Skincare Secrets I've Learned From French Women
When I was the beauty editor at More, one of the best-read stories we ever published was by an American fashion editor who wrote about how she’d moved to Paris, adopted a French approach to skincare—and watched her complexion improve dramatically, then age remarkably well, over the two decades she lived abroad.
I too have seen, first hand, the results of faithfully following a French skincare regimen. Whenever I've visited Paris, the women I meet or see on the streets have what I’d call healthy skin: dewy, glowing and well-nourished, as opposed to the age-defying perfection we often aim for in the States. Few appear to be actively or aggressively trying to turn back the clock. Rather, they just look really terrific for their age.
So what is their strategy? Working in the beauty industry, I’ve asked many of my French executive and publicist friends. (I also picked up a few things from that aforementioned More piece.) So the following tips and tricks are gleaned from those conversations and observations. And while I'm not suggesting you give up your Retin-A or Botox (I know I'm not). I do believe there are valuable lessons to be learned from my French friends' surprisingly simple (sane!) skincare secrets.
Relish your regimen From an early age, French girls are taught by their mothers that taking care of their skin is a pleasure, not a before-bed chore. They are given gentle cleansers, fragrant toners, light and luxurious lotions and then instructed to take their time and be kind to their complexions. (By contrast, many American girls born before 1980 were typically handed acne products to fight pimples. And while this approach may have helped minimize flare-ups in our teens, it also set a very different tone for our approach to skincare. As American women, we’ve been largely conditioned to see our skin as problematic and our products as “anti:” anti-acne, anti-redness…anti-aging.) The French, by contrast, view their regimen as a pro-skin pampering session and even employ massage-like strokes to slather on their skin creams (they believe this aids absorption, fights the pull of gravity and boosts circulation to promote a rosier glow). This subtle difference in attitude may make all the difference. That American editor wrote in her piece that her French-influenced skincare ritual had a calming effect at the end of day; she called it a personal, stress-releasing “just for me” moment. And maybe that’s the real benefit. Stress does raise cortisol levels, and cortisol accelerates aging. So perhaps just as important as the potions we apply to our skin, is the mindset we have when we slather them on.
Get a guru Many French women feel about their dermatologists or their aestheticians the way we Americans feel about our hairstylists: This is someone with whom you develop a close, decades-long relationship and on whom you rely for both guidance and candor. Because, while Americans believe the most egregious skin sins one can commit are smoking and sunning, French women abhor self-diagnosis. An expert—be it an MD or an esthetician—helps you determine accurately what is best for your skin, a tactic that prevents you from wasting time and money on ineffective products.
French women also told me they visit their skin gurus regularly, as often as once a month or at least seasonally. The thinking is that your skin’s needs vary, depending on the season, and an annual visit won’t suffice. To many French women, a facial or visit to the dermatologist is less about indulgent pampering and more about simple maintenance. Like an American woman’s appointment with her colorist, waxer, or even your dentist, the French see visiting a skin guru as a regular and necessary part of keeping the largest organ on their bodies—the skin—healthy.
Be kind The French treat their complexions with great care. More aggressive treatments such as peels or microdermabrasion are generally less popular in France than they are in the States. Why? Many French women have told me they think harsher treatments may trigger inflammation, and inflammation can make skin age faster. And while the French are not totally opposed to exfoliation, many limit skin sloughing to just once a week and use a simple scrub or just a warm, damp towel to remove dead skin cells.
Take your skincare south For the French, skin treatments do not end at the neck. They apply the same discipline to keeping their body skin soft as they do to preserving their faces. In fact, they may apply even more rigor to their bodies, as many French women make a point of gently sloughing the skin below the neck daily. Then they apply a rich body cream, again relishing—not rushing—the application. The American fashion editor told me that she and many of her friends also have a one-night-a-week ritual of slathering themselves in oil or heavy cream, then putting on old sweats and cozy socks before they hit the sheets.
Get your beauty sleep Though Americans often pride themselves on functioning well on only four to five hours of sleep, for the French, starting your day before the birds is a big beauty mistake. Most doctors agree that sleep is when the skin repairs itself, undoing the aging effects of stress. And recent surveys show that the French do a better job of giving their skin this chance to rejuvenate. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the French sleep about 8.5 hours a night, while the National Sleep Foundation says Americans get only an average of 6.5 hours. And while it is hard for many of us to get to bed at a certain time—and once we’re in bed, to get to sleep and stay that way—prioritizing shuteye may dramatically impact the way your skin ages. Step one of course, happens to also be secret number one, above: Relish your skincare ritual. Unwinding at the end of the day with your lotions and potions—and perhaps a glass of wine (another excellent French tradition)—should help you get on your way to a full night of zzzzs.
Adjust your attitude When you look at French women who are 40+, like Carine Roitfeld, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Marion Cotillard and Audrey Tautou, the secret to their still radiant and even sexy skin is usually not a plastic surgeon. They exude enviable self-assurance. And perhaps this, most of all, is the secret to why so many French women seem to age so gracefully. Rather than battle, they embrace the aging process—seeing the wisdom and the experience they’ve gained as more important than fretting over the accumulation of a few fine lines. The term je ne sais quoi is often used to try to capture this distinctly French trait, an attractiveness that cannot be tied to smooth skin or a taut jawline—but is instead an undefinable appeal that has as much to do with a French woman’s confidence as it does her complexion.
Check back later this week for a post outlining some of my current favorite French makeup, skin and hair products.