Candles flicker in the dark room as Bon Iver’s Skinny Love plays from the speakers. I’m utterly calm underneath a weighted blanket—so much so that I find myself almost drifting to sleep. I can feel facialist Amanda Hlatky’s knuckles sculpting my cheekbones, contouring my jawline. Her hands are delicate yet strong, applying the perfect amount of pressure that allows my face to relax; there is no need for gua sha stones here. This afternoon is one of bliss, and my skin (and mind) is taking in each moment.
Until it hits: the smell.
The smell of vinegar splashed over flaming rotten garbage.
“Is that the P50?” I ask Hlatky.
“Yes,” she replies with a laugh.
“I can tell.”
French brand Biologique Recherche’s Lotion P50 is an icon among beauty industry peers, but not in the way that one might think. It doesn’t have chic packaging or an outrageous advertising campaign—it’s iconic because, well, it works. Those who keep up with beauty blogs might have seen this product being referred to as “Jesus in a bottle”—it’s an exfoliating toner that has been described as “life-changing,” and even deemed “the best beauty product in the world.” In Vancouver, anyone who wants to experience it in all of its glory can head to West 1st Avenue in Kitsilano, near Cypress Street, and down the stairs into Glow Dermal Therapy. Here, Hlatky’s pristine skin care boutique offers one of the city’s smelliest yet most indulgent services: the Biologique Recherche Bespoke Facial.
Sipping on rose-infused water before my treatment, I spot a shelf that houses the Biologique Recherche range. They look like lab bottles, because this is a luxury line without the frills—and Glow is stocked with the goods. There’s a pale-yellow serum for collagen production, a light orange formula called Serum Placenta that promotes healing and repairing, and an emerald-green concoction supposedly fantastic for dark circles. And amongst these things, there it is: Lotion P50. There seems to be only one on the shelf, which makes me think Vancouver skin worshippers know a good product when they see one (it’s a spa-professional item only sold by licensed retailers, meaning it can be difficult to track down). “It’s hard to keep them in stock,” Hlatky says of the P50 bottles, revealing that her last shipment sold out in 24 hours.
It’s been a few years since I myself had the product on my bathroom shelf, but I never forgot the smell. Emily Weiss, founder of beauty brand Glossier, said her partner called her “trash face” one day after she applied it. That’s because the product’s clarifying ingredients include lactic acid, gluconolactone, salicyclic acid, and sulfur, along with other fixings one most often finds in the kitchen: onion extract, horseradish, and vinegar. Although it reminds me of the smell of Vegemite, I can’t help but applaud this multi-functional cocktail for the skin. The original P50 1970 was created, evidently, in 1970 by Dr. Yvan Allouche; the aim was to make clinically active skin care with high concentrations of botanicals and marine extracts. The original product contained a controversial ingredient called phenol (now banned in the European Union and Canada in personal-care products because of its potential lung and skin irritant), so Allouche’s son, Philippe, re-launched the lotion in 2000 without it. Now P50 is the Biologique Recherche facial’s commander-in-chief around the globe (including at the brand’s Parisian spa along Champs-Élysées).
At Glow Dermal Therapy, Hlatky believes in a holistic whole-body approach to achieving vibrant skin, meaning she likes to get to know her clients on a personal level to understand the root of their concerns. Launched in 2015 near South Granville and located in Kits since 2017, Glow Dermal offers intraceutical oxygen-infused facials, microneedling, peels, and LED treatments—but today it’s all about the Biologique Recherche facial.
After a detailed analysis of my skin around a marble table, where she gets to know the canvas she is working with as I sit on a fuzzy pink chair, Hlatky tucks me in and invites me to relax on a soft bed. After three cleansing breaths, she purifies my skin with cold-press ingredients and signature Biologique Recherche techniques, and uses silicone mitts to relax my facial muscles and stimulate blood flow. And then I’m hit with a familiar tingling sensation (and that funky smell): I know P50 has been applied, and I know the exfoliate is already working. But I do not know what’s coming next.
“I’m going to apply Masque Vivant. It’s the stinky one,” Hlatky informs me. “It’s very intense.” So popular, the brand’s decongesting Masque Vivant, containing live yeast extracts, is currently on back-order in many parts of North America. Packed with amino acids and nourishing Vitamin B, Masque Vivant is praised by facialists for its revitalizing and brightening properties. After Hlatky applies the orange formula to my face, I feel unsettled for a few seconds thanks to the scent. “There’s something that smells worse than P50?” I ask myself. To help cover the unpleasantness, Hlatky mixes the product with Biologique Recherche’s oxygenating and more pleasing Masque VIP 02, so both masks can work in unison to exfoliate and purify my skin, all the while strengthening and hydrating it through keratolytic action—meaning skin becomes cleaner, smoother, and stronger (and odours are kept at bay).
The treatment finishes off with facial sticks and jade rollers to further penetrate the serums and activate the lymphatic system to absorb the nutrients. For an hour in Hlatky’s hands, all my senses are ignited; and before I go, she advises me that although my skin may smell, I should let the products sink in for at least 24 hours. I happily do so, even though every once in a while, I’m hit with a wave of yeast.
As I walk out of Glow Dermal Therapy with fresh, lifted skin, I reflect on Lotion P50 and the Biologique Recherche line. Is my jaw contoured? Yes. Are my cheekbones sculpted? Absolutely. Brighter? Most definitely. Textured? Unquestionably. And youthful? Indeed. Lotion P50 was not made to be beautiful or to be admired on a vanity, it was made to work. For devotees who can get beyond the smell, they will discover that this really is one of the industry’s best magic potions.