Pharmacies all over France are promoting creams and supplements that claim to help you lose weight. Do they work? Can they be trusted? And what rules are in place? Slimming writer SALLY ANN VOAK finds out more
EVERY woman wants to lose a few pounds for the summer holidays – and those clever ads for slimming creams and supplements in the glossy French magazines look very persuasive.
Promises such as: “Flatten your tummy in 28 days” (Vichy) or: "This will help in the reduction of body weight” (PharmaSlim) may seem hard to resist.
However, a recent France 3 TV documentary, Produits Minceur, Attention Danger, slammed slimming products, painting a shocking picture of an industry which is driven by profits and exploits women eager to look their best.
One expert told the programme: “Creams and supplements are so easy to market. All you have to do is to list the ingredients, add a little Vitamin C, caffeine or green tea and a good slogan and you are in business. It is a disgrace.”
The packaging on these products often looks more medical than cosmetic (some are actually promoted in doctor’s surgeries) and many are sold exclusively in pharmacies. So, you would imagine that they are safe and will help you achieve that dream figure.
The truth is that certain appetite suppressant pills containing so-called “natural, herbal” ingredients can actually be harmful and creams and lotions will not help you shed centimetres from your tummy.
During the TV programme, one advertisement for a tummy firming cream was shown to be a complete con, with the tape measure pulled more tightly to “prove” that 2cm of wobbly flesh had disappeared in two days.
I was recently offered a Vichy tummy-toning cream in my local pharmacy in Normandy by a very slim, elegant saleswoman. It cost €26. Knowing that manufacturers pay pharmacies to promote these creams, I decided that cutting back on the cheese would be cheaper.
The mystery is that so many French women fall for the hype. After all, when it comes to looking good, our svelte and elegant French friends know what they are doing. Or do they?
I asked three French women for their verdict on slimming products – produits minceur – and checked what the rules and regulations are surrounding their marketing and ingredients.
‘My friends use them – there is no harm’
PERFUME consultant Laetitia Delfouny, 26, who works in the Nocibé perfumery in Dieppe, Seine-Maritime, says: “We love treating ourselves and the medical ambiance in pharmacies reassures us that the products are effective.
“French women are used to asking advice at pharmacies, from checking out whether the mushrooms we’ve collected are edible, to buying the right suntan creams for our children.
“French women will gladly spend money on creams and massages for slimming and firming – it is a huge business. The bottom line is that French customers want individual advice, and are prepared to pay for it. The attention is just as important as the product.
“Most of my friends use slimming creams. There is no harm in it and there is sometimes a placebo effect.”
Ms Delfouny who has a six-month old son called Gaël, used a bust cream to help shape up her bosom after breast feeding, and uses slimming creams – but to regain elasticity in her skin, not to lose weight:
“I gained 16kg during the pregnancy,” she says, “but I lost it by eating sensibly and keeping busy. Being a mum is good exercise. I still have a few stretch marks so continue to use creams every day and exfoliating products once a week.”
She says that, despite the dangers, some of her customers also use appetite suppressants: “Whatever the claims on the pack, that type of product should be taken only with the advice of a doctor. There is no point anyway if you eat McDonalds every day. They are buying dreams and risking health problems.”
‘Pharmacies need to be more vigilant’
NATHALIE Gentil, 35, from Marseille, thinks that it is crazy that so many French women are fooled into buying “miracle products”.
She says: “I have noticed that the blurb on the package invariably tells you to follow a very strict diet as well as using the product.
“So, you lose weight – then put it on again. The pharmacies are not vigilant enough. It is a potentially dangerous con.”
Ms Gentil, who works as a secretary, lives just 200m from the beach and says exercise is essential: “My boyfriend is in the branch of the gendarmerie which is involved in navigational issues, so we spend a lot of time in or near the sea.
“Of course, I want to look good in a swimsuit, but I stay at 58kg [she is 5’4” tall] by walking, cycling, swimming, and eating local fish and fresh produce.
“I do buy body creams from a homeopathic doctor – but not the slimming kind and I check the ingredients carefully.”
‘They just don’t work and they are a waste of money’
MARTINE Lefranc, 60, runs a beauty salon on the holiday island of Ile d’Oléron, in the Charente-Maritime, where the body beautiful is de rigueur in summer.
“In July and August, even sensible women panic,” she says. “They realise that they have left it a bit late to shape up, and then they are seduced by aggressive advertising campaigns.
“French women are very, very conscious of their bodies, and many will grasp at any product, especially something new, which might help. They then crash diet and lose a few kilos, then pile it back on, and probably a bit more.
“Women will often buy these items secretly, which is sad, because they just don’t work. They are a waste of money. Pills of any kind should be avoided, and the creams will only help firm your skin if you have a professional massage.
“It’s the massage that does the job, not the cream. Pharmacies should be more careful about what they sell, and ensure items are properly tested before they go on sale.”
Ms Lefranc has been in the beauty business for 35 years, and has an enviably slim figure. “I eat everything, but in sensible quantities,” she says. “My partner prepares delicious, light meals like sole and fresh vegetables, with a glass of wine, and we spend a lot of time walking, gardening, and swimming. So I stay in shape.
“But women of my age who think that by spending money on dubious slimming products they will look like a movie star in a bikini are deceiving themselves.”
‘Since the Mediator scandal, people are less trusting’
THERE has recently been some tightening up of the regulations on the sales of slimming products. France Henry-Labordère who is in charge of health policy issues at the French Embassy in London says that the agencies who govern the sales of these products are powerful, but more concerned with safety than proof of effectiveness.
“Since the Mediator scandal, where a pill for blood pressure was prescribed for weight loss and found to be harmful, agencies are more vigilant, and people less trusting,” she says. “Over-the-counter products are scrutinised carefully. Each manufacturer will need the Autorisation de Mise sur le Marché (AMM) to be able to sell them in the first place, and a declaration from anti-fraud body DGCCRF to ensure that they are not telling lies about the product.
“However, this is sometimes debatable – of course, people can complain if they feel there is misrepresentation, and complaints are taken very seriously.”
In April, the French medical safety body, Afssaps, banned seven homeopathic ingredients including orlistat and synephrine, because of health risks. It is not surprising that the pharmacies themselves are keen to keep up the sales of off-the-shelf slimming products – the revenue they generate can be as much as 10 per cent of the shop’s total turnover.
They are about to receive an additional source of income, this time from “dispensing fees” for advising customers on how to take medicines. So, it seems their role as the trusted hub of community health care will continue.
But, when you read the reassuring phrase disponible exclusivement en pharmacie (available exclusively from pharmacies) on a slimming product, beware.
Splashing out on the latest miracle slimming aid is unlikely to lose centimetres or kilos – just precious euros.