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Beauty Incognito: Men’s Skin Care

Our all-male team of undercover reporters ventures into drug and department stores worldwide in search of effective—and comprehensible—skin care regimens.

Beauty marketers have set their sights on the men’s market, with an array of ever more sophisticated products. To find out if they appeal to the average joe, our undercover reporters set out to rate the shopping experience.


Paris, France

When it comes to skin care, I’m picky but hardly high maintenance. I don’t use luxurious and expensive brands and generally prefer unscented and hypoallergenic products. Since I have sensitive skin, I trust dermatologist brands and usually shop in pharmacies. Basic washing and shaving comprise the core of my regimen. Nonetheless, I read and am curious about new products, and can be drawn to new niche brands.



BHV Homme
36 Rue de la Verrerie

I’m not a big fan of shopping for skin care in department stores. I’m wary of them, as they’re usually crowded and too big, with all of those flashy, brightlooking stands and billboard-type advertising. But inside, BHV is quiet and looks more like a specialty shop. Its men’s beauty department (in the BHV Homme building out back) is modest in size and has a finely edited selection. There’s an old-school barbershop next to a corner dedicated to shaving that has a great range of products and accessories. Lured by the old-fashioned shaving soap and the American classic Noxzema, I looked through its shelves.


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A young sales assistant discreetly proffered advice. Usually I refuse, since I like to shop by myself and frequently find salespeople too pushy. But this time, I explained I was searching for a new type of shaving product. I never felt forced to buy anything, and after giving information about my usual treatment, the salesguy got it right. He suggested deliciously oldstyle French natural shaving soap with a chic, discreet fragrance from Martin de Candre. The soap takes three months to dry versus the more traditional few weeks. He also told me other interesting tidbits about old-time shaving techniques.


All this opened a whole new world for me. The assistant explained that such a shaving regimen requires an investment, and that if I ever wanted to make it, given my hair and skin types, I should purchase a white badger-hair brush with a size 12-13 handle to properly fit in my hand. The information was so precise and refined that I was highly tempted to go for it, so I had the guy write down all of the details for a later date.


Next stop was the more traditional skin care area. Apart from brands such as Biotherm, Clarins and Clinique, it was also chockablock with names new to me. I asked the salesman for some sort of scrub, and he immediately directed me to Au Bonheur des Hommes, a new French brand whose eye-contour product has funky black-andwhite packaging on which I spotted the face of Helmut Newton with his black-framed glasses. Fun! The salesman squeezed a dab of tester cream on his hand (which I preferred to having to try it out myself) and he showed me how the guarana grains formed a fine foam.


The man seemed to know his products well, so I drew his attention to another brand, called Absolution, which I found interesting. I asked some questions, but the guy replied honestly, explaining Absolution had only recently entered the store so he didn’t know everything about it. Good. No lying there. I decided on an astringent mask from Au Bonheur des Hommes with a finely textured, creamy formula containing no parabens, mineral oil, silicone or coloring—just kaolin, ginseng, ginger and guarana—which cost about $35.


I might return really soon for those old-school shaving tools and soap, and may also have to try out Isseo, a niche skin care brand BHV uses in its spa. Apart from BHV’s look, which could be slightly more chic, I was pretty pleased with my shopping experience.



1-3 Avenue du General Sarrail


A trip to Carrefour is a totally different experience from a foray to BHV. And it’s not something I’m accustomed to. After some looking, I came upon the hypermarket’s hidden entrance. The store is on the fringe of Paris, just next to a ring road. Upon entering, its supermarket space is vast and seems more suitable to groceryshopping families than someone on a quest for a beauty miracle. I finally found the aisle I was looking for—a long line of shelves bursting with a profusion of mass market products. I spotted some familiar brands, such as Nivea, Mennen, Gillette and L’Oréal. Not a lot of space was devoted to skin care—most of the products on offer were shaving foam, plus tons of shower gel and deodorants.


I bypassed the cheap-scented body washes and aftershaves and zeroed in on Sanex products, which are for sensitive skin. Carrefour is totally self-service, so I could spend all of the time I wanted checking things out without anyone looking over my shoulder, which I like. On the other side of the aisle were more beauty products, but nothing dedicated to men.


What finally drew my eye was the parapharmacy shop-in-shop, still in the hypermarket, but just outside the grocery store after passing by its cashiers. Entering, I finally found the brands I generally shop for in pharmacies. This place was more reasonably sized, but still totally self-service.


Unsurprisingly, I made no discoveries of new brands, but found the cream I’d run out of just two days prior and needed to replace. I mostly frequent much bigger parapharmacies with a wider selection. However, this one is handy for someone who needs to double dip and buy groceries nearby, too.

