Last spring, after moving to Lausanne, Switzerland, I learned that it’s fairly common for people to travel to neighboring French towns to purchase a variety of sundries. And when it comes to beauty products, the pharmacies are a cosmeto-holic’s mecca.
So, just before I took off on a weekend jaunt to Paris, I called Wells for a little enlightenment. She talked me through the brands to look for — Avene, Caudalie, La Roche-Posay, Vichy — and the specific products she always picks up. Armed with a lengthy list, I was ready to shop the Paris pharmacies.
On a crisp fall afternoon, wandering the French capital’s tree-lined boulevards, I quickly realized that in Paris, pharmacies are like Starbucks in the States — i.e., everywhere. With more than a thousand drugstores of varying size pocking the city, you’re never more than a few steps from a brighter complexion or shinier hair.
I peeked into several shops before ducking into Pharmacie Bader near the Place St.-Michel. It’s divided into two rooms, the first almost entirely devoted to skin care, body wash, shampoo, lotion and other beauty products. I immediately found several items on my list before becoming completely distracted by bright and shine-free-promising objects. I debated some items, chose a few and quickly filled my basket.
The entire experience was a stark contrast to pharmacy shopping in the States, an activity with all the glamour of a one-hour oil change. Instead of shuttling past a bored guard at the entrance and searching out a couldn’t-be-bothered clerk, I was approached by various white-jacketed saleswomen who gently asked whether I needed help and offered advice on which version of a cream I should select.
The venture — particularly the physician-like lab coats and the soothing tones that lent the clerks’ beauty prescriptions even more potency — underlined the notion that Frenchwomen have special know-how that helps them defy the ravages of time.
“It goes to the idea that Frenchwomen have these beauty secrets we all want to know,” Wells had said. “It’s got that cool factor, the cultural experience. And it’s in a pharmacy, so it seems more medical. We think just maybe it will have some extra powers.”
Pharmacie Bader was the perfect warmup for City Pharma, a grand two-story shop with narrow aisles jammed with cosmetic loot, throngs of shoppers and an impressive coterie of sales staff.
With little room to maneuver, I made my way through the first floor, studying shampoos; body wash in every possible scent; face lotion; clay masks; eyelash gel for thicker, fuller lashes; makeup remover; lip balms; and creams to combat rosacea, under-eye bags, wrinkles and cellulite, as well as everyday dry skin. I selected a few products, asked several questions and eventually headed to the second floor.