We Investigate the Smelly, "Life-Changing" French Skincare Product Editors Love
When you run through the long list of French beauty products we covet here overseas—from Bioderma to Biofine—they all have certain things in common: They’re chic, non-affronting, and smell sort of like a freshly laundered T-shirt. They’re basically the essence of a French woman distilled to product form, and perhaps that’s why we yearn for them so strongly. But then there’s Biologique Recherche P50. If all the other French products were the Plastics from Mean Girls, Biologique Recherche P50 is Janis Ian. The off-white plastic bottle boasts purple accents and a computerised font that looks straight out of the early ’90s. It’s made with ingredients like onion extract, horseradish, and vinegar and smells like a mix between garbage and yogurt that’s been left out for too long. It is, quite clearly, a black sheep among its mild, understated peers.
Yet still, glowy-skinned women like Emily Weiss and Garance Doré all swear by its magic abilities—our very own CEO, Katherine Power, calls it “life-changing.” Devotees swear that it erases dark spots, shrinks pores, and balances your complexion so that the final effect is something akin to a cherub’s bottom. Curious about whether this under-the-radar product is truly as paradigm-shifting as its followers proclaim, I did some investigating that involved a one-on-one consultation with Philippe Allouche himself, the son of Biologique’s founder, who took over the company in the early 2000s. Keep scrolling to find out everything you need to know about Biologique Recherche P50.
First, a little background. Like most under-the-radar, cult-favorite beauty products, P50 possesses an air of mystery tinged with intrigue, not least of which is because it’s hard to both pronounce and procure. Plus, the original version, P50 1970 (created, aptly, in 1970 by Allouche’s father) contained a controversial ingredient called phenol. Phenol is banned in the EU in personal-care products as a potential lung and skin irritant, while strangely still being allowed in the U.S. Possibly to quell the rising concerns from over the pond, Allouche re-launched his line’s lotion as P50 in 2000; it doesn’t contain phenol but smells just as potent. Alongside the standard P50 (which the brand recommends for normal to oily skin), there are also three other versions: P50V, which is vitamin-enriched for more mature skin types; P50W, the milder version for sensitive skin; and P50 PIGM 400, the newest one, which is less acidic and specially targeted to lighten hyperpigmentation.
But let’s talk about what’s actually in the skin-tingling, vinaigrette-smelling formula. In order to understand the product, it’s important to understand Allouche’s approach to skincare. “The epidermis is everything,” he tells me, impassioned, at the Ciel Spa in the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, where I have just received a signature Biologique Recherche facial. “The epidermis is a platform for information—filtering, buffering, directing information from outside to inside and inside to outside. And it’s our last fortress against free radicals, so it has to be strong—it has to be protecting us.” Allouche says it’s important for the ecosystem of your skin—which includes its pH and lipid levels—to be healthy, even with the naturally occurring bacteria flourishing as a function of protection, just like probiotics in your gut. If you have a balanced, flourishing epidermis, ingredients can penetrate and affect what’s going on beneath the surface; otherwise, they won’t be effective, no matter how “active” they are. This was the mindset that spurred the creation of P50 1970 and its reiterations, which include exfoliating ingredients like lactic acid and salicylic acid and promise to balance your skin’s pH, regulate oil production, brighten dark spots, even skin texture, and help with acne.
Armed with this knowledge and Allouche’s fervent speech ringing in my ears, I started incorporating P50 into my daily skincare routine. The instructions say you can apply with your hands or a cotton pad; I chose to pat it into my skin like an essence because 1) I don’t like wasting product, and 2) a sick part of me wanted to see if I would experience the redness and tingling others boast so much about. Spoiler: I didn’t. Other than inhaling a strong vinegary scent, I did not feel the flush or burn on my skin like I was secretly hoping I would. I checked with Byrdie Beauty Director Deven Hopp, who had used the product before. “If I use it after I’ve exfoliated, I do feel a slight sting, a feeling I actually kind of love,” she affirmed. “You really feel like it’s working. After, my skin can look a little pink or rather fresh.” Um, no fair.
I was somewhat appeased knowing that the tingling can occur if your skin is out of whack and can feel the acidity of the solution, so perhaps my skin (unlike my life) is just incredibly balanced. I used the P50 consistently for a few weeks, religiously patting it in after cleansing and sometimes following with the Placenta Crème, which looks and smells like the P50 in moisturiser form (aka sour-smelling and unpleasant) and was recommended to me by the esthetician. (After googling, I found that this cream is recommended for “young skin,” which makes me cackle and gaze lovingly at my complexion in the mirror, apologizing for all the times I cursed it. This adoration period lasts exactly until another surprise zit springs up in the middle of my forehead.)
After a few weeks of use, I do think my skin looks and feels more balanced. I’m usually very oily but found that my forehead was less shiny during my midday blotting check. Also, when I slacked and forgot to use it for a few days in a row, I could’ve sworn I saw new blackheads creep around my nose. My pores (sadly) looked the same size, but overall, my skin felt brighter, clearer, and cleaner, if that makes sense. Plus, supposedly Madonna and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen use it, so truly I have no regrets. And lastly, a weird part of me actually likes the smell now. Call it conditioning, but I find myself almost craving the product on certain nights; my skincare routine just doesn’t feel complete without it. I’m not sure what that says about me, but at least I can rest assured that my skin is reaping the benefits of my addictive habits.
You can purchase Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 at biologiquerepercheuk.co.uk and select spas and retailers, or in France.
Have you ever tried this cult product? Tell me your experiences below!