Health & Grooming

Best facials forward

The latest ‘super-facials’ promise to go beyond mere cleanse-tone-moisturise. As someone who’s offered up her visage to a substantial number of facialists, Lucia van der Post asks: which, if any, facials make a real, long-lasting difference?

November 28 2010
Lucia van der Post

I have a confession to make: I’ve never really liked facials. There’s something about having my face mauled (my word, of course, not one that ever passes the lips of sought-after facialists) that I find disagreeable. I always feel the skin is being stretched when what I need is for it to be tightened. Nevertheless, in the course of what is called work (well, somebody has to do it), my face has, inevitably, been subjected to the ministrations of a vast parade of facialists. So I have a further confession to make: I find it almost impossible to tell the difference between most of them. Take The Organic Pharmacy’s signature treatment – the Rose Crystal Lymphatic Facial (£110, 90 minutes). The plusses are it smells divine, one feels the skin has been beautifully cleansed, exfoliated and toned with its rosehip, seaweed, honey and jasmine, and the acupressure massage depuffs the face brilliantly. The skin looks wonderfully radiant afterwards (so perfect before a big event) and I’m sure the thorough cleansing, exfoliating and nourishing is awfully good for it but as for its long-lasting effects, it’s really hard to tell.

Anastasia Achilleos gave me her Bespoke Method Facial (£345, 90 minutes) which was packed with delicious unguents and potions that all smelled gorgeous whilst they worked their wonders. And again the skin looked terrific, felt smooth and soft, but a couple of days later I don’t think anybody could have guessed I’d been so deliciously (and expensively) indulged. And at The Majestic in Cannes I had Sisley’s Supreme Anti-Ageing Facial (€280, 90 minutes and currently exclusive to The Majestic’s U Spa Barrière), another range of lovely-smelling products with lots of massaging and purifying, and once again the skin looked markedly clearer, smoother and more glowing. But long-term? I’m not sure.

Up at Harrods Urban Retreat, I had one of Jeanne Piaubert’s treatments (£85 for an hour). To the usual routine she added what she claims are exceptionally high-performing products (which, uniquely, vary according to the season of the year) plus “electro-aesthetics” – a way of firming and toning the skin using a very small (and safe) electric current which, according to Piaubert, has the effect of a passive exercise routine. The method helps with lymphatic drainage and there is much manual massage which is said to restore “tone, vigour and youth to the tissues”.

It all felt and looked fine and I daresay if I followed Piaubert’s advice to have regular facials the effects would be longer-lasting. (Piaubert is no longer at Harrods, but provides the same treatment in Paris.)

Finally, at !QMS Medicosmetics, which has a new flagship store/spa in London’s Cadogan Gardens, its founder Dr Schulte has developed a unique method of getting soluble collagen (which plays a critical role in skin regeneration and repair) to reabsorb into the epidermis. I had its Classic Collagen Intense Treatment (£180, 120 minutes), which really did seem to be a bit different with rather longer-lasting qualities, and by buying the recommended products which incorporate the same technology you can get real improvements. It has already got something of a fan club all over Europe.

So to sum up: facials do leave one’s skin looking fresher, more radiant, smoother, better moisturised but – a big but – this has never in the obvious visual sense lasted for much more than a day or two, though I should add the caveat that one is never able to do the control and know what one would have looked like if one hadn’t had the treatments. Which leads me to ponder on the subject of facials. What do they really do? What is it realistic to expect? And what about the “super-facials” now being bandied about, the ones that promise (really) to change the shape of one’s face (refining the jaw, sharpening the cheekbones), to lift slack skin, to help in the anti-ageing war. Could they deliver? Time to investigate.

I started off with that facialist to the stars, Ole Hendriksen, a Dane who has a stellar spa and treatment rooms in LA to which it seems Charlize Theron, Renée Zellweger and Jessica Alba repair for regular ministrations to their fabled complexions. Mind you, Hendriksen prefers to talk about “complexion treatments” (an eight-step calmative complexion treatment is $120). He, naturally (but he’s not alone and it does make sense) believes that everything depends on the talent of the “aesthetician” and the tools that he/she uses. “First I discuss the client’s concerns, then I use the warmth of my palms to ‘make love to the face’.”

He’s adamant that a good complexion treatment should leave one looking beautiful, not as if somebody has been to war on the face. Furthermore, he says a good facial should address every concern, whether it’s as serious as cystic acne or merely helping to clean, buff and moisturise. A good one can help lighten scar tissue, eliminate uneven pigmentation, reduce the appearance of fine wrinkles and deal with clogged pores. Afterwards, the texture should be beautifully smooth and the skin should have a radiant glow. For normal skins, the chief point of a “complexion treatment” is to tone, lift, retexture, work on pigmentation, clean and polish. He thinks four or five times a year is enough.

Vaishaly Patel, another facialist with a cult following, says one of the hallmarks of a good facial is that it should offer more than you could do yourself at home. It should be tailormade for you on the day you visit. Hers offers deep-cleansing, skilful extraction, gentle micro-dermabrasion (to lift off dead skin cells), followed by a high-frequency treatment with a multifunctional tool that effectively closes pores. She uses almost the same terminology as Henriksen – the result, she says, should be clearer, smoother, softer, more radiant skin (her one-hour signature facial is £125). The therapist should also be able to talk about other things that could be causing problems: hormones, digestion, diet, lack of exercise.

