Everything you need to know before booking an appointment.

To the uninitiated, facials are an extravagance better suited to ladies who lunch than the average Joe, but that kind of thinking is wrong. Maybe facials used to be spa-only but these days, a facial is considered maintenance. Think of them like haircuts: you trust a professional to cut your hair, why don’t you do the same for your face?

The reason is that your skin is fickle. Have you ever looked into the mirror and thought, “WTF happened to my face?” No matter how much you wash your face or how often you slather on moisturizer, the skin on your face can go crazy at the drop of a hat. When it does, you may not know what to do. That’s where an esthetician comes in. They’re trained professionals who know exactly what to do to make you look better.

Here’s our complete beginner’s guide to facials, including reasons you should get a facial and where you can get one that won’t break the bank.

What Is A Facial?
At its most basic, a facial is “a treatment performed by a licensed professional designed to address the skin,” says Joanna Vargas, celebrity facialist and founder of Joanna Vargas Salons and Skincare. “They usually include cleansing, exfoliation, massage, extractions, and a mask.” It might sound similar to the routine you follow at home, but where your at-home regimen is like washing your car, a facial is like going to the car wash.

According to cosmetic dermatologist Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, the word “facial” is more of an umbrella term these days. “They used to be mainly done for acne,” he says, “but now it’s a broad thing.” You may have seen ads for things like cryotherapy or acupuncture facials or noticed your dermatologist offering a laser facial. Those are all facials too, but use technology to obtain specific results. The main difference between the facial you get at a spa and one you get at the dermatologist’s office is the downtime. “The type of treatment an aesthetician does tends to have more short term results,” says Frank. “They’re not medical procedures, where the type of facial treatments a dermatologist does may have more long term impact.” This doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, just that they’re suited for different things. “An esthetician is for maintenance like brushing your teeth; a dermatologist is for a few times a year, like getting your teeth cleaned by the dentist,” he says.

How Often Should I Get a Facial?
Good news: You don’t even have to get a facial all that often to see big results. “In a perfect world, you should get a facial every four to six weeks,” says Jordan Samuel Pacitti, esthetician and founder of Jordan Samuel Skin. “But realistically, get one at the change of seasons so you’re coming four times a year.” It’s a good way to start each season fresh and prepare your skin for the environmental changes ahead.

6 Reasons to Get a Facial
No matter what kind of facial you get, you’ll get benefits well beyond anything you can do at home.

1. Facials are a Power Wash for Your Face
Facials have been used for generations as ways to detox, according to Dr. Frank, and that’s still one of their biggest benefits. Every facial will start with a deep and thorough cleansing of your skin (sometimes with multiple cleansers) and many will include steam, which opens up pores and softens deep-down dirt so it can be removed more easily. Not every facialist uses steam these days, and even if they don’t, they’ll use certain facial massage and cleansing techniques that help clean your skin deeper than you can do in your bathroom mirror.

2. Facials Remove Blackheads Better Than a Pore Strip
Part of getting the deep clean in many facials is extractions, which is when the facialist manually extracts blackheads from your pores, safely pops zits, and gets rid of any other pustules that might be causing clogs. This is not the same as squeezing a pimple on your own. For one, it’s done safely to reduce the risk of scarring or long term damage. Once the pores are clear, the facialist is also “able to get in there with alpha hydroxy acids or retinols to clean out the pore itself,” says Pacitti. “This helps reduce the appearance of pore size and promote a better tone and look to the skin.” Extractions can be uncomfortable, so many facialists will give you a choice whether to get them or not, but they are one of the best ways to clean and improve skin.

3. Facials Exfoliate Better (and Safer) Than At-Home Treatments
Like cleansing, a facial will give you “deeper exfoliation than you can get at home,” says Pacitti. “Exfoliation removes dead skin cells, improves skin tone, reduces the appearance of pore size, and helps the products you’re using penetrate deeper and work better.” Unlike the scrub you’re using at home, professional-level exfoliating products can target deep layers of skin and remove more dead cells. They’re usually chemical exfoliators, which use acids or enzymes to break the bonds between skin cells and remove them (scrubs only target the skin’s surface). Estheticians are able to use these stronger products safely to give you better results.

4. Getting a Facial Is a Good Way to Learn About Your Skin
A professional facialist will be able to look at your skin and see things you won’t from looking in the mirror, like whether you’re using the right products or if they’re actually doing what you want them to. It’s like having a mechanic peek under the hood of your car. “A facial is a great way to learn about your skin and have somebody who is experienced in skincare tell you about your skin type and skin conditions,” says Pacitti. They’re also able to give you advice you can use after you’ve gone home. Through product recommendations and advice, they’re “able to address both short and long-term concerns,” says Vargas.

5. Professionals Have Better Tools
Just like estheticians and dermatologists are using better products during a facial, they also have better tools at their disposal to really improve your skin. “They use a lot of LED lights, some use radio frequency, electric current, and ultrasound,” says Frank. “I’m using lasers and stronger therapies.” These are professional-use only devices that help to improve skin from the inside out and the biggest difference between what’s offered at a spa and your dermatologist’s office is intensity. While not all facials include high-level therapies, they’re becoming more standard and only serve to offer better results.

6. Facials Can be Relaxing AF
Sure, you can find a quick, no-frills facial easily (like the list at the end of this article), but part of the draw of a facial for lots of people is that they are relaxing. Most last around an hour and can be valuable screen-less time. They force you to give up control and let someone else take the wheel for once. “That’s what I want out of a facial,” says Frank.

Here’s What to Know Before You Get a Facial
Before you get a facial, there are some things to know to make sure you get the most out of the experience.

1. Shave or Not To Shave?
Shaving is a natural exfoliant, so if you have sensitive skin or are prone to irritation, skip your shave the day you get a facial. Freshly shaved skin can get angry once exfoliants like acids or enzymes are put on top. But if you have a lot of stubble, consider shaving the night before. Too much stubble can trap product and keep it from penetrating.

2. There are Minimal Side Effects to Getting a Facial
“You might not look amazing right afterward,” says Pacitti. Depending on what your skin looked like beforehand and what your specific skin issues are, your skin will probably look more hydrated and smooth. You may be a little red from the exfoliation or extractions, but that is usually temporary. “The results after a week, though, will be unbelievable,” he says.

3. Prepare for Discomfort
Even if you’ve gotten a thousand facials, extractions and exfoliation can sometimes be uncomfortable. If you’ve never gotten one, don’t let extractions scare you off. Any discomfort only lasts a few minutes, says Pacitti. Expect extractions your first time and if given the option, say yes. “Facials are not like massages, they don’t always feel amazing the whole time,” he says, but that’s part of what makes it worth it.

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