When I graduated from college and found myself the owner of a fresh face full of acne instead of the maturely marbled visage I had imagined, I felt cheated. There’s nothing wrong with having acne, obviously, but at the time I was operating under the mistaken impression that it was a skin condition native to puberty. Ergo, I sought to eradicate it immediately so I could proceed in manifesting the pristine and pimple-free adult version of myself that burned like a hypothetical torch in my mind, and this, my friends, is the bedrock of zeal that paved the way for my relationship with what (unbeknownst to me) would become the most significant staple of my skincare regime: Biologique Recherche Lotion P50.
Just typing those words feels almost mythic. Maybe because two of them are French, but also maybe because the particular product to which they refer has gained a following tantamount to that of something divine (it has, after all, been called “Jesus in a bottle”). I first read about Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, a chemical exfoliator, during one of my intensive acne cure research dives on the revered blog of skincare expert Caroline Hirons. She wrote that “what it actually does is make your skin look BRAND NEW, feel like SILK and make everything you put on top of it work ten times better” — which sounds hyperbolic but was quite frankly conservative praise compared to what I soon uncovered upon deeper digging:
“I started using it a year ago and I haven’t had a blackhead since,” writer Jill Kargman told the New York Times. “A friend of mine who has gorgeous skin was the one to tell me about it. I ran into her and was like, ‘Why do you look like a fetus?’ She explained and I ran to get it. Now I don’t use cleanser, just this.”
“I use Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 morning and night—it’s life-changing,” Clique Media CEO Katherine Power told Into the Gloss.
Is $67 too much to pay for five ounces of an alleged MIRACLE?! This was the not-at-all absurd question I asked myself as I wincingly entered my credit card number online at Rescue Spa, one of the mysteriously few online purveyors of Biologique Recherche. At the time there were six varietals of Lotion P50 available for purchase: three different strengths of the original “1970” formula that was first released in — you guessed it!– 1970, and contains the controversial ingredient phenol, an exfoliant that was banned in Europe but is still allowed in the U.S. (for what it’s worth, Sofia Vergara’s dermatologist says it’s safe, but it’s here that I stress: please consult your dermatologist before trying anything on your skin), and three different strengths of a subsequent phenol-free formula released in 2000. I ordered the Lotion P50 Original “1970,” which not only contains phenol but is also the highest-strength phenol-containing formula. I wasn’t messing around. Again, though, consult your derm.
When my bottle arrived, I unscrewed the cap and took a tentative sniff, confirming the numerous reports I’d read about its strong vinegary scent. I almost didn’t want it to work, mainly because of the steep cost but also because I prefer to eat salad dressing as opposed to smelling like it. One month of daily application later, though, and I was essentially acne-free. Poof! I know. I feel a bit sheepish admitting that. It sounds too good to be true. But I swear on my (potentially) maturely marbled visage it isn’t, which is why I used Lotion P50 religiously for the next four years.
Then, about a month ago, I had a moment of rebellion, which is code for “I was feeling lazy and decided to forgo the intermediary step between cleansing and moisturizing in my skincare routine that night,” so I skipped over P50 and delighted in tucking myself into bed no more and no less than 60 seconds faster than usual. It was such a strange and stupid thrill that I did it again the next night, and the night after that, and the night after that, and all of a sudden I’d gone a week without applying P50 and my skin looked…fine. The same. Totally unfazed. So I kept at it.
If my face continued to look fine, I’m certain I would have experienced a low-key existential crisis, spiraling about all the years and all the vinegar smells and all the expenditures and wondering whether this miracle was actually so miraculous after all. But sure enough, a couple weeks later, my skin started to seem…displeased. Dull. Patchy. Flaky. I don’t have acne anymore so the difference wasn’t stark, but it was noticeable enough for me to unscrew the lid of my neglected P50 with great flourish and massage it into my cheeks as if they were the finest of salad Nicoises. As much as I enjoyed my lazy foray into a two-step skin regimen, man was it great to be back on the sauce.
My brief flirtation with a P50-free skincare regime and the results that ensued made me deeply curious about why, exactly, P50 is so good at whatever it does (exfoliate? tone? balance? all of the above?). I knew it worked, but what makes it so much better than all the other fun acids that populate 2018’s burgeoning skincare industrial complex? What makes it worth all the vinegar smells and all the expenditures? To get answers, I went straight to the source: Dr. Philippe Allouche, a co-founder of Biologique Recherche who now operates as Head of Creation and C.E.O. in North America.
“The [P50] formulas are effective due to their unique combination of hydroxyl acids,” he told me. “The formulas offer exfoliating ingredients like lactic acid and cider vinegar, which removes dead cells and impurities to promote an even skin tone. Plus, salicylic acid, which makes the product great for combating acne and keeping skin clear of blemishes. It also contains ingredients (like Vitamin B3) that improves the strength of the epidermis, balance the surface pH of the skin, all while enhancing epidermal renewal.”
BUT WHAT MAKES IT MAGIC?!?!?, I asked (thankfully in gentler wording and fewer punctuation marks over email despite the fact that all I wanted to do was shout this question over the rooftops of my pores). In response, he told me:
“I always say, if someone loves this product, they love it for the rest of their life. I don’t like to talk about magic, because I’m a scientist, but there is something about P50 which is not palpable. It is at the core of what we do, and it helps a lot of people. And there is magic in that.”
For further insight, I turned to Diana Yerkes, lead aesthetician at the New York City outpost of Rescue Spa. In addition to confirming that Lotion P50 is great for all skin types (“It’s perfect for all skins from the most sensitive to the most congested”) and its efficacy (“After awhile your skin exhibits the most coveted gorgeous healthy glow”), Yerkes also enthusiastically offered up the results of her personal experience:
“I have been using P50 1970 for over six years. I prefer formulations with phenol for anyone who lives in a major city like New York and needs to fight impurities and pollution a little harder than someone in a country. There are multiple variations of the formula to address every concern from dryness to pigmentation. Lotion P50 is a true magic potion. It is a balancing toner even though it’s known to majority as an exfoliator. The exfoliation is just one of the added benefits!”
I know, I know — again with the magic. This recurring motif was about as subtle as a toenail in a bowl of oatmeal. On top of that, when I posted a poll on my Instagram Stories asking if regular users of Lotion P50 would call it “life-changing,” 43 percent answered yes. I also received hundreds of DMs in response, which included a few naysayers but by and large amounted to an outpouring of unabashed adulation. Eleven people deployed the word “magic” to describe it, which doesn’t even count the four people who opted for the adjective “magical.” I read all of them in one sitting and finally understood the meaning of a cult beauty product. In this case, though, I was already indoctrinated.
Do you use Lotion P50? Did it change your life? Let’s take this discussion to the comments.
Gif by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.