City Pharma: A User’s Guide

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Photo: Richard, enjoy my life!/Flickr

When a fire ripped through City Pharma, the mac daddy of Parisian pharmacies and located in Saint Germain, two years ago, it was, in certain circles, like the world had stopped turning. I was one of many women on the scene standing aghast on the sidewalk, afraid for the future of my complexion. It was, in a word, a catastrophe. (For the record, no one was harmed.) Every day of the year at this establishment is like Black Friday, from the moment the doors open until the moment they close. Venture inside and you’ll find women rushing about clutching their dermatologist-endorsed shopping lists and having a standoff over the last bottle of Nuxe Dry Oil. Outside, chauffeur-driven cars are parked at awkward angles across the curb while their passengers ransack the store. If you’re planning a visit, you must come prepared. Although there are numerous staff members wearing white lab coats, they are not interested in speaking English and there is not enough physical space inside for any charades-style hand explanations. Click ahead for a cheat sheet of the nine best products to snag.  

1. Collosol Cleansing Milk
This product was recommended by a top facialist in Paris who vehemently warned me to avoid gel cleansers if I knew what was good for me. Collosol is a no-rinse, no-frills product (it costs around 5 euros), and I have only ever been able to find it at this particular pharmacy. They hide it amongst the baby products; but it’s also for adults (though it does smell like baby powder). I love using this in winter when my skin is a little drier, but it also works well in summer — you just have to do a few rounds with the cotton pad.

2. Avène Thermal Water
French women prefer not to wash their face with water, as they believe the calcite in the tap water is detrimental to their skin. Instead they use this mist to prep the face for cleansing (which is almost always done with cleansing milk). You can also use the mist to rinse and wipe off any excess cleanser, or just for a regular mist when the weather is hot. Last summer, I did as the locals do and used it on the beach to spray the salt from my face.

3. Bioderma Crealine
By all accounts, this is the makeup remover to end all makeup removers. When I canvased my friends for their favorite products, this was on everyone’s list. It's perfume-free, so it has an au naturel appeal, and the lightweight, non-greasy texture means you don’t really need to cleanse afterward. Many use it as a milk cleanser on it’s own, as it really cleans the skin thoroughly.

4. Avène Cleanance Mask
The Avène range is immense, but this is another product worth scanning the shelves for. It’s a cleaning mask that exfoliates at the same time. After applying to the skin, wait for the product to dry completely, then moisten your skin (with a mist, of course) and work the mask into a lather before wiping off with a wet cloth. For me, it’s a once-a-week kind of situation; I like it because it really eliminates buildup, and it's great for specific problem areas.

5. Biafine
This is used for practically everything. It’s good for scars, dry and wintry skin, sunburn, or just as an all-round rich moisturizer. It’s very thick, though; so if you use it as an all-over moisturizer you need to factor in a drying-off period — otherwise, it will stick to clothes and you will stick to surfaces. Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele likes to keep hers in the fridge for an added cooling effect.

6. Caudalie Beauty Elixir
Another popular mist, this part-toner, part-spray serum can be used throughout the day to refresh and moisturize the skin. It can also be used to set your makeup face. Rumor has it that it boosts stimulation as well. You can feel this instantly, as the skin tingles a little when you apply it.

7. Klorane Dry Shampoo
This shampoo has achieved fame because it’s a product most French women can’t live without. Brushing (that’s blow-dry in French) has never been all that popular with the locals, so they’ve perfected the shaggy, bed-head look with the help of this product. The French have also perfected sleeping in, a custom that I have happily acclimatized to, meaning this saves time in the morning rush as well. Just make sure you follow instructions and spray from the recommended distance; if you spray from too close, it will look like you have dandruff.

8. Embryolisse
Almost every woman I know swears by this moisturizer. It’s packed with shea butter and aloe vera, so it promises to deliver the plumpest of skin. I like using this at night before bed, when my skin drinks it up like a sponge.

9. Oenobiol Solaire Intensif
I debated whether to include this on the list, but these capsules are a real phenomenon for French women. I only discovered these last year when the skin of even my pastiest friends looked honeyed before summer even began. These tablets are to be taken daily two months before sun exposure, then every day throughout summer, and for one month afterward to maintain a healthy looking glow. They really do work — I had a very nice tan despite avoiding the sun for long periods — but they do not, as most women claim, protect you from sun damage.