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Are Expensive Facials Better?

How to tell what’s good for the skin and what’s a waste of money.

WebMD the Magazine - Feature

Mary Sgammato relaxed in a darkened room at a Manhattan day spa, about to enjoy a luxurious facial. The aesthetician entered the room and began, but then injected a touch of the stress Sgammato had come to escape. “She noticed the fine lines on my forehead and said the oxygen facial would get rid of them,” says Sgammato, 53, an editorial manager for a professional services firm who lives in Tarrytown, N.Y. She had planned on a basic facial, which was $70 cheaper. “I had to make a quick decision, but I had no way of knowing if the oxygen facial was worth the money.”

Sound familiar? Facials are a wonderful indulgence, but day spas offer a dizzying array of techniques and exotic ingredients promising dramatic effects. How do you decipher which are good for your skin and which are a waste?

Keep in mind a few key treatments and you’ll be set, says Jessie Cheung, MD, assistant professor of dermatology and associate director of cosmetic dermatology at NYU Medical Center. For example, alpha and beta hydroxy chemical peels offer medical benefits and are among the treatments worth the cost, but each has different benefits. “A common beta hydroxy is salicylic acid, which gets into the oil glands and is very good for someone with acne-prone skin,” she says. Alpha hydroxy acids are good exfoliators and beneficial for older skin that has lost radiance.

Galvanic facials, which involve electrically stimulating the skin with a handheld device, are another good value. Electric currents enable moisturizers and serums to penetrate the skin more deeply. “Anything that helps products get into your skin will help them work better,” Cheung says. She also advises facials that include retinoic acid, which helps slough off older skin cells, build collagen, and reduce the signs of aging. But you’ll need a treatment every four to six weeks to see results.

What should you pass on? Oxygen facials, while popular with celebrities for supposedly hydrating and immediately smoothing and plumping the skin, aren’t worth the extra cash. Cheung says no clinical studies demonstrate their effectiveness.

And treatments containing products you’d normally wear as jewelry -- gold, diamonds, and sapphires? You can pass on those too. They don’t do a thing for your skin.

In the end, Sgammato skipped the oxygen treatment and went with the basic facial after all. “My skin looked great, and I saved $70. I used the money I might have spent to have dinner with a friend when I was done.”

Want to know how to get the most out of your facial dollars?

Get a good start. A high-quality spa will give you a questionnaire about your skin care and medical conditions.

Organics aren’t for everyone. Organic facial products are popular, but many people are allergic to plant oils. Speak up if you have a history of sensitivity to any plants.

Easy does it. Extractions are a good way to rid your skin of blackheads -- not whiteheads -- but don’t let the aesthetician go too deep. A good practitioner will back away from anything not coming out easily.

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