I have cried during a facial – not because it was painful (although having rubber-gloved fingers inside my mouth manipulating the zygomatic muscles was eye-watering agony). I cried because the treatment was part epidermal cleanse, part therapy session. Thanks to superfacialist Eve Lom, letting go of deep-seated anxieties released by craniosacral massage, followed by extractions and a hydrating mask (£260 for the first session; £210 for follow-up sessions) was perhaps the most transformative facial experience I’ve ever had, being both emotionally and physically detoxifying.
It couldn’t have been more different from the electronic massage I tried recently, which came accompanied by techno-gadgetry – lights, sonic waves – that lifted my skin and left me looking as if I’d slept for a week. Compared with the perfectly pleasant and reassuringly familiar ritual of cleanse, tone, mask, massage and moisturise, both these facials were in another league in terms of results. The only thing that could improve them would be if they were glued together somehow, which isn’t as unlikely as it sounds.
Not so long ago, to be offered a hand or foot massage halfway through a facial (usually to fill the time it takes for a mask to work) was a novel addition to a treatment routine. However, in the era of the superfacial, when a therapist is as likely to be a dermatologist, surgeon or spiritual healer as a beauty-college alumnus, it seems anachronistic. Now, deft hands and heavenly potions come accompanied not by whale music, but the sonic output of electronic or other gadgetry: the crackle of laser, the whine of radiofrequency, the chime of a tuning fork.
Even the creams, central to most facial treatments and a big part of the pleasure factor with their uplifting aromas and comforting textures, have in some cases been usurped by supercharged counterparts. Certain superfacial procedures require “not for retail”, hand-blended formulae to suit individual skin needs and tolerances. These complex acids, oxygenating compounds and skin-identical lipids are things that generally don’t smell or look good, but when applied by a professional, possibly augmented by specialised machinery such as ultrasound or laser more commonly found in hospitals, they have the ability to transform the epidermis, leaving the skin looking dramatically improved.
Decode the desire, indeed, the demand, for better-looking skin and various factors come into play, not least a growing ageing population keen to hold onto at least the appearance of youth. But now, with the advent of the “selfie” and its attendant pressure to be camera-ready at all times, “perfect” is the new normal, even for ordinary people. Perhaps the greatest influence of all is celebrity culture with its constant stream of idealised complexions laid claim to by product companies. But these are not empty promises: better-looking skin is attainable if one is prepared to spend the time and money; superfacials come at super-prices, on average more than £200.
Dr Marko Lens, a reconstructive plastic surgeon and skin-cancer expert, devised his Red Carpet facial (£295) to meet the needs of a high-profile clientele, many of whom live an “HD-ready” existence, scrutinised by camera lenses, their appearance routinely offered up for public judgement. “These people – they’re not all women – want immediate results and no downtime,” he says. Some of them are looking to boost the smoothing and plumping properties of injectables such as Botox and hyaluronic-acid fillers, while others don’t want to resort to needles but accept that a nice cleansing mask and massage just can’t compete. What they have in common is a desire for glowing, youthful-looking skin.
“Don’t expect indulgence and relaxation with this kind of facial,” Dr Lens warns as he snaps on a pair of surgical gloves and wipes my skin down with a bespoke blend of salicylic and glycolic acids. There’s a distinct lack of cosseting, yet the process undoubtedly feels glamorous: after all, I’m in the private suite of a world-class skin expert and he’s the one performing my facial (Lens’s DPhil and FRCS certificates on the wall are a major upgrade on the more usual London College of Beauty Therapy diplomas). Out come the high-strength actives, including a black fluid that smells surprisingly like Bakewell tart and looks on the skin like badly applied fake tan. It’s a phospholipid carrier with added iron to pick up oxygen, plus yeast to increase the skin’s respiratory function. Next, a detoxifying salt mask creates an osmotic imbalance that draws out extra cellular fluid, removing free radicals in the process. Then, perfluorodecalin is applied, to increase skin respiration and mitochondrial activity, boosting energy. This fizzes and prickles and my face turns candy pink. It’s slightly uncomfortable and feels a bit like sunburn but is quickly calmed by ozonised oil with a strong antioxidant capacity and a lipid structure compatible with the skin for better penetration. A soothing marine cream finishes the process and I am ready to leave, glowing and with no hint of redness. My skin looks fuller, less lined, more even-toned, firmer and, for the first time in ages, is not crying out for the reassuring concealment of foundation.
Holistic therapist, acupuncturist and former nurse Katherine Jackson swears by ultrasound for deep-cleansing the skin. It’s more commonly used in medical imaging but now, apparently, it’s a beauty accessory, too. For someone with a background in alternative therapies, it’s surprising to see Jackson’s laboratory-cum-salon furnished with decidedly un-Zen-like electronic devices, including a food mixer for blending her bespoke products with skin-identical actives. “I think of them as complementary tools,” she explains. “I use cold laser in place of acupuncture needles to relieve pain and congestion, and one of my ultrasound machines has been adapted to take acupuncture needles.” Usually, the ultrasound has a flat metal attachment that looks a bit like a wallpaper scraper that’s pushed over wet skin to tweak out blackheads. Oscillating sound waves minutely vibrate, forcing congested pores to deliver up stubborn plugs of sebum. The machine’s vibrations also make it ideal for removing milia, keratin-filled cysts frequently found near the eyes that look like white bumps under the skin. “I swap the metal plate for a gold acupuncture needle, insert it into the milia and they pop out with ease,” says Jackson. Next to this stands her cold laser, a low-level, light-emitting device that’s more commonly used by doctors and vets to promote healing in damaged joints and tissues. “In a facial, it delivers energy to the skin to stimulate the production of collagen, but I also use it on acupuncture points in place of needles to target inflammation and pain,” she adds.
