its quality is pharmaceutical-grade. The micelles themselves are also biologically derived, so they’re pH-balanced and more compatible with skin (translation: less chance of irritation). What’s more, tests have found that Bioderma’s micellar water has superior cleansing abilities, gently but effectively removing even stubborn mascara.
Speaking as someone who describes her skin as temperamental, I also like the newer Hydrabio H2O, which is designed for dehydrated skin and which leaves my skin feeling clean but comfortable (no post-cleanse freak outs!). For those with oilier complexions, the Sebium H2O gently but effectively cleanses the skin.
French beauty lesson #4: Be sun smart, not sun scared
Growing up in Australia, I’m the first to admit I have a certain fear of the sun (full confession: I faithfully apply SPF year round, and during summer, I’ll cross the road to walk in the shade). So I was inspired to see that French women embrace le soleil in a smart and respectful way.
When we walked along la Croisette, the main promenade in Cannes, I saw that the beach is covered with individual loungers, each with its own sun umbrella (below). Could there be a more chic way to stay protected? Later, we were lucky enough to take a helicopter ride from Cannes to Monaco. Flying along the stunning French Riviera and landing at Monte Carlo heliport, I was reminded of the classic wide-brim hats that Grace Kelly used to wear – surely a sophisticated form of sun protection, as much as a style statement. And she had the flawless skin to prove it!
French beauty lesson #5: Balance is essential
We talk a lot about balancing work and downtime but in reality, it’s far harder to achieve. Unless, it seems, you happen to be French! The nation famously introduced a 35-hour working week back in the 1990s and at the beginning of this year, a new law was passed to stop employees sending or answering work emails outside of office hours. Voila! Work-life balance!
Of course, there are plenty of smaller ways to bring some balance into your life. In France, mealtimes are seen as a time to stop and catch up with family and friends. At Bioderma’s head office, I noticed that many employees took a break at lunchtime and hung out in a central atrium area filled with sunlight. And when we stopped for lunch at the beautiful Hotel le Pigonnet in Aix, Emilie spotted two French actors at the next table, enjoying a long and very delicious lunch with their crew. As a serial offender of the eat-a-sandwich-at-my-desk lunch break, there was a lesson in this for me (and a stroll in le Pigonnet’s gardens – below – was a much nicer view than normal)!
As well as being better for quality of life, getting some balance can also have a huge impact on your skin. Many studies have shown that stress is a big culprit in flare-ups of eczema and psoriasis; even in healthy skin, it can disturb the barrier function of the skin. It’s no coincidence that your complexion often looks its best when you’re on holidays. Of course, I may need to plan another “research” trip – just to be sure!
Which French beauty lessons will you try for yourself? Have you tried any of the micellar waters in Bioderma’s range?