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As a teen, the only thing I knew about spa facials was what I’d seen in Legally Blonde. In the film, Elle and Emmett found the snobby Mrs. Windham Vandermark at a spa in a fancy, remote location, where she and other rich middle-aged women paid hundreds of dollars to lay wrapped like mummies, cucumbers over their eyes. Of course, that spa is an exaggeration of the real thing, but its depiction is indicative of an obstacle the industry faces: the idea that the spa is an exclusive, elitist hallmark of our mothers’ generation; inaccessible, unwelcoming, and demanding of our time and finances.
That isn’t to say the spa industry is suffering. In 2016, American spas experienced a 5 percent revenue increase compared to the previous year, and nine out of 10 spa owners were confident these increases will continue. But the spa industry is also rapidly adapting, as millennials are more concerned about sustainability, customization, and convenience than their parents and grandparents.
Enter the facial bar.
The New York-based Heyday is one such example. The small chain — with locations in Nomad, Tribeca, and the Upper East Side — bills itself as “taking the facial out of the spa and into your life.” Facial options are straightforward and limited, with 30-, 50-, and 75-minute appointments that go for $60, $95, and $135, respectively. Add-ons, including microdermabrasion, LED light therapy, and “beard therapy,” are available for $35 each, or $30 if you’re a member.
I arrived for my 50-minute Upper East Side appointment with little idea of what to expect. Intimidated by the possibility of damage to both my wallet and my somewhat sensitive skin, I’d never really looked into it. But rather than screaming luxury and wealth, Heyday’s small, quiet lobby was, more than anything, comfortable.
Heyday facials aren’t one size fits all, so the first thing my aesthetician (or “skin therapist,” in Heyday parlance) did was determine the current state of my skin. Having looked at it under a light, Natalie determined that it was slightly congested, topically dry, and, on a deeper level, very dehydrated. As such, she customized my facial by double-cleansing, softening with warm washcloths, and applying multiple masks — a volcanic ash mask that helps detoxify the skin and a moisturizing mask — before doing a short extraction. After applying a vitamin C serum, a moisturizer, and an SPF, Natalie prepared several samples of products she thought would be particularly suited to my dehydrated, congested skin.
I left Heyday feeling as relaxed and fresh as you might expect from any facial, but I also felt that I’d learned a lot about my skin. I’ll be totally honest: My skin feels legitimately smoother and less red than it did previously. For a single facial that costs about as much as a midrange gym membership in NYC, I’m not sure I’m ready to commit, but if my financial situation somehow changes, I’ll sign up in a heartbeat.
Silver Mirror is another facial bar, from the founder of Korean skincare website Peach & Lily. With a single location on the Upper East Side, it offers a wider variety of “fast and affordable” treatments, such as the “Winter Skin Fix” or “Just for Men” facials. For those who get frequent facials, the ability to choose what you want to tackle before going in is a benefit, but at $80 to 135 each, plus add-ons, and considering the fact that these treatments are recommended once every two weeks, this is hardly sensible for the thrifty millennial audience that is the business’s target clientele.
When I visited, I didn’t find it to be particularly affordable (I paid $135 plus tip), nor something I could conceivably fit in the middle of a busy day. I left the uncomfortable, clinical spa feeling messy, with rubber mask in my hairline and smelling vaguely like Lysol. Rather than a relaxing, rejuvenating experience, I felt as if I’d just gone to the dentist, which may be the impression plenty of clients are drawn to — the space had a medical air about it, befitting procedures that are more extensive and invasive than what you can find at Heyday.
Silver Mirror’s menu is more extensive than Heyday’s. With services such as dermaplaning — using a sharp blade to literally scrape the top layer of skin off the face — as well as LED light therapy, oxygen treatments, and high frequency, it’s more possible to experiment with new treatments and see what works for your skin beyond the basic mask and extraction. But, of course, maybe that’s all your skin needs.
Or maybe all your skin needs is some quick and easy Botox or light therapy.
For the former, there’s Beverly Hills’ Alchemy 43, a “beauty lab” that specializes in injectables such as Botox or lip fillers. After viewing your “new face” in a 3D image to preview anticipated changes, your “Alchemist” administers anesthesia before you receive your treatment. Since Alchemy 43 is so specialized in its offerings, it claims its patients receive “world-class results” from its trained professionals who, while not doctors like the dermatologists who typically do Botox, are nevertheless “trained, licensed, and certified medical experts.” The situation sounds somewhat unsettling, but the experts’ apparent lack of doctorates doesn’t seem to bother the company’s customers: Of its 29 Yelp reviews, 27 were five star, with reviewers extolling their plump new lips and skillfully smoothed fine lines.
And then there’s Skin Laundry, a small NYC-based chain that only offers one treatment: a $65, 15-minute light and laser facial, which they suggest customers get weekly. The spa’s selling point is that their laser facials have “zero downtime,” so you can pop in on your lunch break for a quick skincare touch-up.
But are there downsides to the quick and easy facial treatments available at beauty bars like Silver Mirror or Alchemy 43?
According to NYC dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz, maybe.
“Consumers beware,” he says. Quality control “starts at a lower level and will only degrade as competition drives down prices, requiring cost-cutting measures that will compromise quality.” While I personally didn’t experience a quality-control issue at Heyday, I can certainly see Dr. Schultz’s point regarding my experience at Silver Mirror, which felt sloppy and unprofessional.
Aesthetician Cecilia Wong agrees. “Younger clients are looking for quick fixes with long-term results,” she says. “Keep in mind that the price is a reflection of the products, techniques, and technology being used, in combination with the level of expertise of the aesthetician performing your treatment.”
Still, she notes, “consistency is key. That’s why I recommend regular facials to maintain long-term skin health.”
Such advice is, obviously, prohibitively expensive for some of us. Even Heyday, where prices are comparatively reasonable, charges $95 plus tip for a 50-minute facial; a membership for one 50-minute facial a month only saves you $6. Renee Rouleau, aesthetician and founder of her eponymous skincare line, acknowledged these difficulties in an email. “Go to an esthetic school where students need to practice for their license but also need to be supervised by teachers,” she writes. “Suggest that people have a consultation (complimentary) so you can speak with them ahead of time to see if you share concerns and if you agree with their philosophies, similar to getting an opinion from a doctor.”
I’d be nervous about going to a school, but if Rouleau — one of the most accomplished aestheticians in the business — recommends it, I feel slightly more comfortable about the prospect. One thing everyone I talked to emphasized is consistency: Caring for your skin isn’t a one-and-done operation, and if signs of aging are a concern, prevention is more effective than attempting to reverse time’s accumulation on your face. So if you have to choose between high-quality skincare products and a monthly facial, go the first route without a second thought (and please, dear god, wear sunscreen).
If you can spare the extra cash? By all means, get a regular facial. Your skin will thank you, both immediately and down the line, and if you find the right place, it can be such a relaxing experience you’ll fall asleep (my facialist at Heyday said this is a common occurrence). Think about what you want to achieve from a facial: do you want firmer, tighter skin? Softened fine lines? Clear pores? Or are you looking for an all-around refresher, a checkup for your face? Call the spa beforehand to ensure your desired results are achievable, and, once you’re in the chair, don’t be afraid to be completely honest with your aesthetician. He or she has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of faces before, and will be able to guide you in the right direction with your treatments and aftercare plan.
And most importantly? Have fun and relax. Whether you’re getting 15 minutes of laser therapy or several hours of peels and extractions, it’s a chance for you to chill out and let someone take the wheel for once.