Whether in spas, dermatology offices, or home bathrooms, people happily put all sorts of weird shit on their face in a never-ending quest for better skin.
There’s the Hollywood EGF facial, or “penis facial,” which uses an epidermal growth factor serum derived from the cells in the foreskin of circumcised Korean newborns (yep). Then, there’s the “vampire facial,” which uses a client’s own blood to isolate another growth factor, platelet-rich plasma, and spread the blood serum across the face. There’s even a “urine facial,” in which people slather their own urine on their face as toner, or as a treatment for acne.
These ‘treatments’ spark a deluge of media coverage and hot conversation. But what does the science really say about the best way to achieve glowing, healthy skin? We asked an expert so you don’t have to.
Doris Day, a New York City dermatologist and professor at New York University weighs in on these cult beauty treatments and shares her four top tricks for good skin.
Spoiler alert: The secret to beautiful skin isn’t a facial. Penis or otherwise.
The best way to improve your skin and prevent wrinkles isn’t through a one-time effort, Day says. Consistent, daily care, and protection for your skin is all that works — especially sun protection.
“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that there are no shortcuts,” she tells Inverse. “The single most important thing is being ‘sun-smart’; 80 to 90 percent of how your skin ages is from UV rays.”
Being “sun-smart” means wearing and reapplying SPF 30 or higher, avoiding mid-day sun, staying in the shade and wearing physical sun protection, like hats and long sleeves when possible.
No facial treatment will do more to prevent skin damage than sun protection, Day says.
Look at the research
Beauty treatments may claim plumper, younger, more beautiful skin. But whether the ingredients, the formulation of the products, or the method of application actually result in what marketers claim isn’t always backed by clinical research, Day says.
"They like what they see from a facial treatment and they want to continue liking it."
The “penis facial,” aka the Hollywood EGF facial, may actually have some science behind it, she says. Growth factor treatment could have positive benefits for skin, but Day cautions that its impossible to guarantee that the ingredient will result in Sandra Bullock-level skin without peer-reviewed research.
“I haven’t seen any studies that actually look at the results. So it may do those things; it may have a short-term boost and it may accelerate long-term benefits, but we just don’t have the data,” she says. “We can want to believe that or choose to say it’s true, but I don’t know of any studies that actually show that to be true.”
A 2016 paper does suggest that growth factors enhance collagen production and promote skin rejuvenation. But the products on the market that include growth factors and other “miracle ingredients” are often untested in clinical trials. They aren’t drugs, so they don’t need to go through the rigorous trials that the Food and Drug Administration requires.
“If you look at the ingredient list, you go, ‘Oh my God, this is the holy grail. This is the most incredible thing.’ But then you try it, and it’s sticky, and it smells it irritating, and who would want to use it?” Day says.
Developing a product with ingredients that work together effectively and that people actually want to use is harder than it looks. One ingredient may de-activate another, for example.
“Creating a formula that works is actually scientifically challenging and that’s why it needs to be done by companies that have labs and scientists who know how to mix and match and blend a formula effectively,” Day says.
The power of facials
Don’t chuck out the charcoal masks just yet. Even though their benefits may be overblown, facials aren’t totally frivolous, Day says.
“You feel the difference when get a facial— you feel good. Emotionally it’s helpful.”
Intermittent treatments like facials can make people care more about their skin, and take steps at home to protect it like eat higher quality food, sleep more, or use effective skincare, she explains.
"There’s never just a skin treatment."
“They like what they see from a facial treatment and they want to continue liking it. So I become their best cheerleader and their doctor of self-esteem. I help them see their beauty and I help them celebrate it and enhance it and look in the mirror and love their features instead of looking in the mirror going, ‘Ugh.’”
Good skin requires continual care, and facial treatments could play a pivotal role in that. Consistent skincare throughout life can help prevent the effects of aging, Day says.
“If people get a facial treatment, it does make them want to continue that investment in themselves and actually take better care of their skin,” Day says.
“The way I always look at it is that you’re not aging in one dimension,” she says. “So I need to fix it in more than one dimension.”
Facials can also help protect against more than wrinkles. During a facial, aestheticians and dermatologists can pick up on skin issues and help guide a clients’ regimen or future treatments, she says. In Day’s practice, she has diagnosed skin cancer, rosacea, brain tumors, and even systemic diseases like Lupus when giving skin treatments. Well-trained aestheticians giving facials can do the same, she says.
“There’s never just a skin treatment. We’re always looking at the skin saying, ‘What else is going on? How do we optimize this patient?’”
Ultimately, your skin has everything it needs to do its own repair work, Day says. It’s always naturally rejuvenating and restoring itself.
Facials and skin treatments can compliment this natural process by supplementing it with antioxidants, growth factors, and other ingredients. These ingredients are biochemically supportive of what your skin naturally does, she says.
“All you’re doing is you’re providing an environment that’s going to give the skin all the nutrients it needs and all the signaling pathways that it needs to help restore and rejuvenate itself and repair damage.”
So what’s the upshot? Facials and other skin treatments could beautify skin, at least in the short-term, but they won’t substitute for rigorous skin protection and consistent skincare.
Feel free to give the penis facial a try if you have $650 lying around, but don’t expect to wake up with Cate Blanchett’s glowing complexion. Alternatively, you could buy a bottle of SPF 50 sunscreen — you’d likely be doing more for your skin in the long-run.