Why Facials Aren’t *Just* About Your Skin Anymore

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Facials are a luxury. No doubt about that. Anytime you have the opportunity to kick back and put your face in someone else’s hands for the span of an hour is a treat. I’m lucky enough to have experienced my fair share (for research)—and to have developed some opinions on them in the process.

It was a particular facial this winter, though, that gave me a whole new perspective. The facial in question wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good either. On the surface, I was in a privileged spot: I had an appointment with a celebrity aesthetician, someone who’s not taking new clients and only comes to town maybe once a year. I’m a big fan of this facialist; they know what they’re talking about and have helped a great many people beat their acne, rosacea, you name it. This person’s qualifications are not in question. Yet. The facial left me wanting. A cleanse, steam, a peel, maybe some extractions… It was by the book. My skin was cleaned and hydrated, but that was about it. I sat up feeling like I’d squandered the 60 minutes I spent in their care with a routine I could have done (and routinely do) at home.

This is a champagne problem, I get that. But I spent some time thinking about it. If nothing was wrong with the facial, why was I dissatisfied? Had I gotten too spoiled? Was my at-home skincare routine too comprehensive? Are facials just another beauty scam making it easy for you to pour money down the drain? I mean, if you’re going to spend the time (or really, if you’re going to spend the money)—don’t you want to feel like your professional facial leaves you with an oomph you can’t get with the enzyme peel, calming mask, and I know you already have on your Top Shelf?

Dejected and wandering around New York, I stumbled into (OK, not at all: I made an appointment like a normal person a few weeks after that first facial). Face Gym is one of the newer facial spots built on the “fast-casual” model. Get in, get out, and be able to afford getting in again soon. Developed in London and only just starting to put down permanent roots in New York (their flagship just opened on Bond next to Equinox, Bandier, and Gigi Hadid’s apartment), Face Gym brands itself as a high-tech workout for your face. My Friday evening appointment was called face yoga and called for 50 minutes of literal stretching, massaging, and rolling of the skin and its underlying muscles. I arrived dejected and cranky; I left fully rejuvenated in a way only a shiatsu massage, therapy session, and a very good cappuccino can leave you.

Founder Inge Theron put into words what I couldn’t quite place my finger on at the time. A beauty editor herself for 11 years, she became fatigued of the typical facial, only seeing results from the master, Joelle Ciocco. Not surprising: Joelle’s legendary facials include two hours of intense massage along with a whole host of other beauty secrets I can only dream of. The problem is that Joelle is only based in France and booked out for at least a year at a time. Don’t even ask about the price.

Inge explains, “I reached this place five years ago where, I was going to do these facials and the routine was product on, product off, product on…” she said. “I don’t believe that the efficacy is there. Everyone has bags and bags of amazing products at home and their own 5-12 step skincare. When you go to a facial, just treating skin isn’t enough anymore.” She craved a Ciocco-level “transformation”—we're talking higher cheekbones, a more sculpted jawline, and a glow that seems like it's coming from behind the skin—but at a price she could afford. Reasonable! While Face Gym’s concept also boasts microcurrent treatments, oxygen infusion machines, and more types of rollers than I knew existed, it all boils down to the massage. After an hour, you look facial-ed (they do cleanse, tone, and moisturize you, after all)—but with the kind of tone a clay mask can never give. The tone you'd get from a workout class. Or a face lift.

On the other end of this philosophical spectrum, there's —far less electrified than Inge’s solution, but similarly focused on that behind-the-skin scaffolding. “Skin is important, it’s our protective barrier to the world, it has a lot of responsibilities and needs,” says Rachel Lang, facialist and co-founder of Face Love. “But what about the 43 muscles underneath that need to be nourished and stimulated?! Not to mention the benefits for your psyche. If you feel better, you look better.” The Face Love technique goes so far in the massage-is-life direction that they don’t even use product, really; just a little oil for slip. The technician's hands do the rest. Imagine the best shampoo bowl portion of a haircut—that head massage that makes your eyes roll into the back of your scalp. That’s Face Love, but for 45 minutes.

“All of your emotions are shown in your face and head first,” Rachel continues. “Tightening jaw muscles, furrowed brow, even your tech neck builds up when you’re stressed. There’s no real service today that’s addressing those problems and relieving them as a part of your beauty routine. You can do an awesome back massage, but the results don’t feel quite as essential.”

Of course relaxation is just a part of it. Inge mentions that she doesn’t get injections anymore. (For reference, .) “When you get to my age (43), you have to look for the perfect combination of old-school massage wisdom and technology if you want results,” she says. Rachel expands on that thought, saying that "grabbing, gripping, rolling the muscles with our technique is going to increase the circulation that much more than if you were just going to do your standard facial.” Increased circulation, collagen production, and tension release—the holy trinity of anti-aging. Long story short, it's that facial glow you’ve been looking for–and are actually willing to pay for, too.

But there's an argument more virtuous than the anti-aging one (if you're still skeptical). “When you really feel good, your face reflects it,” Rachel says. And if that means I must indulge in a scalp massage every few weeks, so be it.

—Emily Ferber

Photo via ITG.