The cult of the French pharmacy: why are they the best in the world?
French pharmacies occupy a cult position both in France and on the global beauty scene. Visitors queue outside the best Paris stores and top makeup artists rave about skincare products from pharmacy brands like Homéoplasmine and Bioderma. Are French pharmacies really that good? And why does France have such a special relationship with la pharmacie?
Being English, when I think of going to the pharmacy I think of my local pharmacy-cum-post-office. I think of waiting in line for anti-biotics while gazing at jumbles of products with little fluorescent price labels. I think of bumper-packs of adult nappies and wine gums at the counter. Practical, yes, but global hubs of beauty and glamour they are not. Let’s just say there’s nothing there Gwyneth Paltrow would put on her face.
The light-up green pluses that dot the streets in France have come to symbolise something more than just a practical necessity. There are three key reasons why the French hold pharmacies so close to their hearts.
1. They offer science-backed beauty
While Anglo skincare brands are often guilty of using glitzy packaging and pseudo-scientific boasts to attract customers, (82% of claims to be ‘clinically proven’ have been found to be bogus), French pharmacy products go for simpler looks and ingredients that actually work.
“Skincare in France is specialist and focused on skin health, where British stores have too long focused on the aesthetic properties of products,” says Robin Winfield of British pharmacy chain John Bell & Croyden.
This scientific approach to skincare has won the approval of medical professionals too. Dr Anjali Mahto, a Consultant Dermatologist says:
“I can’t rate the French pharmacy brands highly enough, they work well, there are a range of products to suit all skin types”.
Many brands even start out as strictly medical products, much-loved Avène moisturisers and water sprays come from the Avène natural springs, which are used as a ‘skin-hospital’ on France’s national health system. And Homéoplasmine’s balm has taken on a name (and a hashtag) as a cult beauty sensation used as a lip balm, but was originally made to soothe sore nipples from breastfeeding!
The pared back packaging and more natural formulas also add to their clinical ‘no-fuss’ appeal. Model and supreme it-girl Jeanne Damas, speaking to Vogue about why she loves French pharmacy products, said: “Often they’re odourless; I don’t like strong, sweet smells”.
Delicious-smelling body creams are lovely, but French products with fewer parabens, fragrances and colourants are less likely to irritate your skin. Probably worth giving up smelling like Coconut Bliss for healthier skin.
2. The French pharmacy is a centre for personalised advice
In the UK, most people aren’t on first name terms with their pharmacists – hypochondriacs and the chronically ill aside. In France, there’s a much deeper connection with the pharmacy. It’s common for your local pharmacist to know not just your name, but those of your entire family and have a detailed knowledge of your specific medical needs.
Terry de Gunzburg of By Terry cosmetics says:
“The French are loyal, they listen to their pharmacist, they’re the authority, able to treat minor and serious things. It’s very personal – sometimes they’re better than doctors.”
While this may belie a problem with France’s habit of excessive pill popping, it’s certainly an advantage for your pharmacist to be able to give you tailored advice.
Even on the shop floor, staff are well trained and knowledgeable. Bigger pharmacies will have plenty of the “white-coated ladies” gliding around, explaining products and helping you work out what’s going to be best for you.
3. French beauty starts with the skin
What’s the secret to the undone, effortless French look? Well, the answer probably doesn’t lie in a makeup bag.
French women, in general, wear considerably less makeup than their counterparts in the Anglophone world – the inventors of the Scouse brow, clown contouring and strobing.
They prefer to focus on great skin and let that speak for itself. Aliza Jabès, founder of Nuxe says:
“A French woman will look for the right treatment before she’ll even think about foundation.”
Given this emphasis on skincare, it’s inevitable that the French industry will produce lots of specialised, high-quality products for the wider market. This also means that the type of skincare that would see you paying the price of a decent meal out in the UK, the US or Australia, only costs around ten euros at a French pharmacy.
French pharmacies really do seem to have it all. With science-backed products, personalised advice and affordable products for a skin-care conscious market, this is one French ‘cult’ institution that manages to live up to the global hype.
It’s even been suggested that they are a societal good; using pharmacies as a first port of call for minor ailments takes the strain off hospitals and GP surgeries. Perhaps it’s time to export the French pharmacy model to help struggling health services in the rest of the world? I know one country just North of France that could use a bit of help on that one…
What do you think of French pharmacies? Do they live up to the expectation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
1. ‘Pharmacie de l’Art Nouveau’, Canong2fan via Flickr
2. ‘Pharmacy sign at Rue SAinte-Odile in Obernai, France’, Hermann Luyken via wikimedia
3. ‘Skincare’, kerdkanno via pixabay
4. ‘Woman consults with pharmacist’, Rhoda Baer via wikimedia
5. ‘Girl’, Adina Voicu via pixabay