To borrow an analogy from Maslow, the skin has a hierarchy of needs. The core building blocks are cleansing, exfoliating, and sun protection — you know, the necessities. That's followed by things like antioxidants and peptides, the reparative basics. Right at the top of the pyramid is what one might refer to as "add-ons": fun things like masks, and facial massages, and sticking cucumber slices on your eyes. Adding those things regularly into your routine has its benefits, but determining where professional facials might fit within that hierarchy — and how much you should spend — is a little more challenging.
Cosmetic physician Sarah Tonks says that there's no hard-and-fast rules in terms of how often you should get them done. "If you're going for an acne-specific facial with extractions and a light peel, and you have active acne, every six or eight weeks could be good," Dr. Tonks says. "If your primary concern is melasma or pigmentation, every three months or so is fine."
Also of note is that the sheer number of treatments on the market at wildly different price points can be mind-boggling; knowing where to start navigating the jargon is basically a language in itself. But Dr. Tonks says that facials can largely be broken down into a few categories. "You have your proper clinical facials, where you'll be getting extractions, maybe an LED mask, a professional-strength peel, something like HydraFacial or an oxygen treatment maybe added on," she says. "That could be anywhere from $100 to $200." Three digits is a lot, but Dr. Tonks explains that you're paying for the cost of the machines (a salon-grade LED machine, for example, can cost up to $15,000), as well as for a highly-trained therapist who may come from a medical background.
Then there’s your relaxing facials. Usually — though not always, depending on the spa or studio — found at a lower price point, these facials are more about aromatherapy, applying a few masks, and having something of a mindful experience. "There’s a few more massage-type facials I enjoy having," Dr. Tonks says. "They don’t necessarily make the most visible difference to my skin, but they do force me to relax and not do anything for 40 minutes, and that is a beauty treatment in itself."
There are some places that sit between the two, price- and results-wise: national or regional chains of salons that offer facials at good prices, often with laser or microdermabrasion. "These places operate at a high volume, so it’s much safer to go to a chain like that for a laser treatment rather than a lesser-known independent clinic if price is an issue," Dr. Tonks says.
But for the most part, if it comes down to price and you've only got $80 to spend, putting that money toward cosmeceutical-grade skin care (brands like SkinCeuticals, iS Clinicals, and SkinMedica, for example) rather than a middling facial might just be your best bet. At-home skin care is better than ever, so why pay to have people apply the same stuff you might have kicking around in your bathroom cabinet? High-end clinics will have some professional-grade products, like peels, but on the whole, a mud mask is a mud mask.
"If you want laser, radiofrequency, microdermabrasion, or anything like that, I would encourage you to save up a little if you can and go to a reputable, pricier clinic," says Dr. Tonks. "It's rare, but you will see some horror stories from time to time of people being injured or scarred by botched facials. If someone is offering you a real bargain-basement price for a treatment, you might end up paying in another way."
For most people, the correct answer is to do what works for you: Nobody necessarily needs a facial, but if you enjoy them and can afford to indulge — whether that's once a month or once a year — then by all means. There are a few things that professional estheticians can do that you can't at home, but as far as taking good care of your skin, and keeping it clear and healthy, that comes down to what you want to do... and, in some cases, what your dermatologist tells you.