At Sisley, which has a menu of what it calls Anti-Ageing Treatments (from £140, 90 minutes, at Sisley spas), they point out that massage, integral to a good facial, helps increase circulation, which in turn helps with lymphatic drainage, and that mask treatments help tone and clarify the skin. As with most of the better facials, Sisley does not believe in the one-size-fits-all variety – it has to be adapted to skin type and needs, which means we’re back to the inconvenient fact that much depends on the skill of the facialist. But mostly what we’re talking about here are facials of the cleanse, tone, and moisturise routine – from the school of pampering. These days they’ve been rather overtaken by super-facials, which promise so much more.

Let me tell you about the ones that have worked for me. Dr Véronique Simon is new to the UK and, though her English isn’t brilliant, her results are terrific. She took one look at me and decided that improvements were essential; she wanted to tighten my jaw-line, get rid of a long-standing small scar on the side of my mouth and generally perk my face up. She doesn’t have a standard one-off facial – all depends on the face she’s presented with. I had three treatments over the course of about three weeks. None (apart from the mild peel and the masks) was pleasurable. Some hurt to a considerable degree. But – big, big plus – they worked.

She gave me an acid-free herbal micro-peel, which is more effective but also gentler than most exfoliators and helps fine lines, gets rid of dead cells and generally adds radiance. She gave me masks with wonderful moisturisers using a process called Ionophorèse, which enables a hyaluronic gel to nourish the skin at a deep level and then (the bit that hurt) used mesotherapy, tiny little needlepricks all over the face (when she used the machine it hurt less but it caused me bruising), most particularly round my jaw-line. She explains it thus: she micro-injects tricalcic phosphate, which is often used in orthopaedic medicine, to encourage the production of neocollagen fibres beneath the skin to create a long-lasting anti-slackening effect. Tricalcic phosphate is a biodegradable molecule that produces its own collagen and strengthens fragile joints. She uses it to define facial contours, both neck- and jaw-line, which usually can only be improved by surgery.

She hugely improved my scar, filled in the lines from nose to mouth and set about my face rather like a painter doing lots (and I mean lots) of touching up. It must have worked because a week later I bumped into somebody I hadn’t seen for 12 years who couldn’t stop saying how well I looked. Her treatments aren’t cheap – £440 a time with Simon herself – but they are serious.

Vitamin injections – a cocktail of a broad range of micronutrients, vitamins, amino acids, mineral salts and coenzymes, which are injected in the tiniest of quantities beneath the skin – also worked for me. I went to the Pasha Beauty Clinic, where Dr Menevse Kargin usually advises a series of vitamin injections – something like a course of seven (£500 per course). This is not pampering – having pin-pricks all over the face isn’t pleasurable, but it does seem to work. In my case, my skin felt and looked firmer and there was added luminosity. Again, I had lots of compliments on the improvement in my skin.

Joanne Evans at the Soma Centre in the Royal Garden Hotel is another aesthetician I rate and trust. What I like about her is that you don’t have to book in for a specific treatment – you book to see her, discuss what needs doing and then she does it, whether it is a simple (pleasurable!) facial or zapping thread veins, brown marks, moles or freckles (facials from £100 per hour).

These days there’s fantastic equipment around – everything from lasers and IPLs to electric impulses and micro-injectors – but this makes it all the more important to choose your facialist with care. As one New York plastic surgeon put it to me, “Simply because something is available doesn’t necessarily mean it is wise to have it done.” Henriksen, for instance, likes hydra-dermabrasion to plane down the skin, and he believes in micro mini-peels and controlled acid peels to speed up cell regeneration, to deal with uneven pigmentation and to reduce the appearance of fine lines or wrinkles but he doesn’t ever do the phenol peels that have left so many looking like extras in a Dracula movie (“The acid,” he says “travels through the entire epidermis and could form scar tissue and result in overly white skin”).

How then do you tell the good aesthetician from the indifferent or the downright bad? First off, a proper facialist should spend time talking to the client first, examining her skin, asking her (or, increasingly, him) about her concerns and possible allergies and tailoring the facial to those needs. Complexions vary hugely – even the same person can have different problems at various times. Many of the big brand-name beauty houses have standard facials and standard products that they apply to every face that comes their way. This is not how the specialists do it. A good facial shouldn’t leave you looking worse than when you went in. Word of mouth is another very good indicator. Vaishaly Patel adds some advice of her own: “Therapists hands should feel confident and have the right touch. He/she should also explain what they’re doing and what its benefits are.”

She, like Ole Henriksen, says that the standard facial – where a set array of products is applied to every skin no matter what its make-up – is one to be avoided. The client can do that at home so why, as she puts it, “pay somebody else to slap loads of creams on?” If you need extraction, products can’t do it – an extraction tool, wielded by an expert, is best. Nor, of course, should you use too many different products as this can also cause breakouts.

The cult names get passed around among the cognoscenti, so listen up. If there are lots of satisfied customers, the chances are that you’re going to be satisfied too. Some readers may already be followers of Anastasia Achilleos, whose bespoke facials I wrote about a year ago, and whose fans follow her from salon to salon. Proof, I think, that if you find something that works, then stick with it. Henriksen says that you should look out for a continual flow of movements, it should feel good and there should be quite a lot of variety in the various steps and movements. He also believes that you should come away having learnt something – “no hard sell” – but you should be given advice about how to look after your skin and what products might make a difference. And when I say I don’t really like facials, “like”, as we’ve seen, may not be the point.

As Carine Roitfeld, the editor of French Vogue so memorably put it about the “inner” facial she claims as her beauty secret, “It is very hurt.” What most of us, I suspect, mind more about is – does it work? And the answer I’ve found is that, for serious results, a bit of hurt is an integral part of the deal.

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