After enjoying weeks of unprecedented clear skin when I arrived in the idyllic city of Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, I was taken by surprise when a nasty breakout threatened to take over my chin. Luckily for me, I was in the country whose pharmacies have inspired a cult following by beauty lovers worldwide. I've always been stubborn about picking out my own products, so I quickly dismissed the pharmacist who asked if I needed help finding anything and took my time comparing products and ingredients. None of the options that I found in the well-stocked shelves seemed to promise the aggressive action against my blemishes that I was looking for and accustomed to finding easily at home in the states. Eventually, I settled on a lavender purifying toner from Sanoflore (my Grease Relief Tonic from Ole Henriksen was about to run out) and a purifying gentle peel meant for skin with blemishes from French skincare giant Bioderma. Before I could make it to the checkout counter, I was stopped by the pharmacist who examined the products I was holding and asked what kind of skin problem I was trying to address. When I pointed to the breakout on my chin, she responded by informing me that while the toner I had chosen was fine, the Bioderma peel was for people with "acne" and was much too harsh for me. I must have looked at her like she told me the world was flat.
"Yes, acne," I thought, "the thing on my face that countless Sephora employees, beauty counter makeup artists, family, and friends, have been giving me their unsolicited recommendations about for years."
I was no stranger to acne. And yet, even though I insisted on calling the bumps on my chin by this name, the pharmacist's quick dismissal of my diagnosis left me both baffled and, surprisingly, encouraged. Why did this woman with skin as radiant as anyone else in a country known for their beauty rituals refuse to acknowledge what any American in her position would be quick to call acne? And why didn't she seem to understand my need to treat it ASAP, preferably by a product that would leave my blemishes as dry as a desert?
What I would come to realize is that the French have a much different way of taking care of their skin than Americans, and that way is infinitely more gentle. While I had already made the conscious shift from traditional (chemical) skincare and makeup to brands that used more natural ingredients, I was still obsessed with drying out blemishes before they could start. Constantly playing defense in my skincare regimen was, as I'm sure you can imagine, mostly counterproductive. I discovered that not only did my skin clear up when I scaled back on many of the harsh extras, but it was naturally drier than I had been led to believe and demanded a moisturizer that provided much more hydration than the ones designed for oily skin that I had been reluctantly using for years.
My observations reached their ultimate culmination when, before returning home for Christmas, I spent a few last days in London. While wandering around a British pharmacy, I noticed an immediate difference in the skincare products available here from those I had become used to in France. Even more so than in American drugstores, packaging on the products here seemed to advertise extra-strength solutions to fighting and drying out acne, while most moisturizers touted that they were oil-free. This seemed strange to me, especially with winter quickly approaching, a time when brands tend to focus on combatting dry skin and flakiness. Without overgeneralizing or assuming that all Brits have bad skin characterized by acne and redness, I couldn't help but notice that the complexions of many Londoners didn't quite glow as much as those of their European neighbors.
Since that first encounter with the pharmacist in Aix, my beauty regimen has changed drastically, as has the appearance of my skin. I stopped using abrasive wipes to remove my makeup at the end of the day and now cleanse my skin with coconut oil or micellar water. And no more foaming soaps for me! I use far gentler products to get my face clean, like Milky Jelly Cleanser from Glossier or the ClearCalm 3 Cleanser from REN, which contains French clay and is the perfect non-foaming option for dealing with breakouts. Before my Skin Enlightenment, I often skipped moisturizer from not only my morning routine, but my beauty nighttime ritual as well, believing that less added moisture would deliver a clearer complexion. Obviously, this was far from the truth, and now, even when I'm too lazy to complete my full regimen, I always follow-up cleansing with moisturizing; I even dabble in face oils. This change has probably contributed most significantly to the improved appearance of my skin. My face looks clearer, brighter, smoother, and pleasingly more plump.
No longer is that pushy French pharmacist's reasoning a mystery to me. While I may have at first hesitated to heed her advice, I'm so glad I eventually did. In losing the harsh ingredients I had so long been convinced I needed, I unveiled a complexion that inspired a newfound confidence as I put my best face forward.