I’m not one of those people who gets a facial and immediately glows. Apparently, that’s a thing that happens—I’ve read about it in interviews with celebrities; I’ve seen it in real time on Instagram Stories—but my personal #postfacialglow is defined by redness, inflammation, and weeks of breakouts and sensitivity that make radiant, clear skin the stuff of dreams.
I discovered this about a month before my wedding. I had gotten my first-ever facial weeks earlier in preparation for the big day, and my skin did not react well. In full-on bridal panic mode, I emailed my facialist: Was this normal? How could I fix it? Would my skin be better by my wedding day?
She assured me that my skin was just “purging”: a not-so-glamorous term for the exacerbation and expulsion of clogged pores and pimples that sometimes accompanies invasive skincare treatments like extractions and chemical peels. In another week or two my skin would look better than ever, she promised; and she was right. A week later—a full month after my facial—my pores had fully purged and my skin was smooth, clear, and yes, glowing.
But the fact that I had to crawl through skincare hell to get there seemed a little suspect. Considering the fact that many aestheticians and some dermatologists recommend getting a facial every four to six weeks, I wondered… Are facials really supposed to get worse before they get better?
Some facials can cause extreme reactions—but that doesn't mean it's normal or to be expected.
“Despite popular belief, some facials can be quite harsh on the skin,” Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a dermatologist at Zeichner Dermatology in New York tells SELF, noting that those with acne, rosacea, and sensitive skin are at the highest risk for post-facial irritation. Besides breakouts and inflammation, “It is not uncommon for people to develop dry or rough skin after a facial, as well,” Dr. Zeichner says.
The fact that these reactions aren’t uncommon doesn’t necessarily make them normal, though. Dermatologists maintain that a properly-performed facial should not cause any of the aforementioned reactions for longer than a day or so. “There are such a range of facials available that I think that that there is an appropriate facial for almost any skin type,” Sejal Shah, M.D., of SmarterSkin Dermatology, tells SELF; noting that “sensitivity is more likely in someone with more reactive skin.” That would likely include anyone dealing with chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea, though it might also include someone prone to cystic acne.
So, if you're dealing with a specific skin condition, Dr. Shah suggests being cautious and only considering facials that are specifically tailored to treat those conditions.
For people with rosacea, you might want to steer clear entirely, adds Dr. Zeichner. “If you have moderate or severe rosacea, I do not recommend facials because the skin tends to be extremely sensitive,” he says.
If you experience a severe post-facial reaction lasting more than a few days, you can usually trace it back to one of three things: extractions, product irritation, or chemical peels.
Most facial treatments involve extractions, a method that manually cleans pores of bacteria and built-up oils, makeup, sunscreen, and environmental grime. “Extractions can help clear congested pores and ultimately clear the pimple,” Dr. Zeichner tells us. “But oftentimes, they leave your skin irritated afterwards.”
Although those with particularly acne-prone skin will likely experience purging after extractions, Sharon Holtz, the Spa Director at Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, tells SELF that it isn’t necessarily something to worry about. “Facials stimulate the skin and ‘turn it on,’” she says. “The skin’s response is to function, and that’s healthy. It can result in breakouts, but it should be rare.” In most cases, these breakouts will calm down in a day or two.
But in my personal experience, post-extraction pimples are anything but rare or brief—and according to Dr. Shah, this is a sign that the aesthetician didn’t fully clear the pore of bacteria. “If the pore is not completely cleared during extractions, you may notice an acne flare after the facial as the residual contents come to the surface naturally,” she explains.
"If any heavy products are applied to the skin during the facial, it may block the pores and create new pimples,” Dr. Zeichner adds.
But a post-facial freakout could also be the result of your skin not tolerating certain ingredients, which is especially the case for people with certain skin conditions. “Especially if you have sensitive skin or rosacea, you may not be able to tolerate the same products used in the facial; as they contain ingredients that you are not normally using on your face.”
Potentially irritating ingredients include exfoliators, brightening agents like Vitamin C, and heavy oils. If you know that your skin is reactive when introduced to new products, always ask about what the aesthetician will be using before scheduling your facial, and see if you can avoid all of the above.
Another important reminder: “If you are on any prescription medications for your skin, touch base with your dermatologist before getting a facial,” Dr. Zeichner advises, as some pills and topicals (like isotretinoin and steroid creams, respectively, can make skin more prone to scarring from extractions). Run through the list of possible facial ingredients with your dermatologist to get their blessing, as they may be able to flag any specific things that won’t react well with your skin.
But what about when an irritating ingredient is the whole point of the facial—like with chemical peels?
Chemical peels are designed to exfoliate the skin in such a way that “peels” off the top layer of dead skin cells and stimulates cell turnover for younger-looking skin. “After a peel, you should expect some redness and peeling or flaking skin,” Dr. Shah says. “Your skin may also be more sensitive than usual—but with some light peels, you may not experience either and just have a glow.”
Any redness or flaking skin from a chemical peel should subside within a week, per Dr. Shah; she calls these symptoms “normal post-treatment effects.” Though, again, your mileage may vary based on your skin type (noticing a theme yet?)
If your skin is extra-sensitive (like mine!), you should probably avoid chemical peels in the first place; the same goes for those dealing with conditions like eczema, psoriasis, cystic acne, and rosacea. (Although it’s worth noting that in some cases, dermatologists will recommend gentle chemical peels as a course of treatment for these issues—but it’s best to work one-on-one with your derm to explore your options.)
Using strong products like certain acids and retinol on freshly-treated skin can make symptoms worse.
You can mitigate the risk of irritation after a facial by following a few simple rules. For one, avoid powerful products, like acid exfoliators and retinoids, in your skincare routine for at least a week after a facial, as they can exacerbate existing inflammation.
Instead, “Make sure to stick to gentle skin care products, including a hydrating cleanser and light moisturizers,” Dr. Zeichner says. “If there is an individual pimple, you can spot treat it with a salicylic acid treatment, but be cautious not to apply it to areas that don’t need it, as you don’t want to cause irritation to skin that may already be sensitive.”
Finally, don’t touch your face—no matter how good it feels. “One of the biggest causes of breakouts after facials is from people putting their hands on their face, feeling how amazing their skin feels after their facial,” Holtz says, which can expose freshly-opened pores to bacteria. The same can be said for makeup. “You should wait for 30-60 minutes after your facial before applying cosmetics, to allow your skin to cool,” she tells SELF.
So… should a facial really cause your skin to get worse before it gets better?
The short answer: Typically, no. Your skin, no matter how sensitive, should not be experiencing extreme irritation after a facial (barring chemical peels). If the aforementioned symptoms sound pretty standard to you, you may want to consider switching aestheticians and talking to your dermatologist before scheduling any more facials. They can help you figure out if it was a specific treatment that screwed with your skin or maybe a combination of ingredients that didn’t mesh well with you.
“The key is for the aesthetician to be experienced and have a true understanding of what the individual skin is needing,” Holtz explains. “Personalization in facials is key.”
After speaking with Holtz (who seemed truly horrified to hear about my characteristic post-treatment purging), I decided to set up an appointment at her Terranea Spa—and for the first time in my life, I walked out of a facial with an instant, selfie-worthy glow.
It just goes to show that even though facials can be harsh, they don’t have to be. It’s simply a matter of understanding your skin—and finding an aesthetician that does, too.