The French have a phrase for it: bien dans sa peau. Rarely is this relaxed, glowing confidence in one’s own skin so palpable as after an hour or so’s manipulation at the hands of a traditional facialist. Even the vocabulary – French, of course – sounds reassuring. Deep, kneading petrissage enlivens and tones the skin; rhythmic, butterfly-light effleurage relaxes and boosts lymphatic drainage; stimulating tapotement – firm but gentle taps and slaps – invigorates sluggish circulation and muscle tone. Add a dextrous repertoire of pinching, cupping, rolling and rocking designed to sculpt, recontour, tighten and decongest, and a good facialist’s hands become capable and adaptable tools.
What irony, then, that for more than 10 years of digital fixation, versatile, intuitive fingers have largely been sidelined by the needles and stainless-steel machinery that is dermatology’s current vernacular. “I never could have imagined this conversation a decade ago,” says 70-year-old Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, whose minimal lines and firm jawline are testament to a regime followed religiously by so many of her compatriots of a certain age. The conversation in question – a debate over Botox versus facials – was triggered by an American friend’s newly smooth forehead. “We all agreed that we would welcome softer wrinkles, but we wanted to keep our looks, our smiles, our facial expressions,” she concludes.
By and large, French women opt for facials over procedures, hands over machines. This old-school, mother-to-daughter approach rates systematic maintenance over emergency fix – a philosophy regaining credence further afield. Fingers are now either working alongside the hardware or replacing it entirely in progressive medispas and salons. Traditional facials are once more being taken seriously – and not before time.
Strictly speaking, French facial massage is Swedish in origin. The “medical gymnastics” devised in the 19th century by “father of physical therapy” Per Henrik Ling were the precursor to Swedish massage, the benchmark of such treatments today. The soul-seeking 1990s – that era preoccupied with meridians and marma points, crystals and whale song – took touch therapy to a new, exotic level, yet may also have triggered the backlash against what came to be seen as airy-fairy indulgence.
Enter a new wave of “white coat” peels and light therapies promising instant, more dramatic results; yet if word from the salon is to be believed, high-tech facials may be reaching their tipping point. “Repeated ablations and procedures are leaving more mature clients ‘overdone’,” observes Joanne Evans, a facial therapist of over 25 years. “Instead of looking fresh, youthful and rested, they simply look false. Clients come to me for traditional facials to help them move away from that.” Evans’ eight-step Skin Matters facial and skin health check (£440 for 90 to 120 minutes) at Bodyism in Notting Hill’s Westbourne Grove helps clients go cold turkey from injectables. However, Evans doesn’t eschew tech entirely: a careful edit of machinery waits in the background to be used with caution. For as she says, “There’s only so much you can stimulate, so much you can take away. When women get to a certain age and contemplate surgery, they find their skin is too frail and thin to recover.” Steam versus machine would literally appear the most conservative option, but is there proof that hands-on delivers results?
Independent clinical trials completed last year on facials offered by skincare company Elemis at its flagship House of Elemis spa in Lancashire Court included profilometry (surface scanning), cutometry (to measure elasticity and firmness) and before and after photography. They concluded that the Pro-Collagen Age Defy Facial (£115 for 60 minutes), for example, reduces the depth of lines and wrinkles, while increasing firmness. Countless other studies report on the profound wellbeing manual manipulation elicits by stimulating skin to release endorphins – pleasure hormones that mediate stress chemicals such as cortisol, which is known to speed ageing by degrading collagen. Research published in the Journal of Dermatological Science also suggests that firmly stroking skin leads to the dilation of blood vessels; this reduces blood pressure and may be due to the release of neuropeptides that decrease aggression and anxiety. So there’s more to that rosy, post‑facial glow than a flush of sheer pleasure.
