Why The Best Skin-Care Products Are At The Drugstore

Photo: Age fotostock/ Alamy Stock Photo.
Tucked away into cobblestone streets and on corners all over France are little skin-care havens marked by glowing green crosses. They may not look particularly glamorous from the outside, but behind their doors live the secret weapons behind that enviable French skin.

About 20,000 private pharmacies exist in France, each housing shelves of dermatological remedies selected by an owner who is most likely highly educated on the subject, very familiar with all of the products, and has a close relationship with the customers. The goods are a mix of brands French women and men have grown to love and trust, plus new innovations on the market. And in recent years, we've been seeing more and more of these products popping up in the United States — predominantly in our drugstores.

"Shopping in a French pharmacy is quite a different experience than that of U.S. drugstores," says Jacqueline Flam Stokes, vice president of retail marketing and sales at Avène and Klorane (two French brands available at U.S. drugstores). "There is a supreme focus on health and well-being… No cigarettes, greeting cards, food, or cleaning supplies are sold… The pharmacist, who is usually the pharmacy owner, is heavily involved in advising customers and patients on the appropriate medicine and also the appropriate skin-care products."

Americans think of drugstores as cheap and easy one-stop-shops to pick up everything from Band-Aids to face wash to Clif Bars, and, of course, prescriptions — the emphasis being on cheap and easy. In France, the emphasis is on trust — selling skin care in the same place people get their medicine gives it credibility. Although we may not generally follow the French pharmacy model, the large drugstore brands are hoping to be seen in the same light.

"These [French] brands understand that customers come to pharmacies looking for a different type of product and service," says Alex Perez-Tenessa, CVS vice president of merchandising for beauty and personal care. "Customers come to CVS looking for high-quality skin products that they can trust because of our commitment to their health. We only carry highly efficacious, gentle, and dermatologist-recommended brands in our Healthy Skincare Center."

Chain stores have carved out special sections in select stores — CVS' Healthy Skincare Centers, Duane Reade/Walgreens' Look Boutiques, Target's Premium Skin Care sections — where they sell prestige and dermatologist-recommended products (which are also available online). But in no way does this mean they've dropped their American time-is-money mentality — quite the opposite.

In France, the emphasis is on trust — selling skin care in the same place people get their medicine gives it credibility.

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"We were looking to elevate the types and selections of products by aligning our assortment to our customer’s needs," says Walgreens spokesperson Emily Hartwig. "But we also wanted to make shopping for these products more convenient for our customers, a one-stop-shop for their family, prescriptions, and upscale beauty."

And, of course, the U.S. skin-care market is extremely attractive to foreign companies. Brands such as Nuxe, Talika, Vichy Laboratories, as well as famed French pharmacy label Bioderma (which launches the micellar water everyone in the fashion industry won't shut up about at CVS this fall) and Southwestern French skin-care brand IXXI (which launches at Duane Reade/Walgreens this month), have chosen to break into the space via these specialized pockets of U.S. drugstores rather than high-end department stores or beauty specialty stores like Sephora.

"In France, we are a French pharmacy brand, and the Look Boutiques are the closest concept to that in the U.S.," says IXXI president Laurent Pelletier. "Sephora has a beautiful network in the U.S.A., but we are a brand strongly connected to science and the pharmaceutical industry."

Outside of the big drugstore brands, there are a handful of niche retailers in the U.S. that follow the French pharmacy model, including New York City's New London Pharmacy, which has a full-time French pharmacist on staff. Wesley Rowell, New London Pharmacy's sales and PR director, says he thinks more and more specialty pharmacies like his will pop up in the U.S., but that it will be hard to replicate the attention to detail and staffing.

“It's great to introduce these wonderful French pharmacy brands to a larger audience,” Rowell says. "But here's the catch: Who's there to educate the customer? Where is the customer service in this? It's not easy financially, because you have to pay well to get the best people — I'm just not sure it's sustainable long-term."

But Adrien Dissous, AVP of marketing for La Roche-Posay, says that we may soon be able to find expert advice at more drugstores. "Many U.S. drugstores are moving into elevating their pharmacists to [play] a greater role in customers’ overall health, including in skin care. [This] would make pharmacists in the U.S. resemble their French counterparts more, in the sense that they are seen as experts that deliver advice, not just prescriptions," he predicts.

Looks like we'll have to wait and see whether the French pharmacy's ethos will ever fully catch on. But in the meantime, you can find its not-so-distant American cousin around the corner.