Jesus in a Bottle: The Cult of Biologique Recherche P50

One of the most popular skin care products also contains one of the most controversial ingredients

Photo illustration (Source: Hulton Archive/Handout/Getty)

InIn theory, an eight-and-a-half ounce beauty product that retails for over $100 should encapsulate the epitome of luxury skincare. Instead, Biologique Recherche’s Lotion P50 has been said to smell like everything from expired milk to formaldehyde to straight-up trash. Writer Jill Kargman even once described the product’s stench as similar to “something you’d pour in your car engine.”

With a decidedly unpleasant scent and extremely basic packaging, Lotion P50 certainly doesn’t have the normal makings of a cult-favorite beauty product. And yet, it has amassed an intense fan base over recent years. Beauty blogs are saturated with prophetic testimonials about how the product has radically changed their skin for the better. Glossier founder Emily Weiss once told Into the Gloss it gives her face an “overall glow like you can’t imagine.”

The product holds a lofty promise: By fully revamping the pH balance of the skin, Lotion P50 aims to shrink pores, hydrate skin, brighten dark spots, even texture, clear acne, and provide a trademark glow. Diana Yerkes, a lead esthetician at Rescue Spa, a luxury day spa that specializes in Biologique Recherche products, claims she can always spot people on the street who use P50. “The forehead just gets that luminous halo,” she says. “That’s why people call it ‘Jesus in a bottle.’”

It turns out the beauty world’s newest obsession is really not that new at all. Biologique Recherche’s original P50 Lotion was first created 40 years ago in France by Yvan and Josette Allouche, a biologist and physiotherapist respectively. The two set out to create a science-backed beauty product that would completely rebuild the surface of the skin. In 1970, the first P50 Lotion was released to a mixed reception. Some scoffed at the harsh smell while others praised its clarifying, anti-aging benefits.

Today, P50 is a general term used to refer to any one of five Biologique Recherche products: P50W (for sensitive skin), P50 PIGM (for hyperpigmentation), P50V (for dry skin), P50 1970 (the original formula), and P50 (a revised version of the original). While all versions are technically referred to as a “lotion,” they behave more as chemically exfoliating toners.

“The forehead just gets that luminous halo. That’s why people call it ‘Jesus in a bottle.’”

“The version that everybody talks about is P50 1970, which is the original formulation,” Yerkes says. “It is the strongest and most powerful. It’s for someone who has definitely used P50 in the past and wants to go to town with it.” This version also happens to be the most controversial. In addition to ingredients like vinegar, lactic acid, salicylic acid, and sulfur, P50 1970 also contains phenol, an automatic compound that is debatably unsafe for cosmetic use.

Today, phenol can be commonly found in industrial-strength cleaning products. It’s also often used in plastic production, as a paint stripper, and even as an ingredient in some embalming formulas. Further adding to the debate over its safety, the use of phenol in cosmetic products is banned in the European Union and in Canada.

“I haven’t heard of any other [beauty] products that contain phenol,” Yerkes says. “It’s mostly medical offices that will have it. It’s not like it’s trademarked per se, but it’s really hard to formulate it alongside other ingredients. That’s why P50 is such a holy grail for most people. It’s one of the only products that houses so many different actives in one bottle.”

Biologique Recherche’s P50 1970 formula uses phenol for the antiseptic benefits found in the compound. When used in a very low percentage, it claims its corrosive properties can also act as an effective exfoliant. Yerkes, who has used various P50 products regularly for the past six years, explains that when you apply the product, a tingling or slight burning sensation tends to follow. She associates this feeling with the product’s performance. “You feel like something is going on,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Okay, this is truly doing something for me. This is like a facial in a bottle.’”

Luisa Fanzani, a cosmetic chemist specializing in skincare, has a decidedly different take on why this reaction occurs upon application. “Phenol can cause burns,” she explains. “That’s why when you apply the product, it stings. The company says it’s proof that it’s working, but actually it’s proof that you’re causing damage to your skin.”

Fanzani is also wary of the potential long-term effects that could come from using the product. “Besides being corrosive, which is already very dangerous, phenol is also mutagenic, which means that it’s able to change some genes in DNA which could lead to cancer,” she says. “I’m not saying people are going to die from it, but it’s important to point out that people might use this product every day for months or years and there could be an accumulation of phenol in the body.”

In contradiction to Fanzani’s take, a 2008 report on phenol by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found no evidence that phenol causes cancer in humans. However, there is minimal research on the specific effects of phenol absorbed through the skin over a prolonged period of time. Deaths from phenol have been reported after 25% or more of body surface area was exposed at one time, but these instances involved a high concentration of the compound, whereas Biologique Recherche claims to use an extremely low percentage in their product. That said, the brand does not specify exactly what that percentage is, making it hard to precisely measure any potential danger or long term effects.

In 2000, Biologique Recherche released a new version of the original formula (known simply as P50) without phenol in response to the EU’s ban on the ingredient and to appeal to a younger customer who may be averse to finding such harsh chemicals in their skincare. However, they don’t seem to mind. Yerkes says it’s still primarily the younger clients who come into Rescue Spa asking about P50 1970. It’s the one they’ve seen online. It’s the one that promises to work.

There are endless alternatives to P50 1970 in the overcrowded skincare landscape. There are even four phenol-free “lotions” within the Biologique Recherche family. And still, fans remain loyal to P50 1970 despite the potential dangers. In the world of beauty, it seems results trump safety warnings. If it works, it still sells.

In the European Union, there are now over 1,000 ingredients that are either banned or restricted for use in cosmetic products. In stark contrast, the FDA has only banned 11 ingredients in the United States. With little regulation for beauty products in the United States, a version of P50 with phenol is likely to remain readily available for the foreseeable future. Whether its risk is worth the reward is entirely up to you.

Cortney Clift is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about food, travel, and wellness.

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