Last week, continuing my theme of self-education, I ventured out of the UK on a press trip. My heart doesn’t leap at the prospect of a press trip but it’s the best way to satisfy this sceptic’s curiosity and it does at least allow me to ask disobliging questions about science, testing and marketing puff. There are two reasons I accepted this invitation: first, it was from 40-year-old French skincare brand Phytomer and I have always believed the French know what’s what in that area; second, the brand is all about marine products and algae.
I can’t help but theorise that as our oceans are the cradle of life, it naturally follows that they should be the cradle of a great many other things too. Lots of good stuff comes out of our blue healing seas and it’s usually horribly expensive – Crème de la Mer, for example, and the mysterious kelp-based “Miracle Broth”. The problem I have with Crème de la Mer (owned by Estée Lauder) is that it’s a bit light on the science and that’s what I want to know about. Give me good science and I’m happy. I also want something a bit more concrete than “harvested sustainably” when the principle ingredient is hauled out of a notoriously fragile ecosystem twice a year. So, with my Guardian credentials fluttering proudly from my Invisible Woman mast, I set off for Brittany and a tour of the Phytomer Research and Development Laboratories.
A proper laboratory means togging up in overalls, which certainly puts you in the right frame of mind for microscopes and gently gyratingErlenmeyer flasks. The thing about algae is that although it doesn’t look as though it does much, it’s developed its own personal systems to protect against pollution, UV light and physical damage and we can learn from that. And algae bursts with the stuff our own skins need to do the same.
At this point I began to worry about algae and ecosystems but the thoughtful people at Phytomer are able to grow and farm their own algae in a controlled environment so once they have a species growing in their laboratories they no longer have to collect it from the sea. Watching fluffy little pompoms of red algae happily bobbing up and down in a giant tube of purified water is a memory I will cherish even if it did mean I had to wear a hairnet to see it. Do you worry about testing? So do I, but here it’s dealt with in a meticulous and thoughtful way, carried out in stages first in the laboratories on actual human skin and then going out to teams of volunteers for live testing.
So what’s this stuff like? During our short visit we got to try out a few things (of course). As the oldest in the group by a good 25 years and having spent a good few hours being mishandled by a well-known budget airline, I confidently anticipated being what you might call a “hard sell”. There was, however, a wonderfully good facial, which left my skin feeling the cleanest it has for a very long time and, best of all, it was carried out without a hint of a gamelan or singing whale, just skilled and efficient professional treatment with no daft gizmos. Much like the products themselves.
‘m having a go myself with some samples of the latest thing – Pionnière XMF – and I’ll let you know how I get on. I believe in giving things a fair crack before passing judgment. The initial signs are encouraging though: I find I only need to use a little and it does feel beautiful on the skin. It’sexpensive but I’m inclined to agree with Hadley Freeman that with moisturisers you largely get what you pay for. The rest of the range is well-priced and affordable – certainly on a par with my long-term French favourite, Caudalie, whose products are based on grape seed.
There was only one thing about the trip that niggled the 1970s feminist in me and that was having a bunch of male scientists tell a group of intelligent female journalists what women need for their skin. That, to me, seemed faintly ridiculous but then it had been a very early start and I was feeling a bit middle-aged by then.
What I did like, and liked a lot, was the care, thought and hard work that had gone into producing an ecologically sound, sustainable and high-quality natural product with a tiddly carbon footprint, minimal waste and a determination to preserve the local environment from which it comes. The last note from my visit reads: “Water purified through reed beds – big tick.”