French Skin Philosophy

A comparison of esthetics in the U.S. and abroad

How did you become immersed in French skin care culture?

I was always obsessed with skin care and beauty, but when I studied abroad in France, I found the pharmacies there to be so fascinating. There is such an abundance of good product for literally everything, and it’s accessible.

What is the difference between French and US daily skin care routines?

I think the French are simpler when it comes to skin care, in a good way. The focus is keeping the skin clean, healthy, and hydrated, and there aren’t as many trends or bells and whistles. Although, organic beauty is pretty trendy there at the moment.

Estheticians in France definitely have more extensive training. It’s almost like an associate’s degree, but even longer.

Cleansing is also very different depending on where you live. Micellar waters are an obvious French export, as are water mists, but they’re used very differently in France versus in the US. You’d use a micellar water if you’re oilier to cleanse your face and remove your makeup. If you’re drier, you’d do the same with a cleansing milk that you tissue off. Then you mist to wet your face and tissue off again to remove any leftover residue. This is what I learned specifically in Paris where the water is hard, so you try not to use the tap water on your face. Other cities are known for their water, though. There are even hydrotherapy centers in those towns to bathe in the special spring water, and it’s canned and sold to the rest of us poor souls.

Then of course, there’s still serum, eye cream, the perfect moisturizer for your skin type, and incredible sunscreens. The latter two are not optional.

American skin care used to be different pre-globalization. You’d cleanse, moisturize, and that’s it. We’ve since expanded into more steps, which is good, but can have so many actives. We also seem to try to throw everything in a product, while leaving our skin more irritated in the end. We don’t need to be using acids, retinoids, and more all at once, all the time. A lot of the work I do with my clients is altering their routines: I’m either trying to fit in a couple more steps for the older generations or trying to peel back all the steps that my younger clients incorporate. Although I’m seeing this change, in general we’re not as balanced here.

Do you think the overall philosophy and approach to skin care is different? How so?

I think simplicity and prevention are at the core of French skin care, while in the US, I think we don’t do enough to protect ourselves early on. Later, we have to go back with all these actives to try to undo the damage we acquired earlier (like from not wearing sunscreen or from using certain apricot scrubs…). Skin care is more basic there, like brushing your teeth. It’s not something that some people will just ignore altogether.

Is the role of an esthetician different in France vs the US? How so?

This depends on the person in the US because our education isn’t as standardized across the country. I think most estheticians here have pride in what they do and keep themselves educated and up to date, but there are enough here that don’t. There’s no way to say this without coming across as negative, but because of the few estheticians that don’t stay on top of their continuing education, I don’t think we’re as trusted for advice or treatment as estheticians are in France.

Sometimes, I think the general American public will see an esthetician to come get a facial to relax, or to get waxed. I don’t think we’re necessarily seen as problem-solvers when it comes to skin, even though most of us are perfectly capable. When we have a skin problem, our first stop is our doctor, not our pharmacist or esthetician.

Is the esthetics education different here? Is it more or less intensive? How so?

Estheticians in France definitely have more extensive training. It’s almost like an associate’s degree, but even longer. Hours vary here by state, and we can get advanced training, but we generally only get about six months of training, while they can have more than three years. They also learn tanning (hopefully fake), more extensive waxing techniques, manicuring, and how to help people find perfume. There’s also a way bigger focus on body treatment. We don’t really emphasize that here unless you’re in massage school. I’d say there’s a bigger scope of practice for which you need more training.

What is one thing that we can all learn from the French about skin care?

There’s so much, but I would say to know your skin and ask an expert what you should use for it.

Do you see a difference in French vs US skin care products?

The gaps have narrowed with globalization and consumer demand, but I think French products are way more personalized than American ones. American brands seem to focus so much on marketing the product and selling, but French products seem to target skin types and concerns way better. There’s a different texture of cream or cleanser for everyone in French skin care. Here, we seem to have a brand make one line of products with one cleanser or one moisturizer, have this “superstar” ingredient, put it in flashy packaging, and try to sell it to everyone no matter what their skin is doing, to the consumer’s detriment. We have some amazing skin care in the US that has evidence-based ingredients, is fragrance-free, and is simple. In France, those products would be placed at eye level in the store, but here they’re tucked in the bottom shelves because they’re not as marketable. Typically, you wouldn’t dig for them unless your dermatologist told you to.

Is the anti-aging approach different between the two cultures?

One of my favorite things about the French is how they embrace aging: It’s something we hopefully all do, so do it gracefully. They have anti-aging products like everyone else, but it’s not like in the US where you’d think wrinkles are the worst thing that could happen to you. We are so aggressive when it comes to treating signs of aging here, like with Botox, fillers, and peels. I don’t think it’s wrong that we have that – do what you need to feel amazing. However, sometimes I think we could stand to look at our lines as a life well-lived or as the signs of wisdom that they are.

What are some French skin care rituals you use in your everyday life?

I focus on hydrating my skin, reducing irritation, and applying sunscreen. Sunscreen is what I stock up on when I’m in France because we don’t have as photostable chemical filters here.

Where do French women get most of their skincare products and advice?

The pharmacy, hands down. You can walk into any pharmacie, or parapharmacie, tell the pharmacist what is happening with your face (or other ailments for that matter), and they’ll tell you everything you need to be using. You’ll also get some great family advice: My host-mom would share her favorite brands with me, and which spring water was indeed the best. We’re not so different after all.

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Madeleine Mendelow
MMendelow@lneonline.com

Madeleine Mendlow is currently a first-year medical student in South Carolina. She received her B.A. in Romance Languages and Literature and International Studies from the University of Michigan and completed her CIDESCO esthetician training at Cinta Aveda in San Francisco. In addition to skin, she is passionate about lifestyle medicine and women’s health



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