What Is A Medical Facial? How Does It Compare To A Spa Facial?

Should you book a medical facial or a spa facial? Let’s find out. Welcome to Pretty Healthy, FLEETSTREET’s in-depth article series. Beauty starts with healthy skin and hair, and this column delivers the goods on making that a reality.

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As I stepped through the doors at Skin6, I didn’t feel like I was leaving my spa days behind me. The swanky decor with its marble furniture and pink velvet seating greeted me at reception, so you wouldn’t blame me if I assumed there was a pool and a shawl-collar robe and slippers waiting for me. But when my medical aesthetician brought me into the facial room, the bed wasn’t covered in cozy blankets. The walls were white, as was the tech gear with its robot-like arms just waiting to get its mechanical hands on me. Lisa wasn’t in Kansas anymore. This wasn’t my typical luxury spa. And this is where I learned about the differences between medical and spa facials. 

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What is a medical facial?

Aside from the obvious – a medical facial has nothing to do with a hotel pool or a neck-releasing massage – it is all about the skin treatment, the medical-grade tools and the active ingredients in the skincare products.  

“Medical facials focus on in-depth, clinical skin analysis, with treatments designed to meet each patient’s personal goals. Benefits are long-term, lasting for years with an appropriate skincare routine,” says Dr. Trevor Born, MD, founder of TMB Cosmetic Surgery in Toronto. 

The types of medical facials offered vary from clinic to clinic. Here are some you can expect to see on the menu:

  • chemical peels
  • microdermabrasion
  • hydrafacials
  • dermaplaning exfoliation
  • deep cleansing
  • LED (light-emitting diodes) light
  • Morpheus8 microneedling
  • Forma RF treatments
  • laser resurfacing
  • injections
  • medical-grade products and more.

“‘Medical facials’ refer to more device-driven facial treatments,” says Thom Tullo, RMT, founder and spa director at Aman Spa in Toronto. “The results range from mild and short-term to dramatic and long-term. And the pricing is often consummate with the results and longevity.”

I’ve found that a hydrating facial at a medical spa is in line with what I pay at spas in Canada, the U.S. and Europe – around $200 to $300. And, anecdotally, the more expensive the spa facial the more indulgent the accoutrements and amenities are (from the lounge to the time spent on a massage). The products themselves can play a part in the price, but I’ve not seen my spa receipts indicative of the quality of the products. 

The cost of a medical facial, though, is typically based on results promised, and sometimes the number of rounds required to achieve said results. For example, a Morpheus8 treatment, a high-tech microneedling, can cost between $750 to $1,700 per session. 

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Are medical facials worth the expensive price tag?

The experts think so. 

“Medical facials are worth every penny,” says Dr. Born. “Not only are they incredibly safe when performed by a registered practitioner—their results have real longevity. Medical facials can also be customized to treat a wide variety of skin concerns, helping to combat conditions like acne, hyperpigmentation, rosacea, and more.”

Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist in NYC and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Cornell, points to the long-term results, but she does caution those with sensitive skin. “Overall most medical facials, like chemical peels, tend to deliver more long-lasting skincare benefits than the spa facials, which is why many would say it is worth the extra money,” she says. Regardless of the type, medical or spa facial, anyone with skin that reacts should know what they’re getting into (and a good facialist will ask). So if you get redness, acne or itchy, have that conversation with your facialist and/or dermatologist. Garshick recommends the following post-facial skin care. Her go-tos: Thayers Barrier Bestie Ultra Whip Cream or Thayers Soak It Up 80HR Liquid Facial Moisturizer

Vivian Lau, medical aesthetician, who did my hydrafacial at Skin6, echoes the sentiment as I’m getting light therapy. “We talk about skincare results in weeks and months, but with medical facials, you actually see the difference within days.”

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Are spa facials worth it?

Is all this to say that spa facials are out? In looking at Blog TO’s list of the Best Spas in Toronto, you might think so. But spas – defined as “establishments that promote wellness through the provision of therapeutic and other professional services aimed at renewing the body, mind and spirit” by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) – aren’t going anywhere. The GWI reports global growth from 71,800 spas in 2007 to 169,300 in 2019 and 181,175 in 2022. It’s a $105 billion (US) industry. 

So, spa treatments are popular, sure, but with a focus on experience, are typical spa treatments worth it?

“There are individuals who love the feeling of self-care that comes with a spa facial as well as the immediate boost in hydration or glowing skin, without any downtime,” says Garshick. 

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How to have a more effective medical spa treatment

A good ol’ traditional facial still does what it always has done, and that includes a thorough cleanse, exfoliating and hydration, says Garshick.

However, that massage, that nature playlist, those essential oils; the elements of a traditional facial are still damn good for you. I’ve often argued among friends that facials are what taught me how to meditate.

“People often don’t realize that the psychological benefits of ‘relaxing’ have physiological – body – effects,” Tullo tells me. This is because the mind affects the body.  The psychological benefits of relaxing include stress reduction, which lowers stress hormones such as cortisol and increases the release of endorphins. Higher cortisol levels lead to inflammation and reduced immune function, meaning ‘relaxing’ increases your immune function and lowers inflammation.” He also suggests it may help with the immune system, energy levels and mental clarity. But at face value, it’s good for your skin and circulation. Tullo’s spa offers both spa and RMT facials. The latter is for facial lymphatic drainage (think: de-puffing and helping with healing for facial surgeries).

How often should you get a facial?

My friends know me for two things: I will always say yes to a workout class and I will always say yes to a facial. I’m a great motivator for friends needing a workout buddy and I’m a good nudge for indulgence, both of which have me working out regularly and getting facials on the reg, too. Turns out my social facial calendar has me going the most opportune times for my skin – every four to six weeks. 

“On average, every 28 to 40 days our skin cells will turn over and a renewal process begins,” says Lau. As we age, the closer we get to the 40 days of renewal and the cell turnover becomes longer. So, the deep exfoliation of a spa facial – and even deeper with a medical facial – helps to maintain skin’s health. That means getting rid of stuff like dead skin cells, clogged pores, acne, dull skin, and so on. “I personally see facials as experiences. A lot of education happens in the treatment room, and clients also feel so fresh and pampered when they leave.”

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How can you tell if a facial is a good one?

While medical facials promise results and drip with claims of quality, a good facial is a good facial, regardless of type. Tullo shares his tells of a good facial. 

  • Did the person providing you the facial take time to thoroughly assess your skin? Did they ask you questions about your observations and specific needs? 
  • Did the person provide realistic expectations for what you will experience during and after the treatment so you’re not surprised?
  • Did the person talk about the products they are using and why – so you know that the choices are purposeful and not just routine?  
  • When getting extractions, was it forceful enough to get the pores cleared without mauling your skin? 
  • Did the person use facial manipulation techniques to affect muscles? 
  • Was the therapist in communication with you, as needed, to assess your reactions and responses? 
  • Did the person speak with you about a game plan for home maintenance and product selection?

“Be a smart consumer,” says Dr. Born. Be sure your spa or clinic offers a sterile treatment environment and a detailed intake process. For medical facials, ensure you have a post-treatment follow-up. 

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Medical vs spa facial: What’s a gal to do?

At Aman spa in Toronto, Tullo is keen on keeping that spa-like feeling, even with the technology. “We don’t believe in removing the ‘spa experience; from the medical. He says he’s “giving our clients the best of both.” 

And Lau says you don’t even have to commit to one type either. “Some people like to alternate between the two types of facials – medical facial one month, traditional facial the next month – so they get to experience the best of both worlds,” Lau tells me. And I can’t help but think to plan my facials like this from now on.