I’ve been listening to Britt drone on about Biologique Recherche’s Lotion P50 for almost a year now. I think it smells like a rotten nail salon and have seen great results from Retin-A and my trusty Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Pads, so I was skeptical. She swears it’s changed her skin. But I can admit I’m in the minority here, because every single person I’ve talked to who has used it loves it and insists it’s life- and skin-changing. Women everywhere are dropping $90 on what is essentially stinky water that burns your face. Fine. I decided to commit and have been using it for a few months.
Which is why on Tuesday Dr. Philippe Allouche was scrutinizing my skin: “You need lipids! And stop using the P50 1970!” The second part of this pronunciation is disconcerting coming from the man who owns the company that makes it.
French brand Biologique Recherche has been making Lotion P50 for more than 40 years. While it produces dozens of other skincare products, P50 is by far its most well-known and most beloved product. Beauty editors rave about it. Fashion people rave about it. People who are skincare geeks rave about it. Madonna uses it (allegedly). Britt has a friend who was recently asked if she’d gotten Botox, but no, she’s just been using P50 twice daily. This type of hyperbolic story is commonplace when P50 comes up.
It’s not a lotion at all in the conventional sense, but a clear, watery chemical exfoliator that you can apply with a cotton pad, like a toner, or directly onto your face. It exfoliates, can get rid of dark spots, can help get rid of acne, regulates sebum, and imparts a general glowiness. Have I mentioned it smells absolutely disgusting? Britt calls it formaldehyde, and as a person who spent several semesters with cadavers in an anatomy lab, I agree with this description.
There are currently seven versions of P50. Dr. Allouche’s father started producing the original formula, now called 1970, in the 1970s, but a newer, re-formulated version was released in 2000. Each of these, the old and new versions, come in three strengths: regular, P50V (moderate strength), and P50W (sensitive skin) formula. A brand new version called P50 PIGM 400, for sensitive skin with extra ingredients for fighting hyperpigmentation, is the reason I was sitting in the lounge at the uber-fancy Peninsula Hotel in NYC letting Dr. Allouche, head of creation and co-owner of Biologique Recherche in the US, criticize my skincare regimen.
While P50 is the tentpole of the brand, the 1970 formula is controversial thanks to phenol, a compound that has been banned in Europe in personal care products but that we still allow in the US. According to Cosmetics Info, the cosmetic industry’s ingredient website, phenol is an exfoliant and also has antimicrobial qualities. According to the EWG, the organization that likes to scare the crap out of everyone about their beauty products, it’s rated a “7,” for “high hazard.” It’s a known lung irritant that can burn your skin at high concentrations and cause irritation at lower ones. Phenol is also the chemical that is in throat spray drugs like Chloraseptic, and it has a mild numbing effect. I had been wondering why the skin around my mouth felt tingly and weird after using the P50 1970. That’s why.
(For a more thorough explanation of the ingredients, please go read the brilliant Kerry Thompson at Skin & Tonics, a K-beauty blogger and co-author of Korean Beauty Secrets: A Practical Guide to Cutting-Edge Skincare & Makeup.)
“I think the phenol is too harsh,” says Dr. Allouche. “Why we keep the 1970 is it’s for people who are totally crazy about exfoliation. I keep saying to them, ‘You need to be a carpenter, not a bulldozer,’ but they still, especially eastern European women and some Asian women, they like the original.” He recommends using 1970 for a month or two, then switching to a more gentle version for a bit if you insist on the burn.
The newer P50 sensitive skin formula is actually the most popular. No phenol means less burn and less stink, but it does have a few extra acids, vinegar (also in the 1970), onions, and horseradish — it’s basically skincare vinaigrette. The new PRM 400 also contains wasabi.
The vinegar helps to buffer the other acids in the formula. According to Dr. Allouche, the formula sits for six months at the manufacturing facility, where the pH is monitored by an intern daily until it’s stabilized. Then the formula is stirred slowly and continuously for five days, like “the traditional way of making perfume.”
Onion, says Dr. Allouche, is anti-inflammatory and promotes skin renewal. Wasabi and horseradish both contain a chemical called isothiocyanate, which has antimicrobial effects, but their heat is tempered by the addition of vinegar.
The final mystery surrounding P50 is its elusiveness. The marketing puts Kylie Jenner to shame. You can’t waltz into Sephora and buy it. BR doesn’t even sell its products on its own website. Dr. Allouche says it’s a “big fight everyday” against people who want him to offer the product more widely. He feels strongly that it should remain a professional brand to be doled out by spas and aestheticians. It’s currently in 72 countries, but it’s in only about 150 spas in the US and only a fraction of these sell the products online.
Two that do – Paul Labrecque and Rescue Spa – require you to set up a login before you can even view the pricing. I’ll save you the 30 seconds: depending on the size and formula, P50 costs anywhere from $27 for a travel size to $112 for an 8.4 ounce version.
Like any luxury product, the brand has had some issues with counterfeiting. It has a very elaborate tracking process, and claims to be the only beauty brand that uses the same process as pharmaceutical companies to trace the origins of the product from start to finish. It also has a “proof tag” that you need to break when you unscrew the cap for the first time. So don’t buy it on eBay.
Convinced that you want to try P50? Just choose your formula wisely. “We have so much stress,” Dr. Allouche says. “Don’t add chemical stress on top of it.”
Update: February 5th, 2018, 10:47 a.m.
This post had been updated to remove incorrect information about vinegar’s pH.