When it comes to quality skin care, it's easy to feel like the more you pay, the better your results will be. While that is certainly true in some instances, there are exceptions — and this could be the biggest one we've seen in a while. Enter: a moisturizing face cream with the backing of a ground-breaking French skin treatment center, five years of devoted research, and 13 clinical studies. Oh, and did we mention that it's under $20?
It may seem too good to be true, but I can tell you firsthand that it's not. How do I know? Because I traveled to a remote part of France to see not only how it's made, but the people whose lives have been changed by the science behind it. (Spoiler: It has to do with bacteria.) It's the biggest release in years from storied skin-care company La Roche Posay — and we've got the full scoop. But let's back up to the beginning.
First Came The Town, Then Came The Brand
This story starts four hours south of Paris, in a town where everyone's favorite French drugstore brand hails: La Roche Posay. One of the draws of the sleepy region is a government-subsidized skin treatment center that specializes in severe cases of eczema and acne, psoriasis, scarring, rosacea, and more, plus various skin issues faced by cancer patients after surgery or chemotherapy.
Here at Les Thermes La Roche Posay, a center that opened its doors in 1904, the mostly-French population of patients spend three vigorous weeks, six full days per week, being aggressively treated with — get ready — water!
Each year, thousands of people here are treated with hydrotherapy. That is, nothing more than the thermal spring water coming up from the ground. Patients are (quite literally) placed on stretchers and sprayed, misted, and bathed for extended periods of time by doctors and specialists. They also drink the unfiltered water — about a liter per day. (You can scroll down to the bottom of this page to watch a video of the treatments in action.)
I realize that this probably isn't what you expected. It doesn't look or feel like a luxurious spa by any means; more like a pared-down hospital with the addition of gym showers. What the hell could you possibly get from a few weeks spent receiving a steady prescription of water? Turns out, a lot.
On average, a three week stay at the center results in major improvement. Of a recent sampling of patients, 86% saw improved skin flexibility and elasticity, 83% found a decrease in itching, 80% saw a reduction of scars, and 65% saw an increase in self esteem. (Yes, they monitor just about everything.) In a recent study on those with psoriasis, 93% saw a reduction in dryness, 67% saw a decrease in pruritus (severe itching), and joint pain was reduced in 16%.
The Fountain Of... A Better Barrier?
So how the hell does it work? And what does it have to do with this drugstore cream? So glad you asked.
You've probably heard about your skin's "moisture barrier," but your skin has another barrier, too — something La Roche Posay scientists are just now starting to understand as the "microbiome," a diverse and apparently very sensitive community of micro-organisms that live on the skin's surface. And when that community is thrown off in any way, that's when skin problems arise. Case in point: All the patients at the center with atopic dermatitis (eczema) and psoriasis suffer from the bacterial imbalance upon arrival.
The reason that hydrotherapy often works for them is because the unfiltered spring water isn't treated or filtered and has just the right mix of bacteria and minerals to correct skin conditions. In other words, it acts a bit like a restart button, resetting the skin's natural bacteria to an equilibrium where it can, in short, protect itself better. It's not as easy as adding a certain bacteria, but rather how all the bacteria interacts together to protect the skin.
But there's a problem: The water from this spring is only good for three days. After that, the bacteria starts to multiply and becomes unsafe for humans. But there is one thing they can take from it...
Cracking The Code In Chimex
After my stop in La Roche Posay (and armed with my own bottle of thermal water to sip — quickly), I headed to parent company L'Oréal's bacteria research center in Chimex, France, a few hours north.
There I entered a top-secret lab where a small staff of scientists are studying pre- and probiotics.
To clarify, prebiotics are the "food" that good bacteria "feed" on to survive, normally made up of molecules in the carbohydrate family. (All these years and the answer was carbs — we should’ve known!) They're not to be confused with probiotics, which is what we call good bacteria. (Again, you need bacteria diversity, not just "good bacteria," for healthy skin.)
Got it? Great, because it's all about to come together.
Five Years and 13 Studies Later...
Here's where it gets good: The prebiotic discovered in the thermal spring water, the one that's been proven to help the skin's microbiome thrive, was finally harnessed and is now available in a range of products from LRP — without a trip to rural France. (Although, to be honest, go if you can!)
Think of this line, of which the cream is our favorite, as a healthy snack for your skin. In fact, in testing, the brand found that the skin's barrier looked and acted better in just one hour after using it. Plus, it has extras, like ceramide-3, to help support the moisture barrier; niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3 that they've found helps to sooth skin; and glycerin to lock it all in. I got my hands on it upon release and immediately noticed a major improvement in both the comfort and hydration levels of my own dry skin — and I have no plans to stop using it.
Is it as amazing as a trip to rural France? Few things are — but for $20 it could just be the fuel your skin needs to look and feel its best. And if that isn't a breakthrough, we don't know what is.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Moisturizer, $19.99, available at La Roche Posay.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?