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Spa vs. Spa

While some urban oases see beauty in herbs and mud, others swear by a power plug and a steady electric current. A guide to New York’s facial relations.


A sign at the Stressless Step, an Upper East Side massage haven, is emblazoned with the following directive: NO TIPPING PLEASE. OUR STAFF PREFER TO BE TREATED AS MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS. Over at the Upper West Side’s health-club behemoth Reebok, the Paul Labrecque Salon & Spa has hired three practitioners of Eastern medicine; its competitor Equinox counts chiropractors, dermatologists, and nutritionists among its staff. What happened to sweet-smelling creams and warm booties? As might be expected in a luxury service that started out catering to socialites and the Hollywood elite, spas are going high-concept, with treatments like Reiki -- a spiritual massage in which the therapist’s hands barely touch the client -- being offered alongside techniques like galvanic currents, abrading acids, and transepidermal therapy. This arsenal of tools was not developed with the mere aim of pampering the clientele -- instead, urban spas consider long-term stress relief, anti-aging, even spiritual healing their more lofty objectives.

Whether the wonders of modern spa science can defy genetics, stress, and sleep deprivation is still, of course, up for debate. “There is a real proven benefit to lymphatic massage and ultrasound massage for the face and body in promoting healing,” maintains Alan Matarasso, one of the country’s best-known plastic surgeons, who offers ultrasound treatments to his patients after surgery at no extra charge (lymphatic massage helps reduce swelling; ultrasound massage can promote healing by softening tissue). Some dermatologists question the merits of electronic-muscle-stimulation facials, which are usually performed with ionic and galvanic currents (the concept: to improve circulation and tighten muscles). But Dr. Steven Victor, a dermatologist who has studied the electronic facials carefully, is considering providing them as a service to his clients. “We took masks of 25 women before and after electronic stimulation, and the computer showed 46 percent improvement in visible wrinkling and an average of about a quarter of an inch in picking up sagging,” he reports.

Spas’ movement into treatments that border on the medical has not gone unnoticed by private physicians, some of whom are adding sanctuaries to the services they offer. Dr. Fredrick Valauri, a plastic surgeon, has just divided his East 76th Street office in half -- one side is for his regular practice, the other for a day spa that will feature facials, massage, aromatherapy, cellulite treatments, seaweed wraps, and hair removal. Dr. Lionel Bissoon, an osteopath, has hired top massage therapists like Equinox’s in-demand Ken Tucker, and he is in the process of adding on a space for herbal, seaweed, and mud wraps and a cellulite-busting endermologie machine (designed to break down the fibrous bands thought to cause the condition). “I see a real battle brewing between salons and doctors over domain,” says Dr. Victor. “Even now, many salons are doing acid peels, and doctors are not happy about it.”


The aestheticians -- don’t call them beauticians, please -- at these traditional European spas have skin care in their DNA and are strong in facials, scrubs, and seaweed or mud body treatments. Now their artful hands are getting a grip on their field’s machine age.

Biologique Recherche
26 East 64th Street

At this exclusive, if clinical, spa, your aesthetician greets you in a white doctor’s coat and leads you into a lablike room filled with beakers and ampoules. You may notice that her face has an otherworldly iridescence -- that’s the liquid silk, applied as a final step in the spa’s popular remodeling facial, intended to lock in moisture, protect you from environmental hazards, and add an extra glow. Among the other steps in the one-hour, $165 session are cleansing, exfoliation, toning with electrical currents, and applications of fresh plant and trace-element serums.

Dorit Baxter Day Spa
47 West 57th Street, third floor

”First, we will take a picture of your face with a wooden camera,” explains the owner of this midtown spot. “It shows everything we can’t see with our eyes.” One could argue there are some things better left unseen, but be a sport and pose. Her latest addition -- Sonocare -- is an ultrasound facial machine well worth the $70 it costs for a half-hour. (One other spa in the city, Helen Lee, offers ultrasound facials, but only in 90-minute sessions, for $150.) After various gels are applied to your face, the machine begins its mission in a relaxing motion, a procedure meant to tone muscles, reduce puffiness, diminish broken capillaries, and reduce dark circles and discoloration. On the way out, you will be presented with your “before” photo. When you look in the mirror and see the “after” version, you’ll wish they’d taken the shot on the way out.

The Elizabeth Arden
Red Salon & Spa
691 Fifth Avenue, between 54th and 55th Streets

A lot has changed behind the red door. To start, it’s no longer pink -- instead, expect tasteful taupe walls and rooms with an Armani-meets-Lenox Hill look, all stainless-steel cabinetry and sterilizing units. The $95 oxygenating French seaweed facial (it’s the technique that’s French; the seaweed is actually Italian) is the salon’s fifteen-step program for a revitalized complexion. For sore muscles, try the self-heating herbal mud masque, which bubbles nicely on your skin like an overactive heating pad. Pedicures here go the extra step: The water is strewn with rose petals and stocked with marbles to roll your feet over for tension release.

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