I left Mollymook at 9am on a Saturday morning. We drove 3.5 hours to Sydney, hopped on a plane, arrived 14 hours later in Dubai, waited 2 hours, flew another 7 hours to Paris, had a 5 hour layover, before getting another plane for 1 hour to Montpellier, then hopped in a transfer for 1.5 hours and …. finallement, Mum, Hakavai and I arrived in paradise.
In the words of the great Tupac: heaven ain’t hard to find, all you gotta do is look (…. and be prepared to travel).
The pristine, tiny town of ‘Avène les Bains’ (literally, the baths at Avène) sits high up in the mountains, with the River Orb bubbling and gurgling along beside it.
I’m here, Mum and Hakavai in tow, as a guest of Avène – the company, not the town (though the town, and its people – a village of the warmest, most eccentric characters – also make me feel right at home). The famed Avène Hydrotherapy Center sits in the centre of town and I’m there for two weeks of intense skin treatments.
My experience at Avène
It should come as no surprise that the French do things exquisitely well.
Breakfast each morning comes in the form of sheeps yoghurt, accompanied with crisp pepitas, goji berries and fruit of your choice. There are fresh eggs (which you can boil at your leisure), crusty brown bread, mini pats of fresh beurre and smoked trout straight from the River Orb. And bien sur, fresh croissants for those who wish to indulge (i.e. me). Coffee is not like coffee in Australia – it is a small espresso with a stain of crema on top.
I’m taken to a dermatologist first, in the Residences d’Orb.
She is small and sprightly, and has oversized eyes which give me the impression of a praying mantis. She is also brimming with joie de vivre – and after my assurances that I’m not afraid of hard work, gives me a pretty full on regime for my stay here.
“Yes, we can help you!”
We also talk about my specific skin concerns (dry, so dry) and even though I get top marks for the moisture factor of my skin (due to my love of incessant moisturising) she gives me a “prescription” – XeraCalm balm for my dessicated and itchy skin, Tolerance Extreme for my face and neck and of course the ubiquitous and fabled can of Avene Spring Water.
Now that the appointment with the dermatologist is finished, we head to the Avène Hydrotherapy Centre which is, rather conveniently, right next door to where we are staying.
There are lots of people in white coats bustling around. They take my prescription from the dermatologist and start putting my products into a big white bag. It’s odd having a prescription, since you can buy all the Avène products over the counter, but I like the ‘officiality’ of it all. And plus, it is really good to have a dermatologist recommend you products, rather than the chick at the chemist. Not dissing my local chemist!
I’m also given a big clear bottle. There is a fountain of fresh spring water permanently running. I can see other people lining up to fill their big clear bottles. I am given instructions to drink minimum one clear bottle a day. I like a challenge!
A lot of people have asked if I will be ‘fixed’ or ‘cured’ after coming to Avène.
It doesn’t really work like that! There is no ‘cure’ for burns. Having said that, there is plenty you can do to minimise the impact of your burns on the quality of your life. Simple things like drinking water and moisturising twice a day will mean your skin will be smoother, softer, more supple and thus more mobile. Stretching everyday will also ensure that your maintain and improve the elasticity of your skin. Movement is your friend, my friend.
On my first day of treatment I am given a bathrobe and white crocs and instructed only to wear both in the treatment rooms. I’m also given a big white Avène bag which I have envied on other people from afar.
My first day of treatment starts with the obligatory photo session (it’s always so important to do a before and after photo!). First up, is my Bain avec Jets (bath with jets). I’m expecting it to be like a jacuzzi, and the first few minutes are (with my internal monologue thinking this is nice, not terribly effective though) but then high pressure water starts shooting out of the jets. It feels bloody good! I’m also given a high pressure hose so I can massage my skin on top of the massage provided by the jets.
After, I go to the filiform shower. This is my least favourite treatment of the whole day. It’s a high pressure shower and I stand in all sorts of awkward contortions so that Dr Sabine Petit can best attack my scars. It’s cold and not very pleasant, but it’s one of the most effective treatments for minimising my burn scars.