-Laurent Folcher


Next: Philadelphia, USA >>

Philadelphia, USA


I’m a soap-and-water kind of guy with a grooming regimen comprising Nivea for Men’s Active 3—a three-in-one shampoo, body wash and shave cream. But, having covered the myriad men’s skin care brands that have cropped up over the past decade, I’ve become more knowledgeable about these products than the average man. Now, however, as I begin to look over my shoulder at my mid-30s, I’ve decided it’s time to build upon my own skin care regimen—and check out the shopping experience just like a regular joe.



1300 Market Street


I approached a 20-foot men’s skin care section at the back of the three-story store’s sparsely shopped main beauty floor, located in the Wanamaker building that occupies the block adjacent to City Hall. I was the only customer at the counter, browsing products from The Art of Shaving, Zirh, Clinique Skin Supplies for Men, Shiseido Men and Clarins Men, some of which were in and atop the case line.


An associate I had passed—who, thankfully, didn’t spritz me with the fragrance he was holding but did say hello—asked me after a few moments if I needed any help. I told him I was looking to start a skin care regimen. He asked me what brands I like and I mentioned Zirh, prompting him to pick up posthaste Zirh’s Starter Kit ($58). Exuberantly noting that he uses the kit’s face wash, he added that it also includes a shave gel, a vitamin serum and a face moisturizer—but not a toner, which he suggested as an add-on.


He was exceptionally knowledgeable about Zirh, but, seeing me stroke my whiskers, moved along to The Art of Shaving. “It’s really more for shaving only,” he told me. He pointed out the $150 lighted, vibrating Gillette-The Art of Shaving razor, but explained that it didn’t come with the brush and stand on which it was merchandised behind the glass.


The salesman was extremely accommodating, stopping short of slathering creams on my hand and pressing a hard sell. Interpreting me as a rookie, he didn’t broach the subject of Clinique Skin Supplies for Men, Shiseido Men or Clarins Men.


I asked about fragrances, and as he set off for some scents, a Macy’s skin care specialist behind the counter told me how Zirh “evens out [his] skin.”


The first associate returned with four Bulgari scents. “It’s an Italian brand, so it’s very different,” he told me, lining up the fragrances, along with a bottle of Zirh Eau de Toilette, and spraying blotter cards one by one. He led me through two rounds of sniffing, to see how each scent “changed.”


When it came to aroma, he compared Bulgari Aqua with red wine and Bulgari Aqua Marine with white. He noted that he wears Bulgari fragrance, even though Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue is “so popular.”


After the consultation, which ended with a reiteration that the Zirh kit was “fabulous,” both associates wrote their names on a Zirh Eau de Toilette blotter card, which I departed with in hand.



901 Market Street


A subsequent stroll down a bustling Market Street at 1:30 p.m. that warm Saturday took me from Macy’s, past CVS and near a couple of Rite Aids, to a prominently located Walgreens on the corner of Ninth and Market Streets in The Gallery at Market East.


The one-story store, along with Kmart and Burlington Coat Factory, anchors the 230-store, four-story shopping center, which runs from Eighth to 12th Streets and is situated between the city’s Convention Center and the old Strawbridge & Clothier building.


The drugstore was not at the top of its game when it came to men’s skin care. Men’s-specific skin care products occupied about 4 feet of space on a shelf and a half amid a host of razors and shaving cream. For several minutes, I perused the shelf, which was partially obstructed by cardboard boxes on and around a pushcart, and noticed that Nivea for Men and Neutrogena Men were the most prominent brands, while, in an unfortunate turn, Aveeno’s men’s products were out of stock.


When I eventually told an associate standing idle at a small checkout counter nearby that I was looking for a men’s skin care regimen, she pointed in the opposite direction, to the main skin care aisle, saying, “Skin care is over there.”


The space, teeming with customers, stocked all the popular brands: Olay, Neutrogena, Aveeno, Nivea, Jergens, St. Ives, Vaseline, Roc, Eucerin and Clean & Clear, but I didn’t see any products intended specifically for men.


I approached her again. “What would you recommend for men’s skin care?” I asked.


She replied, “Like lotions?”


“Like an aftershave moisturizer,” I said.


She went to the main aisle, and upon her return, handed me the 24.5-oz. Vaseline Men Body & Face Lotion ($6.49), noting that there was also a smaller, extra-strength version.


Thanking her, I went back to the main skin care aisle and at that time noticed the two Vaseline men’s products (including Vaseline Men Extra Strength Body & Face Lotion, 10 oz. for $3.79) facing out atop the busy regular skin care section.


Several minutes later, I asked her what fragrances she carried, and she gestured to the glass display case behind her counter, which featured brands like Calvin Klein, Jennifer Lopez, Nautica and Drakkar Noir. She asked me what I liked and I told her Obsession, so she pointed it out. She went on to note that Eternity was marked down $10 to $29.99.


