What is it about the allure of French women? Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Vanessa Paradis all possess that nonchalant Parisian chic that starts with minimal makeup and slightly disheveled hair. Now French native Mathilde Thomas, co-founder of 20-year-old natural skin care brand Caudalíe, unveils more of the mystery with her expert rundown of French beauty rules, age-old traditions and do-it-yourself recipes in her new book, “The French Beauty Solution: Time-Tested Secrets to Look and Feel Beautiful Inside and Out” ($26.95), which was released Tuesday.
Five years ago, Thomas moved from her family vineyard in Bordeaux to New York City to expand Caudalíe’s presence in the United States — the brand has since opened four outposts, most recently at Aventura Mall in Miami in June, with plans for additional boutiques in Beverly Hills and Manhattan. While growing the company in America, Thomas was inspired to write a book when she noticed a striking difference in beauty practices and preferences in the U.S. She recently sat down with us in West Hollywood to talk about the less-is-more French approach to beauty and her tips on makeup, hair, diet and attitude.
What are some main cultural differences between Parisian and American women’s beauty habits?
I think American women are more about quick fixes and instant gratification. Makeup is much bigger here than in France. And a lot of women I meet put makeup on their skin without any moisturizer underneath. In France, we know that you need a great canvas before adding makeup.... So we are taught at a very early age by our family and friends that we should apply a moisturizer with SPF and antioxidants every morning. Last month, Caudalíe launched Vinoperfect Tinted Moisturizer, but you should still put a serum on under it.
The second difference is that American women are putting a lot of pressure on themselves, I think. This Type A woman, always perfect, with blown-out hair, flawless makeup like [she is] wearing a mask to go to the office, and amazing white teeth. It’s a lot. We are more laid-back, more lazy. French women hate when you see them coming out of their hairdresser’s shop. If the blow-dry is too obvious, they don’t like that. They don’t want it too perfect. They would put it in a bun to make it messy or destroy it a little bit before going out. Hair color is maybe less extreme than Americans. We like very, very subtle highlights. We wouldn’t take any risks and we would only trust one colorist. We are not as bold as Americans.
Are there any tips that you’ve learned from American women?
Women here are much more groomed, so now I tend to put more makeup on, I do more blow-drying, and my teeth are probably whiter. I try to do sports when I see all the people running in Central Park and I had to try SoulCycle. I even stopped smoking, which was great.
Can you talk to some of the more unique French beauty tips in the book?
To combat dry and brittle hair, we will put an oil on the hair 20 minutes before shampooing. There is the Huile de Leonor Greyl pre-shampoo oil treatment or I use Caudalíe’s Divine Oil for the face, body and hair. After shampooing, you put a tiny bit of the oil on the ends of the hair. And putting vinegar on the hair to make it more shiny is very French. Vinegar stinks a bit, so I use white vinegar, spritz a fragrance twice and put it on my hair, then rinse with cold water.
You also emphasize not over-cleansing the skin and hair.
Squeaky clean is for your car, not your skin. I never use products containing sodium lauryl sulfate, which is a cheap detergent, and it’s everywhere. I’d rather use ingredients that are gentle and don’t lather as much to keep a little bit of the natural sebum on the skin. I wash my skin with micellar water [a cleansing water infused with oil that also removes makeup], which is very French, or with natural oils. Oil attracts oil, and it dissolves even waterproof makeup. We sell a micellar water [Caudalíe Make-Up Remover Cleansing Water] in Sephora stores.
Would you say that French women are more into skin care?
Yes, there is a difference. First, we scrub — especially elbows, knees and ankles — once a week. I use Caudalíe’s exfoliating Crushed Cabernet Scrub [a do-it-yourself recipe is in the book] or Divine Scrub. And then I moisturize with a body butter that is very thick and rich, but you can also use a lighter formula. I use my face products on the neck and décolletage. And I have a hand cream that I apply all day long and a foot cream that I put on every night. American women, at least in New York, seem to stop at the neck and forget they have a body sometimes.
You make some interesting points about diet in your book.
Never go on a diet. You have to be careful all your life, unfortunately. That’s the only way to go. In France, when you want to lose weight, you will go PP/PS [“pas de pain/pas de sucre”] which is no bread, no sugar for a few days. And it works.
And you promote a three-day grape cleanse?
Yes, I discovered that in 1998 while doing research for my first book, “La Sante Par Le Raisin,” or “Health From the Grape,” which was not translated into English. In the 19th century, it was very trendy to do a grape detox as a cleanse for the body. Women from Italy and Germany would only eat grapes, grape seeds and grape juice for days or weeks or sometimes months, and they would see their skin become flawless, lose a little bit of weight and feel really good.... In 1990, there was a scientific study of the grape cleanse on 500 people in France, and in my book I talk about the results, which are incredible on the skin, the body and the health in general. I do this cleanse every year.
Are your homemade beauty recipes family traditions?
Yes, for example the [Egg Yolk And Rum Mask] recipe for shiny hair is from my grandma. She would blend egg yolk with avocado, olive oil and rum and apply it to our hair. And we use sodium bicarbonate [baking soda] basically everywhere — to scrub the face, brush the teeth, or in the bath with salt to relax after a tough day. It is a great ingredient.
You make the point about how French women like to age gracefully; are cosmetic surgery, fillers and injectables becoming more acceptable in France?
I think that French women like to do it, but they don’t say it. And they don’t like people to see it, so it has to be very subtle. You need to be able to move [your face]. The very famous doctors in France who do Botox and filler and mesotherapy, do it extremely lightly. Here I see women who look very frozen. I don’t see that in France.
Would you say that much of the French beauty solution boils down to attitude?
Yes. Drink red wine, smoke, stop exercising, and dress sexy. [laughs] Well, in France it is very different, as people have five weeks of paid vacation per year and they work  hours per week. French people know how to relax. And French people know how to eat really well. You don’t fill the tank in France. You would rather not eat than eat food that has no taste. And at our office [in New York], I told the [employees] that they cannot eat at their desk. We built a kitchen, so everyone stops thinking about work for a moment and eats, breathes, oxygenates their brain. It’s good. I feel like life is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.