Far more than just the place you collect a prescription, for French women the pharmacie is the ultimate health and beauty destination. Stylist finds out why
Words: Kathleen Baird Murray
It’s 7pm and Citypharma, a pharmacy in the sixth arrondissement near St-Germain-des-Près, is teeming with upscale Parisians after a bargain. “Their baskets were loaded with cosmetics, like it was the last day on earth,” says Richard Nahem, the American-born, Paris-based founder of Eye Prefer Paris tours. The reason? A sale offering 30-40% off popular brands such as Biotherm, Caudalie, Phyto and Bioderma. “Queues were 10-deep,” adds Nahem, who makes sure to tell his American and British tour clients to stock up while they’re in town (French-brand skincare and toiletries can be 20-30% cheaper than back home).
The allure of la pharmacie is renowned, with its ubiquitous green signs a beacon for those in search of moisturising Embryolisse or a bottle of Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse body oil. It’s the place that stocks Bioderma Sensibio H2O (the cleansing water used by just about every model) and Biafine, a super-rich repair balm (France’s answer to Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream).
In an age where many of our shopping habits have moved online, pharmacies are a bedrock of French beauty and healthcare (there are 23,000 nationwide, one for every 3,000 citizens). “The French are loyal, they listen to their pharmacist,” says Terry de Gunzburg, founder of By Terry cosmetics and skincare, who divides her time between London and Paris. “They’re the authority, able to treat minor and serious things. It’s very personal – sometimes they’re better than doctors.”
British pharmacists have a high standard of training (the relevant four-year master’s degree and one year working in a pharmacy), and equally their French counterparts have to study at university for six to nine years, including one year in a hospital. Once qualified, they’re as much on the shop floor with the skin tonics and body milks as they are in the back room with the medicines. Monoprix, one of France’s largest supermarket chains, even insist their pharmacists are bilingual in French and English. In a fiercely competitive industry, having this level of authority on everything from ingested medicines to topical skincare is essential. According to pharmacist Claire Desericourt, based in Aix-en-Provence, “We have to be extremely vigilant about keeping a high level of professional standards, and offering counselling and advice is crucial to retaining patients.”
French-born Sylvie Chantecaille, founder of Chantecaille cosmetics and skincare, whose favourite pharmacy is in St Barts (France likes to export its pharmacies everywhere that has a French population), agrees: “Pharmacies have changed since I was a child, when they used to be just about aches and pains. Now they’re more like an ultimate beauty destination for skincare.” While she takes advantage of the in-house advice for a bloated stomach or mosquito bites, she also stocks up on Esthederm sunscreen, magnesium ampoules (for muscle aches or difficulty sleeping) and Leonor Greyl Honey Shampoo. Unlike the theatre of a department store beauty hall, the pharmacy offers a more clinical environment.
Science meets beauty
Though it’s unclear as to the exact moment the French pharmacy was born, it’s been a constant in the lives of French women for over a century. Its evolution from drug seller to science-backed beauty counter was in part born by economic necessity (as medicines became widely sold and pharmacies needed to attract new customers), but also by a solid anchoring in science and tradition. From there it was a natural progression for dermatologists and pharmacists to start making their own products. The brand Embryolisse was started by a dermatologist in 1950. Biafine, healing skin since the Seventies, was recommended for sunburn before becoming a skincare staple. And LeClerc cosmetic powder in the famous ‘Banane’ shade, once cultishly followed by make-up artists the world over? Started by a chemist, one Théophile LeClerc.
In short, the French pharmacy sells the kind of things you want to buy when picking up a prescription. “Women will pop to their pharmacy to stock up on Doliprane [paracetamol] and while there, they’ll add a cleanser because they’re in the mindset for healthy skin,” says de Gunzburg. Robin Winfield, operations director at British pharmacy John Bell & Croyden, says, “Skincare in France is specialist and focused on skin health, where British stores have too long focused on the aesthetic properties of products.”
Aliza Jabès, founder of Nuxe (and sister of de Gunzburg), explains: “A French woman will look for the right treatment before she’ll even think about foundation.”
While many French pharmacy brands are now stocked in the UK, it’s hard to match that combination of service and quality. However, Winfield believes better pharmacies could alleviate pressure on the NHS. “It’s commonplace for people in France to visit their local pharmacy first when unwell,” he says. “We provide health and wellbeing services, a walk-in clinic for minor ailments and emergency prescriptions, all alongside a beauty offering.” Should more stores catch on to this, it won’t be long before a visit to the ultimate beauty and health destination doesn’t have to involve Eurostar.
J’adore la pharmacie!
Click through the gallery below to discover Stylist's pharmacie favourites
Additional words: Madeleine Spencer
Photography: Chris Craymer/trunkarchive.com, Ian Walsh, Pixeleyes