There was a time when you couldn't scroll through Instagram without being bombarded by pictures of shelfies, each one groaning with serums, moisturizers, and other tinctures. You'd almost always spot cult buys from the likes of Drunk Elephant, Glossier, and Summer Fridays — but only the coolest of skincare hauls featured a handful of French brands.
Perhaps it had something to do with the aesthetically-pleasing white tubes and dropper bottles, not to mention the 'dermatologist-recommended' claims, but French skincare earned a name for itself as the gold standard in beauty. It's stocked in Parisian pharmacies, after all. Either way, being a French skincare advocate had an air of sophistication about it. It meant you were in the know, and ultimately, serious about skin.
It was a similar story backstage at Fashion Week, where makeup artists would extol the virtues of lotions and potions they'd picked up in quaint Parisian pharmacies. Take Homeoplasmine, for example, a renowned dry skin ointment, or Embryolisse's Lait-Crème Concentré Moisturizer. MUAs claimed that a tap here and a slick there was responsible for their model's smooth complexion and otherworldly glow. We now know it's probably down to good genes, but that didn't stop beauty editors from lining up to steal dabs of the stuff.
Being a French skincare advocate had an air of sophistication about it. It meant you were in the know, and ultimately, serious about skin.
Even today, French skincare has a certain je ne sais quoi. With a reputation for affordable luxury, it has amassed an enormous 14 billion views on TikTok, as beauty influencers go through their Parisian pharmacy hauls in detail and tell their followers why French skincare is elite. "This is why French women can smoke cigs all day and still have the most flawless skin," boldly claims one TikToker referring to the famous French A313 Pomade featuring vitamin A (the skincare ingredient retinol is derived from). But is French skincare really all it's cracked up to be?
Is French skincare better than American skincare?
London-based aesthetician Alicia Lartey has a frank approach to beauty. In response to an Instagram follower's question about which French skincare products are actually worth it, she took many by surprise when she responded via IG stories that French skincare is "overrated." Lartey isn't the only one to question the popularity of French skincare, though, with Redditors asking: why do you think French pharmacy skincare is hyped so much? "In my opinion," writes one Redditor, "there is this hype built around French pharmacy products that don't often correspond with quality (or good value) products to back it up."
As we all become more ingredient savvy, are we coming to realize that many of the cult French skincare products to achieve viral status aren't anything special? Alex Padgett is a cosmetic chemist who often goes viral on TikTok for her hot takes on skincare products. "Recently, there have been a few trending products from French skincare brands that have been so hyped up, that I had to take a look for myself and find the truth in the ingredients list," Padgett told Refinery29. "I was surprised to find the products had incredibly simple ingredients lists." While simplicity can be nice, says Padgett, "it's likely this results in very little benefits for the customer."
First, Padgett broke down Laluset's Hyaluronic Acid Cream, which some TikTokers are referring to as the 'most powerful hyaluronic acid'. As a cosmetic chemist, Padgett tells R29 that she isn't too impressed. She hits home that it's not a bad product at all, and that lots of people love it. But the star ingredient (0.2% hyaluronic acid) isn't exactly groundbreaking. "I cannot tell you how many basic moisturizers I've formulated that have a much higher percentage of hyaluronic acid," said Padgett, who added that she thinks the very hyped up label isn't justified.
Padgett's next video on Embryolisse's Lait-Crème Concentré went viral. "I have no idea where this hype is coming from," said Padgett. "I'm not saying that every product out there has to have every active ingredient in the book, plus insane benefits, as sometimes less is more. But this is one of the most basic structural formulas I've seen." Of course, that's not a bad thing. Padgett explains that makeup artists in the comments touted the moisturizer as the one product they can use on all clients, as they claim it doesn't cause irritation. Sure enough, it does provide a satisfyingly smooth canvas under makeup. But Padgett says that the product's viral status is surprising to see when you study the ingredients list closely.
Lartey thinks the majority of French skincare is overrated as it "seems to focus on one thing," she told Refinery29: "super thick and clunky creams." One viral product to come out of France is Biafine. "It is truly the thickest," says Lartey, adding that heavy face creams are a dime a dozen: "There is nothing that is exciting about it."
What are the benefits of using French skincare?
