The 5 key steps for an amazing at-home spa facial, according to experts – CNN Underscored
As amazing as a spa facial can be, we don’t always have the time or budget to make it a regular part of our skin care routine. But if you’ve ever gotten a facial before, you’ll know that it consists of several steps that are actually quite easy to recreate at home.
Grab some friends and do a DIY spa day or wind down with a calming facial ritual — either way, an at-home facial is a great way to prolong the results of your last in-office treatment or give your skin a reset.
Here, we speak to four skin experts about how to create a personalized at-home facial that brings the spa to you.
Identify your skin type and needs
When getting a professional facial, the aesthetician should always start by asking about your skin concerns and goals, taking a look at the condition of your skin and formulating the best personalized treatment path based on those — and you should do exactly the same when doing an at-home facial.
“At-home facial treatments will depend on what is the skin concern you are treating, whether it’s decreasing inflammation and oil in acne prone skin or building collagen for anti-aging, or both!” says Dr. Kseniya Kobets, director of cosmetic dermatology at Montefiore Einstein.
Generally, those with acne-prone skin will want to “look for anti-inflammatory effects,” explains Kobets. These ingredients will help calm and clarify the skin. Amy Peterson, medical aesthetician and founder of Miami medspa Skincare by Amy Peterson, says to use products with “ingredients such as salicylic acid, benzoyl perozide and azelaic acid” to combat acne. “It is also important to look for oil-free hydrators to ensure that you do not over-dry or strip the skin,” she says.
Likewise, those with oily skin should focus on products that are oil-free and non-comedogenic, according to Peterson. “These products won’t clog pores and will help balance sebum production,” she explains. “You should also look for exfoliating ingredients that will help remove dead skin cells and reduce excess oil.”
For dry skin, “look for products with hydrating, soothing and reparative ingredients that will restore the skin barrier, [such as] hyaluronic acid, glycerin [and] ceramides,” Peterson says.
“For combination skin, we want to balance the pH of your skin,” says Rachael Gallo, esthetician and chief operating officer at Silver Mirror Facial Bar. Products that help manage oil production and moisture can be used to target the specific areas that need it.
Those looking to address signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles and elasticity will want to build collagen (the secret behind bouncy and plump jello skin), which many skin care ingredients support. Peterson says vitamin C, retinoids, glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid, ceramides and peptides are great for anti-aging.
Step 1: Double cleanse
“When performing an at-home facial it’s important we start with a clean canvas,” Gallo says. She and Peterson agree the best way to remove makeup, sunscreen, sweat and other daily grime is to double cleanse.
“Start with a balm or oil-free cleanser to remove makeup and surface pollution that we can’t see,” Gallo advises. Once you massage the first cleanser in and rinse it off, then you can follow with a second cleanse targeted to your skin concern. A lactic acid cleansing ingredient, for example, can help brighten and clarify any dullness. If you’re worried about stripping the skin, a creamy face wash can help preserve moisture. Our expert-recommended guide to cleansers can help you choose the best products to try, and here are some additional suggestions:
Gallo says this oil-free cleanser is a favorite at Silver Mirror as “it dissolves dirt oil and even removes waterproof makeup.”
Recommended by Kobets, the dermatologist loves this foaming formula that is hypoallergenic and safe for sensitive skin. Peterson also loves La Roche-Posay for an affordable option, recommending the Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Cleanser. Both are great for a second cleanse to prep the skin for your next facial steps.
Those who want to fight dullness and treat hyperpigmentation can look for active ingredients like vitamin C in their cleanser to even the skin tone. This is one of Peterson’s favorites.
Peterson recommends this gentle exfoliating cleanser that contains salicylic acid to remove dead skin cells, niacinamide for oil control and vitamin D for anti-inflammatory properties.
Step 2: Exfoliate
Going beyond washing off surface debris, exfoliating will slough away any dead layers of skin to help smooth the skin texture and even skin tone for those with hyperpigmentation or scarring. “This step is best performed at night; when the body is at rest we see the most cellular turnover,” says Gallo.
There are two types of exfoliants — chemical and physical — and oftentimes exfoliating treatments will combine the two. “Physical exfoliants sweep away dead surface cells and debris for immediately smoother and softer skin,” explains dermatologist Sameer Bashey with ZO Skin Health. These come in the form of scrubs, which have a gritty texture that you will feel when massaging into the skin. Chemical exfoliants use acids, like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), to loosen dead skin cells. You may feel them working with a slight tingly sensation on the skin.