Next, it’s an underwater massage with Bruno (it’s not how it sounds – water is sprayed from the ceiling). Bruno is almost 50 but doesn’t look a day over 30, no doubt because he is constantly surrounded by Avène water. He instructs me to take everything off and lie face down on the table. As he massages me, with steaming spa water gliding over the top, he asks if I’ve ever had an underwater massage and I reply in the negative. He seems pleased by this. “I am your first time!” “I’m so happy to be your first!” Obviously he doesn’t realise his double entendre! ?
I ask him if he likes his job (my timing could’ve been better).
“I love it. Every day I go to my job, and I help people. I am so happy I get to make a difference” he replies.
I love beautiful humans like Bruno.
I wake up the next morning after my first day of treatment and NO SHIT – my skin already feels better. Less dry, more supple, and smoother. Now I don’t know if it’s in my head or not but I don’t care – if I feel better, then travelling 40 plus hours to get to this tiny riverside town has been worth it.
The next series of treatments pass in a blur – there’s the vichy shower, followed by smogs of Avène thermal water, a localised mist of water on my face (whilst I wear a “neck raincoat” – people lined up in an orderly fashion around the perimeter of the room tilting their faces to the cold spring water jetting out of the faucets). This is all followed by a face mask drenched in Avène water, in a green room bathed in sunlight – the scene complete with relaxing rainforest music. Then it’s a body wrap where I am smothered in TriXera cream, then layered in sheets of plastic, before being cocooned by a warm snuggly blanket.
There is a huge atrium with the focal point a fountain of fresh Avène spring water (which, rather disconcertingly, comes out of a lions mouth). I’m a good girl so I quickly refill my big clear water bottle.
It all sounds pretty relaxing, but the treatments are EXHAUSTING. In the whole two weeks I’m here, I’m so tired I feel like I’m sleepwalking.
The whole time I was at the centre, I wanted to know WHY Avène water was so good. What makes it different to the stuff coming out of my taps at home?
A few things, apparently (and it’s not just that it’s French and therefore, inherently more stylish):
Among many other benefits, Avène thermal spring water has a low mineral composition which means it doesn’t dry out the skin – in comparison to a thermal water that contains a higher composition. For example, the salt content is 266mg/L, compared to sea water which has a high salt concentration and a high mineral concentration (sea water = 33000ml/l) which can dry out and irritate the skin.
It also has an unique ratio of magnesium and calcium. Which, as I learned, is pretty damn important. Calcium can help with cell turnover (a good thing!) but magnesium and calcium can antagonise each other (the original frenemies), so it’s important they’re balanced.
There’s so much research behind the water and its benefits – all backed by 150 clinical studies (50 of which are published in prestigious peer reviewed journals), which satisfied the analytical engineer/researcher in me.
So what are my thoughts on the treatment?
I was at the centre for two weeks, and my skin is softer, smoother, and more supple as a result. I saw improvements within literally one day. One of my main skin concerns is dryness, since third degree burns typically remove your dermis, which is the layer that oil comes out of. Most of the patients I met were repeat clients, and they all told me how much Avène hydrotherapy has helped their skin. I met people with eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis and burns and they all genuinely loved the hydro centre and the Avène products.
Having said that, it’s pretty far from Australia. While I was lucky enough to be a guest of Avène, as one of their partners, it’s not a cheap expedition, and it’s a huge commitment. Your skin feels better, but if you spent 3 hours a day on your skin at home, I’m sure it would feel better too!
So, like anything, I think if you were committed to your skin, drank lots of water and used Avène products at home, you could get similar results.
But let’s get real, most of us are busy. Even moisturising our face sometimes slips off the radar. So I think an annual trip, if you need it, is a good idea. It’s a chance for you to focus on your skin, eat well, breathe clean mountain air and have a lot of sleep.
All in all, I remain a loyal Avène fan and user. I used their products for years before I was one of their partners, and I’ll continue using them far into the future, for as long as I see results.