What excites Lartey is problem solving and innovation, which she says she hasn't seen in the many French skincare products she has tried. She thinks that French skincare is best suited to those with dry skin. But perhaps it's the simplicity that's the biggest pull. Following the trend for 10-step skincare routines, many of us wrecked our skin barrier by overusing ingredients like retinol and exfoliating acids, resulting in sensitivity and dryness. Sometimes, simplicity is what skin needs, says board certified dermatologist, Ranella Hirsch, MD, FAAD, particularly if it's dry and dehydrated.
Charlotte Palermino is the CEO and co-founder of Dieux Skin. Half French, she knows a thing or two about French skincare. Though it is famed for its simplicity, she thinks we're over-complicating it. Could this be giving French skincare a bad name? "It's more the maximalism in which we are approaching it," Palermino told R29, hinting at various French pharmacy haul videos online. She asks, "Do you really need 12 barrier balms, 4 hydrating cleansers, and 10 variations of the same moisturizer?" The best thing about French skincare is that it's basic, Palermino said on TikTok, but it is slowly becoming convoluted.
Dr. Hirsch agrees: "The bursting shelfie phenomenon [as seen on TikTok] is one that many people, like me, fervently wish would meet its end," she tells R29. "Buying more products than one face could ever use encourages so much waste." That's not all, though. "Every new product or product category you add to your face dials up the opportunities for irritation and allergy," she says — even if it is a supposedly-plain formula.
Do we really need to buy French skincare?
Palermino says that for most of us, skin isn't in a state of crisis. In other words, you probably don't need a barrier-repair product in the form of the thick French cream you've seen go viral online. "Barrier repair products are for when you mess with your barrier," she explains, "say if you get a [chemical] peel, you get laser, or your skin is just going through it." Granted, using something that keeps your skin moisturized, protected, and balanced is important. Palermino recommends a solid moisturizer, but says that you can get a lot of what you find in France anywhere in the world. "There are a few textural differences and some more sustainable swaps are being made," says Palermino, "but overall, it's the same."
Padgett believes a good moisturizer should at least have some humectants (which help skin attract and retain water) such as squalane, ceramides, and glycerin. "Of course, a 'good' moisturizer doesn't have to have those things," says Padgett, "but if they're charging $30 for a product, I'd expect it to have some humectants at the very least. Glycerin is cheap, doesn't cause irritation, and is highly effective. I think I was mostly surprised that [Embryolisse's] Creme Lait didn't even have that!" On the other hand, if you are using a buzzy French product and love it, that's all that matters, says Padgett. "My main objective in sharing my opinion on that was: You guys are getting ripped off!"
Should we have more trust in French labels?
So how did we get caught up in the French skincare hype? One Redditor made an interesting point: "Maybe the marketing makes people think it is skincare [at] its « purest » level (white packaging, the « laboratory » word in some brands names etc)." Palermino adds that some products try to brand themselves like medicine, while others [ones you'd find in a beauty store like Sephora, for example] try to brand themselves more aesthetically. "There's less fluffy marketing with French pharmacy skincare," says Palermino, and that's partly due to regulations. "As a result, there's less BS to wade through."
The language on labels makes French skincare feel more trustworthy — like it's really working. The same can be said for where the majority of French skincare is stocked: in pharmacies. Dr. Hirsch and Palermino say that in France, pharmacists know their stuff when it comes to skincare. "Pharmacies have at least one staffed pharmacologist, if not more," says Palermino. "In many of the pharmacies I go to, even the cashier is a pharmacist." In reality, it's not that straightforward. "Where something is sold tells you about where it is sold," says Dr. Hirsch, rather than how effective it is for you personally.
Ana Mansouri, MBBS, cosmetic doctor and skin expert at Dr. Ana The Skin Clinic, says that marketing claims using terms such as 'dermatologist tested' or other similar medical terminology can actually be very misleading, as they don't necessarily meet the consumer's expectations in terms of results. "I personally recommend choosing more affordable [...] options such as CeraVe or Cetaphil," says Dr. Mansouri, "or in contrast, higher-quality, scientifically-backed skincare such as SkinCeuticals."