But use caution, neither method should be painful and over-exfoliation can damage the skin barrier. While some chemical exfoliants are gentle enough for daily use, you may want to consider a skin cycling routine to avoid irritating the skin with too many active ingredients. Additionally, Kobets says “scrubs should be used in moderation once a week or less on non-irritated skin.”
This five-step kit features exfoliation-focused products that will help renew and revitalize the skin. Bashey says it’s safe for all skin types and is “a great option to enhance and prolong patients’ results from in-office treatments.” It includes the ZO Skin Health Exfoliating Polish, which is one of Kobets’ favorites for deep exfoliation. Just be careful to use only on non-inflamed skin, Kobets warns.
Gallo prefers a chemical exfoliant and recommends this treatment. “Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that works on the surface layer of your skin by loosening the dead skin and sloughing away pigmented, dull, dead cells that cause acne and dark spots,” she explains.
“I love this very gentle chemical exfoliant which is perfect for that mild flaking you can get with using a retinol,” Kobets says.
One of Peterson’s picks, this gentle exfoliating serum uses mandelic acid, a type of AHA, to remove dead skin without causing irritation.
Step 3: Face mask
The face mask step is when you can really start pampering your skin. From calming clay masks to hydrating sheet masks, there’s tons of options that you can choose from based on your skin goals. And you can mix it up each time you do an at-home facial — external factors like the weather and environment may affect what you want to treat.
For some general guidance, Gallo recommends a hyaluronic acid mask for those with dry skin and a clay-based mask for those with combination skin. Oily skin types will want to look for a non-comedogenic mask to soothe and balance the skin.
You can also opt for anti-aging treatments or targeted concentrates that you leave on the skin in place of a mask. Peterson loves the 111Skin concentrates and recommends The Firming Concentrate for mature skin types.
Whatever type of mask you go with, you can enhance the experience by using a facial steamer to help open up the pores and aid product absorption.
Gallo says this clay mask is a great option for detoxifying. “It contains freshwater silt which helps deeply cleanse the skin and includes salicylic acid which acts as a second exfoliation process in your skin care routine,” she explains. “The cucumber extract leaves your skin feeling smooth and reduces pore size to prevent breakouts.”
Peterson recommends this hyaluronic acid mask for hydrating and plumping dry skin. It gives the skin an instant boost, making it a great choice for pre-event facials.
An ideal choice for those with oily skin, Peterson recommends this Amazonian kaolin clay mask that cleans pores and absorbs oil.
This 10-minute mask is deeply nourishing and safe for sensitive skin. In fact, it helps strengthen the skin barrier with seaweed extract, licorice root and other gentle actives, so your skin can eventually tolerate other more aggressive active ingredients.
Adding in an at-home LED mask, microcurrent device or gua sha can add another layer of self care to your at-home facial — and proven benefits, too.
Kobets is a fan of LED light therapy, which can treat breakouts, wrinkles and signs of aging. “What I love about LED devices is that they are a non-invasive way to build collagen and decrease inflammation in the skin, via a process called photobiomodulation without thermal heating or skin damage,” Kobets says. “As opposed to other at home devices, LED devices have more science behind them in human subjects using split face studies with biopsy proven increase in collagen and elastin fibers.”
Blue light is great for acne treatment as it creates “a chemical reaction in pores that kills C. acne bacteria and decreases inflammation,” according to Kobets. It can also be combined with red light (or they can be done separately), which decreases inflammation and “goes deeper, stimulating fibroblasts to make collagen and elastin, and is thought to reduce oil production and inflammatory acne.” The dermatologist adds, “Near infrared light also targets deeper fibroblast cells, stimulating new collagen and elastin production.”
Microcurrent devices have also become a popular treatment that can help lift and tone the face. Using electrical current, the devices stimulate the muscles and skin cells, helping to build the muscle and tighten the skin. Like LED masks, microcurrent devices are popular treatments that are often included in professional facials, and now there are plenty of at-home options to get similar results over time.
If you’re feeling puffy, jade rollers or gua sha can help de-bloat with lymphatic drainage. While the latter requires more attention to detail, the technique boosts circulation, releases tension and can even have a sculpting effect when done regularly. “Both use massaging techniques with acupressure points, which essentially accomplishes reduced puffiness via lymphatic drainage and improves blood flow, which may increase penetration of active products like [hyaluronic acid] or vitamin C,” Kobets says. Gallo is also a fan of gua sha and says to “always massage in an upward motion and follow the marma facial points to see dramatic results.”
