“Whenever I see the neon green cross, my heart beats a little faster.”
It wasn’t the first time a woman had professed her love for French pharmacies to me, but this was Linda Wells, editor in chief of beauty bible Allure. So her approval of the shops marked with the brightly lit cross carried real oomph.
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.
Upstairs, I found the first aid and medicinal products. Consulting my list, I navigated through the crowd to pick up Arnigel for bruises, Biafine ACT for cuts and burns, Oscillococcinum to prevent colds and La Roche-Posay Anthelios sunscreen.
My basket overflowing, I headed to the cash register with a pang of anxiety about the bill. City Pharma has a reputation for low prices, and most products were far less expensive than similar options in the States — the eye cream I chose was half the price of one much like it that I used to buy in Washington — but it wasn’t cheaper than other French pharmacies I’d visited. In the end, my nervousness was unfounded; I spent about $150 at City Pharma and $75 more at two other pharmacies for several months’ worth of goods.
I wasn’t alone in my shopping binge. While my fiance and our friend Patrick chatted outside, our friend Omar had been lured into the store, and each time I spotted him, his arms were full of more goodies. We may ascribe the secrets of beauty to the French woman, but there were also plenty of men picking up under-eye cream and strengthening shampoo for thinning hair.
After our spree, Omar and I sat at a cafe comparing our spoils. He showed off his Biotherm Homme High Recharge Eye Shot, an eye gel that combats puffiness; a Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser; and Vichy Homme, an antiperspirant that promises 72 hours of “extreme control.” I pulled bottles of Bioderma Crealine H20, a makeup remover; Lipocil, an eyelash gel; Klorane Gentle Dry Shampoo; and Avene Antirougeurs, a cream for rosacea, out of my bag.
Later that night, I eagerly unwrapped a few new products. As I slathered on my new Embryolisse Lait-Creme, the truth about Frenchwomen’s beauty secret hit me. Americans, too, have access to high-performing products (though rarely in the drugstore), and the magic of the Internet puts some international items just a click away. The difference lies simply in approach.
We Americans tackle our beauty routine pragmatically and efficiently. Frenchwomen embrace femininity and take beauty, especially skin care, seriously. They indulge and enjoy the ritual.
The tone is set right from the start. It’s impossible to look at the tightly packed shelves of products or to listen to the expert advice of one of the clerks in a French pharmacy and miss the importance the French place on image and appearance. As an American in Paris, I felt indulgent and glamorous shopping with Frenchwomen, and it added a touch of excitement to my own beauty ritual.
I took home more than tubes of lotion and jars of eye cream. I also brought along a little of that French je ne sais quoi — and the certainty that my heart, too, would beat a little faster whenever I spotted that neon green cross.
DiNardo is a freelance writer living in Switzerland.