Jackson’s other tool of choice is IPL, or intense pulsed light, which can be used to treat conditions from acne – targeting porphyrins, bacteria-producing cells in the skin – to hyper-pigmentation, thread veins and excess hair. The treatment (from £120) works by targeting and breaking up pigment, which then disperses naturally.
The addition of technologies such as light therapy and laser to existing facial practices may have its genesis in dermatology clinics, but now that they have migrated to the salons of private practitioners, well-known spa brands are also adding gadgets to their treatment protocols. “The consumer wants more from a treatment, with fast, visible results,” says Noella Gabriel, co-founder of Elemis, whose new Biotec facials (from £110 at the flagship spa) include light therapy, ultrasound, bio-electric technology and products with high-potency active ingredients. “It’s a new generation of facial in which areas of expertise are fused together for enhanced results.”
Even a facial with a cult following such as Bliss Spa’s Triple Oxygen Facial (£150) isn’t immune to the influence of electro-wizardry. High-tech add-ons include microdermabrasion and light therapy to boost the skin-energising effects of this treatment. Aromatherapy Associates, too, is adopting the “manual meets machine” approach with its Aroma Skin Radiance Facial (from £90). Expect the usual heavenly scents of active essential-oil blends, souped up by technology to boost results: galvanic currents to encourage product absorption and microcurrents that lift and tone muscles.
Since the 1960s, Parisian beauty salon Carita has married technology with manual massage, but now, in its latest facial, Cinetic Lift Expert (£125) – blue, red and yellow light, combined with ultrasound massage – help visibly rejuvenate the skin. Blue light produces oxygen to kill anaerobic bacteria, effectively cleansing the skin; red light helps stimulate cell metabolism and the microcirculation; while yellow light enhances radiance. The therapist works with a series of wands and electronic pads, and wears microcurrent-transmitting silver gloves while massaging and “lifting” the skin. The results are instantaneous but are at their best following a course of five treatments. A firmer jawline, less droop around the eyes and mouth and a fresher look made one friend wonder if I’d had surgery.
Known for its non-surgical facelifting technique, using microcurrent technology to exercise and “re-educate” the facial muscles, international brand CACI has recently added LED light therapy and wrinkle-plumping to its new Ultimate Anti-ageing Facial (from £150 at the flagship spa). The one-hour treatment begins with microdermabrasion with a tiny orbital sander for the most ultra-refined skin polishing imaginable. Next, hand-held probes sweep along the facial contours sending microcurrents to the muscles, stimulating contractions to pull the face up and reversing the negative effects of gravity. LED rays are emitted from above the probes, encouraging cellular repair and skin regeneration. Finally, a “wrinkle comb” that looks like a metal crinkle-cut crisp is placed along wrinkles around the eyes, nose-to-mouth and forehead, delivering high-frequency microcurrent waves with red light to plump skin and stimulate repair.
Facialist Sarah Chapman has also harnessed the combined power of fractional resurfacing and radiofrequency to firm sagging jawlines, wrinkled necks and drooping eyelids, in a programme of Skinesis Lift treatments (from £345). Her machine of choice is the EndyMed Pro 3Deep, a device that feels like a comfortable hot-stone massage – but that’s where the similarity ends because its effects go much deeper, stimulating collagen-producing cells (£250 per session or £1,250 for a course of six).
In the field of sonics, it’s not all high-tech. If the idea of being hooked up to an ultrasound or radiofrequency machine lacks appeal, then similar effects can be achieved using lo-fi tuning forks to release sound waves that relax the mind and stimulate the skin. “I regularly work with tuning forks,” says acupuncturist and wellbeing expert Annee de Mamiel. “They are relaxing, enabling the nervous system to switch off. They work on different frequencies attuned to a musical note, healing through vibration and sound.” Annee’s “whole‑body” Seasonal Attunement (£245 for 120 minutes) includes acupuncture on the legs and feet, massage using traditional Chinese rose-quartz gua sha tools and essential oils; these bring a lucidity and glow to the skin that owes as much to mental relaxation as physical intervention.
Natura Bissé, too, has identified the tuning fork’s anti‑ageing potential, combining it with the brand’s bestselling Inhibit-Tensolift serum (£565) that contains topical fillers and octamioxyl to prevent facial contractions. As part of La Alternativa Sonolifting Facial (£185), the tuning fork is placed on pressure points that correspond to the injection sites commonly used for facial relaxants such as Botox. This is as close to Botox as it gets without piercing the skin and injecting the toxin. “It’s the most serious cosmetic alternative to micro-injections,” confirms Natura Bissé’s marketing director Patricia Fisas. “With this technology, it’s as if the treatment itself has been given a facelift,” she laughs.
Welcome to the world of the superfacial.