Beauty & Skin

More Than Skin-Deep: A Celebration Of La Toilette Française

Is it culture? Is it nature? Is it nurture? Those were the prevailing questions that danced through my mind when I set out to discover why Frenchwomen of a certain age have complexions that appear completely radiant, yet so natural.


Does culture play a role? Oui et non. What about chromosomes? Ah, non.

Genetics play no greater role in their appearance than they do in ours. However, inheritance is primordial. Under the care and counsel of their mothers and grandmothers, French girls inherit good habits, the primary explanation of the fact that Frenchwomen of a certain age have glowing, youthful looking skin throughout their lives.

Let me assure you, though, before we continue: it is never too late to begin taking special care of your face and body. Measurable, radiant results will be your reward. I promise. Although I’ve taken good care of my face over the years (thanks to my mother), with the advice I’ve accumulated from French dermatologists, internists, estheticians, plastic surgeons, pharmacists, and friends, I have seen a remarkable improvement in what the French call the éclat, or sparkle (éclat is a surface that reflects light), and texture of my skin.

In this chapter, I will tell you—from face to feet, detail by detail, ritual by ritual, secret by secret—everything I’ve learned about how Frenchwomen approach the care and maintenance of their skin and, once again, how they take pleasure in the process.


Everyone agrees, a woman’s skin does not necessarily coincide with her chronological age and, yes, it can be younger looking than she actually is. The notion never occurred to me, but now it seems persuasively obvious.


Of course, Frenchwomen treat their faces with the greatest care and delicacy, but not one millimeter of their skin is neglected. Just because under ordinary circumstances one can’t see every inch doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pampered. Daily, creams and lotions follow showers, baths, and the rinse-off after hours in a pool or the ocean. Rich oils and butters (more on this in a second) are applied as intensive treatments to hydrate the body, particularly after a long winter undercover. And both the unseen and the face are treated ever so gently. For example, if you like the effect of a good scrub with ramie or sisal bath gloves, boil the gloves first. Yes, that’s right. Pascale, director of the friendly, neighborhood Bernard Cassière spa in the fourteenth arrondissement, says they are too abrasive in their natural state. She likes them once they’ve been cooked for a couple of minutes. (You’ll see. The difference is remarkable, and the exfoliating benefits are equally effective.)

Care and maintenance rituals, I’m convinced, depend partially on a woman’s personality—combined with time constraints and discipline. Some of us bask in the joy of a lengthy toilette, the ceremony of bathing and grooming. Others of us have neither the leisure nor the inclination to indulge in a drawn-out process. But either way, pleasure should be part of the procedure. Why do some women see beauty ministrations as a chore?

Frenchwomen do not.

I think the idea requires a rethink for us. Think French. Take joy where you find it; create it where you can. Believe me, taking good care of one’s self, starting from the top, is the gift to yourself that keeps on giving.

I have tested every product and process I tell you about, and I can assure you that after applying the advice in these pages, you, too, will appear younger, need less makeup, and spend more time accepting compliments than you do performing your new beauty routines.


Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my French friends is that every woman must have her very own dermatologist. I have to admit, this was a surprise for me, as I had never been to a dermatologist except with my mother, who had serious skin allergies. (Her doctor was Austrian and way back then he told my mother to keep me out of the sun as much as possible and to use a sunblock he prescribed. Luckily for me, long before sun worshipping was found to be one of our worst enemies, I was being protected.)


According to doctors and estheticians, the licensed skin specialists who perform facials, hair removal, various beauty-related body treatments—you know, all those treatments that make us want to check into a spa—self-diagnosis is the single major mistake a woman can make when caring for her skin. Carole Doubilet, esthetician and director of the smart Sothys spa in Paris, told me, “A woman may think her skin is dry or oily, for example, but those sensations could merely be a reaction to the wrong products or exceptional exposure to the elements, including heat and air-conditioning.”

Though estheticians and dermatologists don’t always agree on everything, on that subject there are no arguments. Most women choose cleansing and treatment products by relying upon random recommendations from friends, advertisements, sales personnel, and editorial spreads in their favorite magazines. We compile information, but it may have no relevance for us. “It’s a waste of time, effort, and money,” Doubilet points out. “A professional can examine a woman’s face and tell her exactly the condition of her skin. From that moment forward, she will know how to take care of it properly.”

Dermatologists are members of Frenchwomen’s indispensable coteries, and as time marches on, relationships with them become ever more intimate and indispensable. Of course, a dermatologist is there for problems, but from my experience, she also comes as close as one can to providing a prescription for the fountain of youth without general anesthesia. Valérie Gallais, a prominent Paris dermatologist who has movie-star clients (I’ve seen them slink down the hallway into her office), told me that unless a woman has a serious skin condition requiring medical treatment, she advises her patients to schedule annual visits.

“I do a classic head-to-toe examination, looking for melanomas or other spots that may draw my attention. After, we sit down and discuss beauty,” she said. “It’s more fun for a woman to conclude an appointment on an upbeat note. In my diagnostic exam I also assess the condition of her face. I ask new patients about their lifestyles, products, and beauty routines. If they’re using the wrong products for their skin, I’ll explain, or if they can tolerate a more potent formula—and they would see more dramatic results—I will recommend another product or give them a prescription for something more performant,” meaning something that works better, produces more remarkable results.

“Often, patients who have been coming to me for years need to change brands or move on to stronger versions in the same line because their skin has changed. Formulations must evolve with a woman. It’s probable she shouldn’t be using the same cream at fifty she used at forty or forty-five. Even five years may be too long to stay loyal to a specific product; it might be necessary to bump it up a notch or two.”

LET’S BE PERFECTLY CLEAR: A dermatologist is not a luxury. A dermatologist is our greatest anti-aging ally, translation: a necessity. It’s possible to find a good dermatologist with whom one can develop a relationship no matter where we live. A yearly checkup with her, as with a gynecologist, is often covered by insurance. No one will call the police if you talk about anti-aging creams and moisturizing masks for a few minutes.

Dermatologists are an investment with major payoffs. If we follow the simple rules they proffer for care and cleansing, we will need practically no makeup and the makeup we do wear will appear invisible—completely naturel, exactly like that worn by a Frenchwoman of a certain age.

I’ve also discovered the products they recommend over the counter, and the more serious products for which they write up prescriptions, are a fraction of the price of less potent and far less effective brands in display-worthy packaging with mega advertising revenues behind them. So the investment pays off in your pocketbook as well. Remember, taking care of ourselves is not an indulgence. It is a requirement for our well-being and, as a consequence, the well-being of those we love. Maintenance can accommodate any budget.

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