Facialist Emma Hardie has first-hand experience of the regenerative power of massage. Hardie began to investigate holistic touch therapies while recovering from Epstein-Barr syndrome, slowly evolving the downwards linear massage methods of her Natural Lift and Sculpting Facial (£95 for 60 minutes) at Harvey Nichols. Katie Gray, head global facialist and Hardie’s right-hand woman, describes the technique as like a counter-stretch in yoga. As one hand lifts and supports skin to prevent dragging, the other strokes firmly downwards. “Everything in the facial structure is arranged in lines,” she observes. “Muscles need to be worked and massaged in the same direction to encourage the flow of blood and lymph. This action smooths out muscles and connective tissue, encouraging firmer, plumper, more hydrated skin.”
Staunchly opposed to machines and devices, Hardie prefers a method that respects the transfer of natural thermal energy that flows from therapist to client. “Machines can feel invasive, whereas the heat of hands is deeply relaxing – crucial when lifting and realigning muscles,” she says. “With hands, you can tailor the movements to specific areas, such as eyes and jawline, where many women need lifting most.” As one side of the face is treated at a time, results are readily visible and last up to a fortnight. Daily self-massage at home with Emma Hardie products helps maintain them. For optimum results, monthly top‑ups are recommended.
First-time clients are often surprised when Nichola Joss dons rubber gloves to massage muscles from inside the mouth during her Bespoke Sculpting Inner Facial (£250 for 60 minutes). Inspired by Malaysian deep-tissue lymphatic drainage, the technique specifically targets tension in the jaw and under cheekbones, which Joss believes leads to tissue atrophy and sagging. The facial, which begins with a relaxing foot and hand massage, sculpts, firms and encourages muscles to “sit higher” for a fuller, more lifted and radiant look. Six sessions over 12 weeks and regular top‑ups thereafter are recommended to maintain tone.
Holistic principles that take into account lifestyle and nutrition (Hardie often asks her clients to stick out their tongues during consultations) are at the heart of the hands-on renaissance. “With our increasingly pressured schedules, there’s a renewed emphasis on looking after ourselves, eating well and exercising wisely,” says Fiona Brackenbury, head of education and training at beauty house Carita. “The nurturing, hands-on approach works in tandem with that.” Regular facials that address skin problems gently and progressively tend to produce strong, long-lasting results, she adds. When she was asked to design the Carita Gold Perfection Holistic Facial (£240 for 110 minutes) for Hyde Park’s Mandarin Oriental, the brief was for a treatment that was entirely hands on. “You really get that plump, dewy, healthy-looking skin from a therapist using her hands,” she says. Brackenbury refers to internal research by Carita’s owner L’Oréal, which found the most pressing concern among 19,000 women across 12 countries not to be lines and wrinkles, but lack of radiance. “You just don’t get a glow from machines, and consumers are realising that,” she believes.
This summer, Parisian therapist Martine de Richeville brought her Facial Remodelage (£150 for 45 minutes/£650 for five sessions) to Harvey Nichols and private members’ club Grace Belgravia. Previously a psychologist, de Richeville evolved her stroking, palpating, rolling method of breaking down fat and building up muscle tone by combining principles of Chinese medicine and Rudolf Steiner’s eurythmy massage.
Further welcome news is that Parisienne salon stalwart Payot is back in the UK after an absence of 15 years. At the Tranquillity Beauty & Spa in Basildon, the Suprême Expérience treatment (£70 for 60 minutes) targets dullness, slackness and dark spots. Founded in 1920 by Dr Nadia Payot, the brand offers facials based around a “42-Movement Facial Protocol” inspired by the firm face and neck of Payot’s close friend, the ballerina Anna Pavlova. The movements are described as choreographed: fingers “dance” over the skin in various tempos to stimulate and improve on various levels – lymphatic, vascular, muscular and respiratory – as well as benefit surface cutaneous tissue. Profoundly relaxing, the treatment begins with a series of deep-breathing exercises synchronised to gentle pressures and long, firm strokes along the chest and arms, before the graceful facial dance begins in earnest. If the French have a particular talent for bonne mine, you have to hand it to them…