When I moved to France almost three decades ago, I wondered whether the ageless, radiant-skinned women I saw knew something about skin care we Americans did not—or if each and every one was just genetically blessed. Happily, I’ve since learned that the answer is the former: It’s not their DNA; it’s their toilette. As preteens, they begin a conscientious, multistep skin-care regimen, and while the specifics may change over the years, they commit to the approach for the rest of their lives. (By comparison, in the United States, our holy grail is one multipurpose product that cleans, hydrates and fights aging all at once.)
In France, skin care is a ritual, and it’s not to be rushed. To make your body fit, you have to put in time, and the same is true for healthy, glowing skin. At first, I resisted this concept. Spending more than 60 seconds on my skin seemed an unnecessary indulgence. But as I’ve aged, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of slowing down. Today, I am fully converted to the French way, and my skin is the better for it (if I do say so myself). To help you see similar changes, I’ve outlined the practices that have had the biggest impact on my complexion.
1. Relish your regimen
From an early age, French girl sare taught by their mothers that taking care of their skin is a pleasure, not a chore. A friend of mine, Christine Salort, a pharmacist and the mother of 10-year-old twin girls, stocks her daughters’ bathroom with delicious shower gels and lotions. “I believe in encouraging girls to pamper themselves, to enjoy being feminine,” she says. “This in turn makes them feel that taking care of their skin is something to be enjoyed.” “It’s part of our culture,” says Valerie Gallais, MD, a French dermatologist. “Obviously, how much money a woman spends on her skin care depends on her budget, but I can assure you that all French women understand that prioritizing their daily toilette will make them look—and feel—better.” Once you start to “think French,” as I have, you’ll also see that even the simplest beauty ministrations have a calming effect. The French toilette isn’t just about applying potions; it is a personal, stress-releasing “just for me” moment. And maybe that’s the real benefit. Stress raises cortisol levels, and cortisol accelerates aging. So anything you do to reduce angst—especially at day’s end—is très bon.
2. Buddy up with a professional
Another valuable lesson I’ve learned from Parisian friends is that they feel about their dermatologists—or, for some, their aestheticians—the way we Americans feel about our hairstylists: This is someone with whom you develop a close, decades-long relationship. Their dermatologists are trusted allies in the anti-aging battle.“With most of my patients, I do the classic annual head-to-toe examination, looking for melanomas or other suspicious spots,” says Gallais. “But then, afterward, we always sit down and discuss skin care. If I think she can tolerate a more potent formula, I will prescribe one. If something isn’t working as well as we hoped, we drop it and add something new.” Many French women will even bring every bottle in their skin-care regimen to their doctor appointment (I do!) so their derm can say yea or nay. Why go to this effort? The most egregious skin sin a French woman can commit (after smoking and sunning, of course) is self-diagnosis. One Parisian aesthetician I know pointed out that a woman may not know whether her skin is sensitive or simply allergic to certain products. But visiting a professional can help you determine what is really going on and how best to proceed, a tactic that prevents you from wasting time and money on ineffective products.
3. Baby your skin
All the French doctors and aestheticians I’ve consulted emphasize the importance of being gentle with your skin. Why? Some say harsh treatments may trigger inflammation, and inflammation can make skin age faster. (Note: Chemical peels and lasers are generally less popular in France than in the States, partly because of this philosophy.) “It doesn’t matter whether a woman has sensitive skin or not,” says Gallais. “She must never use harsh products or too much pressure when cleansing. And for the face, exfoliating once a week is plenty.”Marie Serre, MD, a leading French dermatologist, concurs. She even took me into her bathroom to show me her favorite cleanser: Bioderma ABCDerm H20 Solution Micellaire ($25 to $33; amazon.com), a gentle wash specifically made for babies and young children.
4. Don’t stop at the décolletage
For the French, beauty treatments do not end at the neck. They apply the same rigor and discipline to keeping their body skin soft as they do to preserving their faces. Gentle sloughing (I’ve noticed that many women make their own scrub by adding coarse salt to their face cleanser), followed by a body cream, is part of the daily ritual. Then, every couple of weeks in the winter, a French woman designates a night during which she will sleep slathered in lotion. When she wakes, her skin is soft and smooth. Here’s the routine: Slather your body with shea butter or argan oil, paying special attention to elbows and heels. Now slip on a pair of old sweat bottoms, a tee and cozy socks. (And if you are really committed to doing things the French way, don’t ever wear this getup outside your home.)
5. 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. Jean-Louis Sebagh, one of France’s most prominent cosmetic doctors, says sleep repairs the body and minimizes the aging effects of stress.
The French sleep about 8.5 hours a night, according to a 2011 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, while Americans get closer to 6.5 hours, a 2013 National Sleep Foundation survey shows. For good skin, shut-eye is clearly important—but if insomnia is an issue (and it is for many women of a certain age), my pharmacist friend Christine Salort likes this natural approach to the problem: “When I can’t sleep, I put three drops of Roman chamomile or neroli oil on a cube of sugar. Trust me, you need the sugar; these oils taste awful. But they do the trick, and I have no trouble falling—or staying—asleep.”
Tish Jett writes the blog A Femme d’Un Certain Age and is the author of the new book Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style, and Substance.
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