Facials out of ‘Fear Factor’

Nightingale poop and even sheep placentas are now in the service of a better complexion
Snails crawl on the face of a woman during a demonstration of a new beauty treatment at Clinical-Salon Ci:z.Labo in central Tokyo July 17, 2013. Clinical-Salon Ci:z.Labo, which began the unique facial earlier this week, offers the 10,500 yen ($110) five-minute session with the snails as an optional add-on for customers who apply for a "Celeb Escargot Course", an hour-long treatment routine of massages and facials based on products made from snail slime that costs 24,150 yen. According to a beautician at the salon, the snail slime is believed to make one’s skin supple as well as remove dry and scaly patches. Picture taken July 17, 2013. REUTERS/Issei Kato (JAPAN - Tags: SOCIETY) - RTX11Q24
Issei Kato/Reuters

Escargot is typically regarded as part of a fine dining experience, but snails are now the key ingredient in Japan’s latest beauty craze. Aestheticians at Tokyo’s Ci:z.Labo spa claim the “celebrity escargot course”—a treatment that sees live snails placed on patrons’ faces, where they release secretions—helps “remove old cells, heal the skin and moisturize it.” Creepy? Perhaps. But that’s not stopping customers from forking out $106.

From China’s “fire facial,” in which an alcohol-soaked cloth is placed on the face and ignited, to the U.K.’s sheep placenta mask, it seems spas are taking their cues from an episode of Fear Factor. In North America, where beauty is a multi-billion-dollar industry, there are a number of options for facial fanatics looking for something out of the ordinary.

For the past few years, Shizuka Bernstein, owner of Shizuka New York Day Spa in Manhattan, has been offering her clients a brighter complexion through an unorthodox ingredient from her native Japan—bird poop. The “geisha facial” uses a mixture of nightingale droppings and rice bran to cleanse and exfoliate the skin. The secret, says Bernstein, is in guanine, an ingredient found in the droppings as well as in pearls. “The skin glows because of the guanine,” she says. (She claims the smell isn’t “that bad”—a little like hay.)

Bernstein believes the $180 facial is popular because it’s more natural than some of the other treatments she offers, such as chemical peels or microdermabrasion. “It’s not only weird, it shows the results too,” she says.

Linda Davidson, a facial enthusiast from Kamloops, B.C., says bird poop is a little too “gross” for her liking. She prefers her beauty treatments luxurious, opting for ingredients like collagen and caviar. Up until her retirement earlier this year, Davidson had been going for monthly facials at local spa Kamloops Esthetics. Most often, she received microdermabrasion, but a couple of years ago her aesthetician Jan Wynychuk introduced a solid gold facial. By massaging sheets of 24-karat gold into the face, the treatment “rejuvenates the cells,” says Wynychuk, reducing wrinkles and minimizing pores. “It’s like creating a thunderstorm under your skin.”

Although Davidson was skeptical, she says her skin did gain a “beautiful glow” from the gold treatment. But when pressed for specifics, she’s not sure how much of an improvement she’s seen. “It’s not a real noticeable difference,” she says, adding the opportunity to unwind is probably a big part of what keeps her going back for more. “It’s such a nice experience to be pampered.”

In March, photos of Kim Kardashian lying in a hospital bed, blood smeared all over her face, went viral. The A-lister had just received a “vampire facial” on her reality TV show, Kourtney & Kim Take Miami. There are two versions of the procedure in Canada—the facial and the facelift. In both, blood is drawn from the arm and spun in a machine to separate platelets from the other components. For the facial, after tiny needles create pinpricks all over the face, the plasma is massaged into the skin. With the facelift, the plasma is injected directly into problem areas.

“This is a nice subtle effect to help rejuvenate your skin,” says Zhanna Vinokurov, an aesthetician at Toronto’s Dr. Robertus Laser and Cosmetic Clinic. At $500-$1,200 per session, the treatments don’t come cheap, but Vinokurov claims the results are more tangible than what’s on the market. “I’m not a fan of facials,” she says. “I tell patients if you want to get a nice massage, get a facial. As for it doing anything beneficial for the skin, I don’t think it does.”

According to Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who studies body image issues, the use of “organic” ingredients such as bird poop and snail slime is in line with a trend toward natural products. But the drive to seek out extreme treatments, she says, is partially to do with status. “Calling it an ‘escargot facial’ carries the connotation of something consumed by high-class individuals.” Women, she adds, are prone to using beauty to get ahead, and that’s what spas capitalize on. “[They] know that many women are desperate to be the most beautiful they can be.” If that means lying down with snails, so be it.