On my way out, I exchanged thank-yous with her and an assistant manager, who had arrived on scene to change the seemingly beleaguered associate’s cash drawer.


-Matthew W. Evans


Next: Sãn Paulo, Brazil >>

Sãn Paulo, Brazil

I dealt with the pits of raging hormonal acne throughout high school, and for a while knew the ins and outs of nearly every prescription cream and over-the-counter cleanser. But the breakouts stopped just days after graduation, and now, eight years later, I’ve reverted back to being a carefree, soap-and-washcloth type of guy. Living in one of the world’s biggest metropolises—São Paulo—has a lot of upsides, but heavy air pollution and the toll it takes on your skin is a definite downer. I’ve tried to find a beauty store that can make me feel comfortable asking questions about advanced skin care, but truth be told, I find it a bit awkward after years of not giving it much thought.



O Boticário
Av. Eng. Heitor A. E. Garcia 629, Jardim Bonfiglioli


I thought I couldn’t go wrong starting off at Brazil’s most popular, respected beauty store chain. Boy, was I wrong.


Situated on the corner of a busy residential neighborhood, this small shop, the size of your average bedroom, has always appeared fairly full and busy. On this day, my first inside, two sales associates sat on hand.


Literally, they sat on their hands as I mosied about, deep in conversation regarding something very funny, personal and having nothing to do with the store or its customers. I browsed what was a small section of men’s skin care products, all the while without help. Heavily stocked products like O Boticário’s Hydrating Multi-Action Facial Protector ($34) and Anti-Fatigue Facial Serum ($25) were too complex for me to understand on my own, or justify the cost.


Glancing over my shoulder toward the girls to offer one last chance, a fellow customer had their attention at checkout. Well, one attended to her credit card, while the other sat and watched, waiting to get back to talking on company time. I walked out, intent on finding another shop interested in my business.



Shopping Eldorado

Left a bit overwhelmed by the large and pricy selection at O Boticário, I sought out the nearest Drogasil, a major pharmacy chain in southeastern Brazil. Shopping Eldorado is one of the nicer malls in São Paulo, but I was still surprised to see this Drogasil feature an entire wall of skin care products, with a staff member stationed near a mirror, a sink and a medical-style chair for product testing on customers. A welcome upgrade from your average, bare-bones pharmacy in Brazil.


The awe quickly wore off when I saw the size and breadth of that product wall, once again far too many choices to know where to start. The young female attendant approached my wife and I, and listened intently as I explained my history of somewhat oily skin. For some reason, she keyed in on the words “teenage acne,” even though it was mentioned in passing, and steered me quickly toward Vichy Homme’s Normactiv Cg Purifying Hydrating Fluid. At $38.50, this was way out of the price range I wanted to spend on my return to the world of facial care, and a careful reading of the ingredients found this was too strong for my skin.


Reiterating that I had a very normal skin type, I asked for other options and she delved into Avène’s line, pushing the soapless gel cleanser for $43.50. I didn’t want to harp on the fact that she was drifting out of my price range, but through follow-up questions, we quickly concluded that Avène would likely be too drying, as well.


Now on the same page, the attendant passed me her old favorite, Neutrogena’s Deep Clean Energizing Exfoliant Gel, costing about $11. I’d found my answer—a widely trusted product for normal skin types at a reasonable price. I thanked the attendant, sure she felt let down after pushing pricier brands, but happy that, in the end, she met me halfway.


-Bob Moser


Next: Seoul, South Korea >>

Seoul, South Korea

A visitor to South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is immediately struck by its stylish young set and the city’s trendy young men, whose clothes, hair and attitude offer a stark contrast to their older peers. Part of the style revolution among the younger set in Korea is its use of grooming products. I’m a dedicated user, too, trying to hold back the sands of time with a bathroom full of potions and lotions, applying them in the morning and at night to my 45-year-old face.




Myeong-dong was a popular spot in the Seventies during the initial boom of the Korean economy, went into a decline thereafter, but has since been revived with pedestrian-only streets, numerous restaurants and scores of clothing stores and beauty chains. One of those chains is Missha, and its success in the Nineties spawned numerous imitators. Missha is endorsed by Korean actor and heartthrob Lee Byun-hun. Not at all intimidated by a swarthy 6-foot foreigner, a salesperson immediately directed me to the men’s section of the store, which held just a smidgen of the women’s products available. Thinking I was after aftershave, she showed me Missha’s Urban Soul.


But I was after the store’s facial scrubs and shaving creams, which came in one pack. I was shown the Urban Soul Vitalizing Foaming Cleanser, a cleanser and shaving cream all in one. But a quick dab of the product gave me the impression that it was too oily, and it reeked, when I smelled it, of a cheap aftershave. Not something the wife would appreciate.