What's more, the language used to describe plenty of French skincare products can be alienating. A quick internet search for trending French brands throws up tens of anti-wrinkle, anti-ageing, and wrinkle-correction creams and serums. In 2022, we like to think skincare has come a long way, but language, which frames ageing as a negative thing, is certainly out of date. Of course, this isn't specific to French skincare alone, as thousands of brands use these phrases to sell their products. But it's not lost on us that the 'French girl' beauty trope often perpetuates "smooth skin, without a single flaw," says Lartey.
Is French skincare inclusive?
The effortlessly natural and 'perfect' French girl beauty aesthetic we are sold online is stale. Not just when it comes to wrinkles, but things like breakouts, too. TikToker @ehlieluna observes that the notion of effortless French girl beauty excludes lots of people, such as those with hyperpigmentation, while 'French girl makeup' tutorials are almost always practiced on clear, glowing skin. "The 'ideal' French girl does not have something like acne," says Lartey. "You never see it."
The French girl aesthetic presented to us online is false, hints Dr. Hirsch. "I can assure you that French women neither lack for redness, pimples, nor hyperpigmentation," she says. But the idea that French women do have flawless skin — and that they achieve it using one, great French pharmacy cream — is still one that prevails in the popular media. Lartey finds the flawless skin aesthetic unrealistic, and says that it also emphasizes white, Eurocentric beauty standards. Despite the beauty industry coming in leaps and bounds where diversity is concerned, Lartey says that as a Black person shopping in France specifically, she rarely sees herself represented in the beauty space.
Dr. Mansouri says that minimalist skincare [typical of many French brands] can be an excellent option for those with 'normal' skin types, minimal skin concerns, or even sensitive skin. But is not obtainable for many, particularly for those with more 'troublesome' skin, such as acne (where thick creams and oils will potentially exacerbate the condition) or pigmentation. "Here, more targeted and active serums and ingredients are often required," says Dr. Mansouri, who suggests visiting a derm or skincare clinic, rather than self-diagnosing with buzzy skincare products you may have spotted going viral.
The idea that French women have flawless skin — and that they achieve it using one, great French pharmacy cream — prevails in the popular media. But it's false.
Skin you're happy with often requires a lot of time, effort and persistence, says Dr. Mansouri, which is unfortunately often overlooked by consumers who are hunting for an easy fix. On TikTok especially, certain French skincare products are hyped up to unrealistic extents. Vitamin A cream A313 has been referred to by a TikToker as a "magic eraser for your skin," for example, while the Cicatridine hyaluronic acid cream was described by another TikTok user as a 'miracle worker' for spots.
Are we using French skincare all wrong?
Rather embarrassingly, French skincare experts and enthusiasts are taking to TikTok to mock those outside of France for getting caught up in the hype and using certain products wrong. Take Biafine for example. TikTokers are enlisting the treatment as a facial moisturizer, but it's actually a product used to treat wounds, ulcers, and burns. In fact, using the pain reliever on your face when not necessary could cause issues, rather than combat them. "Les américains 😬," writes one disdainful TikToker underneath a video in which a US-based influencer slathers the "magical" lotion onto their face. Again, it seems we've got caught up in the fanfare, which combines aesthetically pleasing, minimal packaging with affordability, and the exciting idea that we might've just found a rare, foreign elixir to great skin.
While some French skincare is falling out of favor among experts like Alicia, one thing French skincare does deliver on, according to Palermino, is sunscreen. Luckily, plenty are readily available in the US. Palermino's holy grails include the Garnier Ambre Solaire SPF 50+, La Roche-Posay Anthelios UVMune 400 Hydrating SPF 50, (also R29-adored), and Avéne's SPF 50+.
In addition, Palermino suggests it's a good idea to buy skincare based on what works for your individual skin type. For example, seek out highly moisturizing ingredients like glycerin and ceramides if you have dry skin, or products with exfoliating acids and retinol if you're experiencing breakouts. Vichy and La Roche-Posay are excellent examples, often recommended by dermatologists, for those dealing with the above skin issues among others, like eczema and rosacea. Of course, if you have a skin condition which isn't letting up, it pays to visit your doctor or a qualified dermatologist for further advice.
Palermino thinks the pitting of countries against each other makes for a great viral video, which she suggests is probably why people keep making content praising French skincare above other types. Overall, though, the best skincare is the skincare that works for you, regardless of where it comes from, whether it has a Parisian model advocating for it, or if someone on TikTok hails it as a magical find.
This story was originally published on Refinery29UK.
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