Promises of Beauty Treatments--What Works, What Doesn't

How Beauty Treatments Work—or Don’t

By: Cory Ohlendorf

This article is from 2006's Cool Spa Treatments package. The information may be out-of-date, so please call locations listed for new information.

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In a city that’s mostly blase about the smoke and mirrors of politics, we still want to believe in the promises of beauty treatments.

Can a coffee scrub banish cellulite? Will a facial enrich your skin with vitamins? Does a seaweed wrap really draw out toxins?

We talked with local dermatologists to help decipher beauty and spa treatments and figure out what works—and doesn’t.

Getting Dirty

Beauty treatments often coat skin with clay, algae, or mud, but what do these do? And is the French mud used by one spa better than the Thai white clay used by another?

Dr. Michelle Rivera, an Arlington dermatologist, says clay and mud do absorb oil, sweat, and grime in skin. “And they mildly exfoliate the skin when applied,” she says. But where the mud came from or whether clay is white or red doesn’t matter, she says: “It’s going to work the same.”

Tasty Treatments

From pumpkin and pomegranate to honey and mushroom, some beauty products use ingredients that sound like they came from a salad bar.

DC dermatologist Dr. Marilyn Berzin says there are surface benefits to fruits and vegetables in a beauty product. “Many of these foods have beta carotene and vitamin A, which counter free radicals and aid in new-skin turnaround. Some contain lactic or glycolic acid, which helps peel off cells to rejuvenate the skin.”

But does the skin absorb the nutrients in foods? No. “It’s difficult to absorb vitamins and minerals through the skin,” Rivera says. “You have to eat those nutrients to get them into your body and do good.”

Caffeine Buzz

Some spas offer treatments that slather you with chocolate or ground coffee. Can a jolt of external caffeine energize the body and, as promised, get rid of cellulite?

“Caffeine is simply not absorbed by the skin,” says Rivera. “It’s like trying to shove an elephant through the eye of needle. ”

Rivera says there’s no scientific proof that caffeine works on cellulite. The massage, not the caffeine, she says, is likely what diminishes the dimpled skin.

Caffeine in facial products may address a bigger worry. “There was a study where caffeine from green tea was applied to hairless mice and they were radiated. The mice with the caffeine had significantly less skin cancer than those without,” Berzin says.

Dermis Detox

Some spa treatments, primarily body wraps, claim to “detoxify” skin. But are wraps—which start with some sort of exfoliation like a scrub and then involve being slathered in moisturizer and swaddled—even good for you?

“By exfoliating, the skin feels smoother, and by wrapping it, you get some penetration by the products applied to the skin,” says Berzin. “But the wraps advertising that you can lose inches? Please!”

Do wraps, as advertised, flush out impurities?

Dr. Richard Castiello, a Chevy Chase dermatologist, says skin doesn’t absorb toxins so cannot get rid of them. “If you get a wrap, you’ll sweat, but toxins don’t come out in sweat. It’s not an excretory function; it’s your body’s way of cooling off.”

Eyeing the Problem

Crow’s feet, droopy lids, bags. Can topical treatments take years off your eyes?

“Many smoothing products are minor irritants that cause slight tissue swelling,” says Rivera. “The skin plumps, and those lines go away—but only temporarily.”

Castiello agrees. “Crow’s feet are caused by the muscles that allow you to squint. Creams can’t penetrate the skin to the muscles, which is why we need Botox.”

Beauty Bottom Line

Does this mean you shouldn’t spend $80 for that jar of eye serum? Or $100 at a spa for a pomegranate facial?

Berzin says many beauty treatments do help you look better. And there are psychic reasons to splurge at a spa. “There’s no question that you feel better when you come out,” says Castiello. Even if a chocolate wrap doesn’t melt cellulite, the smell can soothe.

And what’s wrong with some anti-aging hope? Perhaps a little smoke and mirrors is a good thing.

Just don’t worry about whether the mud in your body wrap is from the Dead Sea. And, like Cinderella, understand that the effects of that pumpkin moisturizer will be temporary.