I sought refuge in Innisfree, which has made a name by selling products made with green tea from South Korea’s Jeju island, and sells a shaving cream made of aloe and rosemary. I liked the smell, but it seemed to have the consistency of the foams one buys in supermarkets, places I have long avoided for skin care.


Innisfree’s prices are comparable with Missha and its customers are in their 20s and 30s. But none of the salespeople offered to let me test any of the products, which I found odd, as touch and smell are integral to the buying experience. Moreover, none of the sales staff could explain what the different products would do for me. I hoped for a better experience across the road at Korea’s biggest department store, Lotte.



Lotte Department Store

At Lotte, I stopped by the Lab Series counter. I have an extensive range of Lab Series products at home, but instead of a smiling and eager sales associate, I got a tentative young woman who had to be prompted to tell me about the range of products. She offered no explanation of the items, nor did she ask me what my daily skin care routine was. I was not offered any products to test, either.


I hoped for better service at Kiehl’s, where the white-coated staff were mildly more helpful and proffered a moisturizer sample pack. But they failed to suggest or ask questions about what products I may be using or demonstrate the effectiveness of the product. It was the same story at Biotherm and Clinique, whose staffs during the lunch hour were perhaps thinking of more basic needs than grooming. Even after taking off my sun hat to reveal my bald head, no one suggested I buy sunblock for the summer. It was as though they felt the products sold themselves.


With products costing almost twice the price of the chains at Myeong-dong, I could understand why the counters were relatively deserted compared with the Myeong-dong stores. Before leaving Lotte, I wandered around the women’s cosmetics counters. White-collar women on their lunch breaks were being given the full-court press by the sales staff. Sometimes being a man has its disadvantages.


-Brett Cole


Next: New York, USA >>

New York, USA


I recently tossed my three-bladed Gillette for the relative simplicity of an old-school safety razor. The traditionalists insist that the single-blade contraption offers a closer shave. Truthfully, I was just tired of pulling something that looked like it belonged in a Hasbro catalogue across my face every morning. The ever-rising cost of a five pack of replacement cartridges didn’t help, either. New hardware in hand, I went looking for a fresh skin care routine to match.



151 West 34th Street


As this whole endeavor was something of a throwback, I made Macy’s my first stop. The very idea of a skin care regimen didn’t exactly mesh with the meat-and-potatoes vibe of the new razor, so the 34th Street flagship, with its wooden escalators and hordes of fanny-packed tourists, was as upmarket as I planned on taking my search.


At the Lab Series counter, I was—true to the brand’s name—greeted by a saleswoman in a white lab coat. She quickly assessed my face and told me she herself swore by the company’s Multi-Action Face Wash. Due to my sensitive skin, she said I’d want to opt for the Lab Series Triple-Benefit Post-Shave Remedy and Maximum Comfort Shave Cream. The latter contains the numbing agent lidocaine, which definitely piqued some strange corners of my curiosity. But, with the company’s sample cabinet bare, I moved on.


At the Zirh counter, an even friendlier associate took the time to appraise the grain of my beard and gave me a brief tutorial on how I should be wielding my new blade. She demonstrated the brand’s Clean face wash and a nonfoaming shave gel on my wrist. After years of lather, I couldn’t envision using a shaving cream that didn’t foam, but I liked the feel of Zirh’s pre-shave oil treatment, Prepare. The starter kit for the whole system was still a bit pricy, so, samples in hand, I headed out.


150 East 42nd Street

Next stop was aisle seven at a large CVS outpost near Grand Central Terminal, where I was on my own to discern the difference between the men’s’ lines on the shelves. That was fine by me. Though both saleswomen at Macy’s had been amicable, and I appreciated that neither had put too hard of a sell on, neither had been particularly convincing on the merits of their respective brands.


Since it didn’t appear the company line especially moved me, I figured I might as well read it for myself from here on out. The pharmacy systems seemed to mostly be made up of four components: a wash, a shave cream, an aftershave and a lotion. Nivea offers each in three varieties based on skin type. I settled on its “sensitive” iteration because the box said it was “for men with sensitive skin who want immediate relief against irritation,” which seemed accurate enough, and because it had the cleanest package design of the lot. The only problem was that its lotion’s sunscreen quotient is a paltry SPF 4. That’s too low for my complexion and, I’d be willing to bet, those of scores of other people who self-identify as having sensitive skin. I opted instead to go only with its shaving gel, face wash and post-shave balm for just under $20 all told. It was a little more expensive than my usual shaving cream and face wash budget, but wasn’t so exorbitant that I’d feel bad scrapping the program if I didn’t like it. On that note, I also picked up a bar of Williams Mug Shaving Soap for $1.69 as I left. It was a cost-to-risk ratio for the times.


-Matthew Lynch