'Don't just stroke me and light a candle, please': Sali Hughes on 'dirty' beauty treatments

Sali Hughes
'Don't just stroke me and light a candle, please': Sali Hughes on 'dirty' beauty treatments. The age of limp pampering is on the wane. Thank goodness the beauty gloves are coming off . Read more from the spring/summer 2020 edition of The Fashion, our biannual style supplement

I had saved for weeks for my first facial. In 1989, £11 was a considerable sum, and all that stood between me and perfectly clear, glowing skin. With the lights lowered, ambient whale song playing softly and a warm blanket placed over my body, the therapist prepped my face with a cleansing milk, a sweep of floral tonic, peel-off mask and facial oil, before… oh, time’s up. That was it. Every penny I had, squandered on what was effectively the nightly routine I’d been diligently performing at home. It was hardly worth unhooking my bra.

Since then, I’ve never been able to tolerate beauty treatments that many may class as “pampering”. The word itself – meaningless, infantile, a bit 80s and decidedly naff – is emetic enough without the inefficiency, the pointlessness, the utterly wasted time and opportunity of a procedure that fixes precisely nothing.

Is there anything more frustrating, more wasteful of a professional’s talents, than a light, flimsy body massage, where the only physical sensations are of being breathed on by a ghost and paper pants disappearing up your bum? There’s certainly nothing more British than pretending to enjoy it while inwardly seething to Pan Pipe Moods. A realigning of chakras when I’d like an extraction of sebum is worth neither my time nor my cash. A therapist’s gentle hands half-arsedly stroking my skin when I’m actually jonesing for a merciless pummelling undoes any relaxation and piles on more stress. If I was looking for nothing more than some me time, I’d fill the bath and ready a Malbec and a murdery podcast.

And it’s not a question of privilege – brilliant facialists, keen to get their hands dirty, have always existed in salons all over the country and at every price. Exorbitant “celebrity” facials are no less immune to the curse of woo-wah pampering than any other – I once had a famous London therapist float her hands pointlessly above my face for half the treatment, the rest of which was spent “cleansing my aura”. I forget the specifics, I recall only the rage at my uncleared pores.

There is zero point in paying a professional to do what any amateur can manage perfectly well themselves. The cure to what ails is a down and dirty, industrial treatment with a therapist who means business. A good facial, in expert hands, will exorcise pores of gunk, extract milia (those tiny white lumps of protein that set up camp around the eyes), peel away dead skin, massage it robustly and blast it with bouncy hydration. Choose a salon for their therapists and treatments, not their free flip-flops and cucumber water dispensers. Read the treatment menu in detail, swerve words such as “soothing”, “holistic” and “alternative therapy” and specify when booking a massage that you’d like a firm touch.

Because for every pamper treatment on the menu, somewhere else there’s an infinitely more useful one performed by a therapist allowed to dispense with the niceties, roll up their sleeves and get real results. Pedicures involving a cursory rub-down with a granular scrub are all very well if you’re content for hard skin to summer in your Birkenstocks, but someone in a surgical mask, brandishing a scalpel and rotary file, will obliterate it until autumn. A meek wax is incomparable to a highly experienced, somewhat-jaded-by-myriad-vulvas therapist who tears off strips in the highly efficient, professional manner of a cashier replacing their till roll.

Thank the beauty gods that limp treatments are on the wane. Their strict, no-nonsense counterparts are finally in the ascent. Put it down to the trend for independent salons and therapists, their consumers’ increasingly fraught schedules, greater knowledge and higher expectations, rapid advances in tech (uber facialist Debbie Thomas is focused not on creams but on lasers and light), or a YouTube generation’s obsession with gory extractions – whatever the cause, in 2020, the most in-demand therapists are those who get stuck the hell in.

Among my favourites (in the south-east, because that’s where I live), the infamous Nichola Joss’s massage-heavy facials aren’t even that comfortable and no one gives a hoot because they know they’ll achily rise from her couch looking a million dollars. Mistress of facial massage Vaishaly Patel literally hoovers crap from the depths of your pores, while Kate Kerr gets out her extraction needles and doesn’t stop prodding until lumps and bumps are fully evacuated of gunk. No one is more admiring of their success than I am. Time’s up on retro pamper sessions. Bold beauty therapy is back, the gloves are coming off and the fists, vacuums and farm machinery are going in. Brace yourself