You’ll also want to use a serum or face oil to make it easy for your gua sha, roller or even your fingers to glide over the skin. Combining a facial massage with the moisturizing step makes it easy to incorporate into your at home facial or even daily routine.
A couple cautions the Kobets notes when it comes to gua sha and facial massage is to use light pressure to avoid bruising and to stay away from areas with active acne or rosacea, and also areas where fillers have been injected.
Safe for all skin types, this LED mask uses two clinically proven wavelengths of red and near-infrared light to treat acne and signs of aging. Kobets suggests using a mild exfoliating mask before LED treatment to improve the penetration of LED light.
Peterson loves the FDA-cleared LightStim device for killing acne-causing bacteria and preventing future breakouts. Kobets notes that looking for FDA-cleared devices for at-home use can ensure a more effective treatment. “This does not mean it is FDA proven to work but has some vetting that it is safe to use at home when used as directed,” Kobets explains.
Used at Silver Mirror Facial Bar, Gallo loves the PureLift microcurrent device. The FDA-cleared “noninvasive sculpting tool uses patented muscle stimulation to deeply activate and stimulate your muscles,” she says.
An all-in-one facial device, the TheraFace Pro has attachments for percussive massage therapy, microcurrent, cleansing and red, blue and red + infrared light therapy.
Step 5: Corrective serums and moisturizer
As you wrap up your facial, you can add in a face serum to target your skin’s needs and seal it in with a face cream. For example, a vitamin C serum will address dullness, a hyaluronic acid serum will boost hydration, a salicylic acid serum will help with breakouts and a retinol serum will reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
Just be aware of how you layer your skin care. “Remember [to] apply your thinnest serum first and layer,” Gallo says. “Serums work best when the skin is damp and not completely dry, this will allow a longer time for penetration and will create a protective barrier.”
Furthermore, Kobets says to be careful about what actives you apply after doing an exfoliating mask or treatment. “I would not recommend using a retinol topical after anything that will exfoliate the skin same day, but it’s OK to use post LED or gua sha,” she advises.
Once you have your serum applied, you can add on your moisturizer. Gallo suggests using an active night cream (meaning it contains active levels of skin care ingredients such as retinol) if you’re doing your at-home facial at night so you can soak in the benefits as you sleep.
“Adding retinol to your routine will tackle many skin concerns,” Gallo says. This derm-approved option is formulated with non-irritating retinol and ceramides to reduce signs of aging, support the skin barrier and brighten the complexion.
Peterson suggests this face oil in place of a serum for those with dry skin. The vitamin-rich formula is full of antioxidants that fight signs of free radical damage and aging.
This affordable face serum is great for mature skin types as it delivers a dual-peptide to boost collagen.
“This face cream uses microencapsulated retinol to create a slow release which optimizes efficacy and minimizes irritation,” Gallo says. “Wake up with a clean, even texture and a glowing skin tone.”
What not to do
While the experts we spoke with shared a bunch of amazing tips and products for creating an at-home facial, they also mentioned some no-no’s, too. Not all in-office facial treatments can be performed at home, and in fact, many should be left up to the professionals.
Gallo and Peterson say that dermaplaning and extractions absolutely must be done by a professional. “Although there are several kits on the market for dermaplaning, to get a real exfoliation result where you actually remove dead skin and not just vellus hair you must use a medical-grade scalpel,” Gallo explains. “Oftentimes the blades provided in the kits become dull quickly and can cause irritation on the skin. A professional esthetician uses a precise technique to remove dead skin and vellus hair, leaving an even texture and clean canvas for cellular turnover.”
Extractions also require precision and safety, and can cause irritation and scarring if not done properly. “Professionals are trained to properly extract pores in order to prevent worsening of the spot or inflammation,” Peterson says. “Professionals are also trained in order to prevent scarring.”
Additional facial treatments that are best left up to experts include stronger chemical peels and microneedling, according to Bashey. Kobets agrees, explaining that “the potentially associated risks that come with [at-home microneedling] devices outweigh any potential benefit. They cause skin barrier damage by dragging the dermaroller on skin (shearing the skin), which is different than the 90-degree angle of in-office micro needling devices.”
Instead of trying to solve every skin care woe at home, a DIY facial should support the in-office treatments done by professionals. By following the steps outlined above, you can give yourself a spa-level facial while staying safe.