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Why have French pharmacies become tourist attractions on par with the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, and Moulin Rouge?

Recognisable by the famous green cross that is posted outside them, the pharmacies are highly prized by certain tourists

Published: Sep 15, 2023 04:54:43 PM IST
Updated: Sep 15, 2023 04:58:01 PM IST

Why have French pharmacies become tourist attractions on par with the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, and Moulin Rouge?French pharmacies are considered a must for Americans visiting France. Image: Shutterstock

Americans are known for taking photos of the delights on offer in French bakeries but another type of business is also a source of fascination for visitors and their social media followers—French pharmacies. While French residents may find it comical, it's been a real phenomenon for several years and has recently been boosted by social network posts. In fact, the hashtag #frenchpharmacy has already passed the 100-million-view mark on TikTok.

Among the top sites drawing tourists in Paris are the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysées avenue, the Louvre, the banks of the Seine, the Moulin Rouge, and "French pharmacies." Recognizable by the famous green cross that is posted outside them, the pharmacies are highly prized by certain tourists, including Americans, who, even if they don't come to France specifically to visit them, rarely leave without a souvenir picked up between the painkillers and cough syrup aisles. This passion for French pharmacies is not new, but it has become more widespread—or has been brought to mainstream attention—on social networks, where products from French pharmacies are regularly the subject of discussion.

130 million views

There are countless hashtags on the Chinese social network TikTok dedicated to French pharmacies and their offerings, with no fewer than 139 million views for #frenchpharmacy, as well as 65 million views for #frenchpharmacyskincare, and even 12 million views for #frenchpharmacyhaul. For Americans, the products found in French pharmacies represent a real goldmine. The reason is simple: they're not sold in the USA or are more expensive there. And the trend also allows content creators to showcase cosmetics and hygiene products considered "rare" or "highly sought-after," which then creates more buzz around these stores, seen more often than not by the French as healthcare establishments.

In the eyes of French consumers the videos that accompany these hashtags are comical as for them, they put the spotlight on products that they see as part of everyday use. While certain brands that are highly prized in the USA are regularly featured—such as Caudalie, Embryolisse, Nuxe, Biafine, Bioderma, La Roche-Posay and Avène, to name but a few—the videos also feature products that don't seem to be specific to France. In some of the videos, American tourists film themselves buying children's nail polish, unicorn bandages, toothbrushes, makeup remover pads and ear plugs. Products that can easily be found in the USA.

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A tourist attraction?

In many of the videos, the creator approaches French pharmacies as tourist attractions in and of themselves. Rather than a haul format where they film all the products bought in these establishments, they create entire short films based on their visits. We see them arriving at one pharmacy or another, filming the storefronts, then immortalizing each aisle, paying particular attention to the most coveted products, with a complete panorama of everything you can find in a French pharmacy. Hair products, bandages, toothpaste, vitamins, skincare, baby products... nothing is left out.

Cosmetics and skincare are clearly the main attraction, but it's worth noting that the establishments themselves and the services they offer are also appealing to these tourists, who often express surprise that they sell only medical and beauty products, and not food, toys or office supplies, as is the case with the US drugstore model. Another important detail is that French pharmacies are also seen as "safe" places to find "healthy" products for the skin, with most users referring to the concept of "holistic beauty." It all depends, however, on how these products are used...

Biafine isn't a day cream

The considerable enthusiasm in the US for products sold in French pharmacies has even made its way to celebrity circles, with Emily Ratajkowski, Selena Gomez and Gwyneth Paltrow a few famous faces who have already expressed interest in a particular skincare brand, range or product, either in interviews or on their social media accounts. Certain specific products have gone viral, or sparked a whole trend, such as that of 'Face Wine,' which features one of Caudalie's flagship products. But there are also some worrying practices in the mix, including using products for an off-label purpose, a habit that can be harmful to both skin and health.

That's what happened last year with Biafine, a popular product among the creators posting about French pharmacies. Some social media users decided to use it as a day cream. The problem with this, however, is that, as the brand states in its product description, Biafine is indicated "for the dressing and management of treatment of superficial wounds, minor abrasions, dermal ulcers, donor sites, 1st and 2nd degree burns, including sunburns, and radiation dermatitis." On the French website, it outlines (in French): "Always use this product exactly as instructed in this leaflet, or as directed by your doctor or pharmacist. Check with your doctor or pharmacist if in doubt." It is therefore not at all intended to be used to nourish the skin, especially as, like all medical formulations, it can cause undesirable effects.

It was a similar story with A313 ointment, also touted by some American users as a day cream, or even anti-ageing skincare, when in fact it's a medical product that requires careful attention to the instructions, or at least the advice of a pharmacist or doctor. Examples that serve as a reminder that French pharmacies should be regarded first and foremost as places of healthcare.