The French Girl's Secret to Perfect Skin

It's all about exfoliation.

Photography by Phuong Nguyen

Just when we think we’ve figured out that je ne sais quoi that makes French women so unapologetically chic, we hear another tip that makes us fall in love all over again. (And makes us question why we don’t truly adopt their lifestyle by dropping everything and also moving to France?!) While we may have already hit peak French girl, we can’t deny that they’ve got it figured out when it comes to their skincare and beauty regimens.

So while recently chatting with Bordeaux native and Caudalie skin care specialist Melissa Sarps (at Caudalie’s chic Meatpacking spa), she blew our mind with the simple, gentle way most French women exfoliate. (Key word being "gentle!")

“A lot of [French women] are going to use chemical [exfoliation], but very light ones,” says Sarps. “Like glycolic acid, but a low concentration. Even when you look at Caudalie’s mask, like the glycolic peel mask, it’s such a low concentration of glycolic acid that it’s not going to irritate your skin; it’s just going to help get rid of the excess of dead skin cells, and help to brighten the skin—that’s it. We don’t want to get rid of the top layer of skin.”

We all know that exfoliation is great, but the secret to success is responsible exfoliating. Glycolic acid is a great place to start. It is the smallest molecule of the alpha hydroxy acid family (which includes malic, tartaric, salicylic, mandelic, and lactic). But glycolic is especially great at improving skin’s appearance and building collagen. When used correctly, this form of exfoliation can dramatically improve skin tone, texture, firmness, and radiance, while minimizing the appearance of pores and reducing sun damage, hyperpigmentation, and old acne scars.

This gentle chemical mix is a vast difference from the traditional way most Americans exfoliate, which is basically the belief of "kill it with acid." We tend to be a lot harsher with our exfoliation, but it's important to note that irritation doesn’t mean it’s working. Irritation and inflammation are actually two of the biggest causes of aging to skin, so let’s take a note from the French and be more gentle to our skin. This relates to physical exfoliants, too (aka scrubs or any peel with a grain in it). There are pros and cons that we’ll get into in an upcoming article, but in general, chemical exfoliants are more gentle and controlled versus an abrasive psychical one.

Here’s a few of our very favorite ways to exfoliate via chemicals. And notes on usage: Best practice is to use it at least once a week, depending on your skin type. For dry skin, Sarps recommends just once a week, and someone with oily skin should use it twice a week.

Courtesy of Caudalie

Glycolic Peel, Caudalie, $39

Perfect for the beginners, basically a 101 intro to exfoliation. It’s gentle, quick, efficient, and cost-effective since that tube will last like a year-plus.

Courtesy of Renée Rouleau

Ultra Gentle Smoothing Serum, Renée Rouleau, $47.50

This exfoliating serum has 10 percent lactic and glycolic blend, making it gentle but the next step up in exfoliating. Let’s call it Exfoliation 201. This is different than a mask, too, as you this mix you leave on overnight—use for three nights on, then three nights off.

Courtesy of Ren

Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask, Ren, $55

This baby has got a potent blend of four alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic acid from pineapples, lactic acid from passion fruits, citric acid from lemons, and tartaric acid from grapes) to gently dissolving dead skin cells and boost your natural collagen production. This one tingles a bit, but is still gentle while being highly effective.

Keep on French’ing:
The French Girl’s Guide to Cooking Eggs
This French Girl-Approved Trend Is Actually Super Affordable
How to Wash Your Face, The French Way

Published on May 11, 2018 - 1:00pm EDT

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