News & Politics

How We Reviewed 50 DC, VA, and MD Spas

We reviewed 50 day spas to find out which ones leave you relaxed and pampered and which aren’t worth the money.

Rub Me the Right Way

When you pay good money for a massage or facial, you want to feel that your $100 or so was well spent. You want to come out relaxed and happy.

That’s often not the case at local spas.

We sent reviewers to 50 area salons and day spas. While we had some wonderful treatments, we also endured massages in cold rooms, stained towels, pushy product pitches, and aestheticians who never explained what they were doing.

Part of the problem: Hair salons are adding spa services as fast as they can. Sometimes the results are marvelous; other times no.

“The cool thing to be is a day spa,” says beauty-industry consultant Geno Stampora. “A lot of salons think they can have a massage therapist and call themselves a spa.”

At a day spa, you should get a massage in peace without hearing hair dryers or chatter. Too often, hair salons retrofitted with spa rooms do not set up a spa area that’s soundproof. That’s not relaxing.

Neither is bad service. You should get a friendly greeting, an escort to the treatment or locker room, a discussion about any health or skin problems before a treatment starts, offers of water or tea, and the impression that the therapist is focused on you. Too often, you can feel rushed. At one spa, our tester was presented with the bill in the massage room. At another, the facialist answered her cell phone during the facial.

It’s not easy for spas to get good help, Stampora says. The beauty industry has had a shortage of therapists for years. So much of our reviewers’ experience was colored by one bad aesthetician.

What’s a spagoer to do?

Before you spend good money, you might call and ask a few questions or check out a spa’s Web site. How many kinds of massages and facials does the spa offer? If it’s just one kind, the spa may not offer tailored service. When you book an appointment, describe your skin issues or massage preferences and ask who would be the best technician. If you buy a spa day, ask where you’ll eat lunch. If it’s in an area walled off from the sounds and smells of the hair and nail areas, that’s a clue that the spa is peaceful—and that between treatments you won’t be sitting in a robe where the public walks by.

It’s not that you can’t get good treatment from a place that’s more salon than spa. In fact, Stampora says, “there are a lot of hair salons that offer tremendous spa services, sometimes at a savings because you’re not paying for that big spa room.”

At salons, you might pay $70 for an hourlong massage versus $110 at the Four Seasons.

So we reviewed salons where you can pop in for a quick pedicure or facial as well as true day spas—places you might want to go for a day of beauty and really linger. The chart on the following pages gives you an idea of which places we liked and didn’t.


• Before booking a spa package, see whether you like the combination of services. Sometimes it is cheaper to book separately the treatments you really want.

• Get a description of each treatment in advance. Will your facial include shoulder, hand, and foot massage? If so, you may not want an additional massage.

• See if your spa schedule makes sense. You don’t want to mess up your manicure with a mud wrap.

• A day of pampering can be too much of a good thing. Consider just two or three treatments.

• The basics—massage, facial, manicure, and pedicure—are usually the best options. Treatments such as body wraps and scrubs, we’ve found, can be overpriced and unfulfilling.

• You’ll be unclothed for body treatments. The aesthetician will use towels to protect your privacy, but, depending on your comfort level, you may want to ask for a same-sex technician when making your appointment.

• Leave your jewelry home. There may not be a secure place to stash it.

• Don’t suffer in silence. If you need to use the restroom during a treatment, ask. If having a pillow under your knees is more comfortable than lying flat on a table, speak up. The idea is to make you feel good.

• Lotions that make your skin glow can wreck your hair. If you aren’t heading straight home, bring a hat—or ask that the therapist do that head massage without oil on her hands.

• Some spas take a credit-card number when you book an appointment and charge you if you don’t show. Ask about cancellation policies.

Executive Editor

Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986. She is the editor in charge of such consumer topics as travel, fitness, health, finance, and beauty, as well as the editor who handles such cover stories as Great Places to Work, Best of Washington, Day Trips, Hidden Gems, Top Doctors, and Great Small Towns. She lives in DC.