What Is An Acne Facial? Everything To Know About The Treatment, From Experts
The term "acne facial" may spark some confusion, even among the most seasoned spa service enthusiasts. Don't all facials address clogged pores to some degree? Technically, yes, any type of facial can help smooth congested skin. But if you need a little extra help clearing stubborn spots, that's where the acne facial proves useful.
Still suspicious? We'll leave it to the professionals to explain. Below, find everything you need to know about acne facials: how they work, who should get them, and what to expect during this ultra-clarifying treatment.
What is an acne facial?
Also called a "decongesting facial" or "deep cleaning" facial, this treatment deeply purifies the skin and often includes rounds of extractions to unclog the pores. Although, you can expect extractions from any classic facial option (unless you're dealing with super-inflamed or cystic acne, but more on that later). That's not what sets acne facials apart on the spa menu. Rather, acne facials tend to add and omit certain steps during the process in order to treat and prevent blemishes.
For example: "Acne facials use products with specialized ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil, and sulfur to target acne bacteria and break up excess dirt and oil in the pores," notes Rebecca Armstrong, esthetician at Face Haus.
An esthetician might also incorporate LED light therapy: specifically blue LED light, which kills acne-causing bacteria, controls sebum regulation, and soothes the skin; or green LED light, which is hailed for reducing hyperpigmentation and calming redness. They might also introduce a high-frequency device to target active blemishes.
On the other hand, your esthetician might go light on the massage work or skip it entirely, especially if you have active breakouts. "This step might be omitted for those who are dealing with severe breakouts, since it may be too much stimulation (skipping this would also allow the esthetician to spend more time on extractions)," celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau once shared with mbg.
All types of facials provide a deeper clean, but acne facials offer more targeted steps to address stubborn spots.
- Treats active blemishes: Extractions are great for treating comedonal acne (aka, blackheads and whiteheads), as an esthetician will manually squeeze out all the excess gunk from the pores. As for inflamed acne, that's where high-frequency devices come in handy: "High-frequency machines or wands are used to treat and prevent problematic acne, decrease the appearance of pore size, and kill bacteria," notes Armstrong.
- Prevents future breakouts: Acne facials typically include exfoliating cleansers or peels, with ingredients (like salicylic acid or glycolic acid) meant to speed up cell turnover, unclog pores at the source, and keep future breakouts from forming. And as we mentioned, blue LED light therapy is beloved for keeping breakouts at bay, as it penetrates the uppermost layer of the skin and helps kill acne-causing bacteria.
- Hydrates the skin: When treating acne, you don't want to overwhelm the skin with peels and extractions, as the skin might overproduce oil to compensate, leading to even more breakouts. "The goal is to remove the excess surface sebum, dead skin cells, and buildup in pores while eliminating bacteria without inducing a sebum response," says board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D., founder of SKINFIVE. So your esthetician will likely throw some hydration into the mix, like a cooling mask to soothe inflammation.
Who should get one?
If you're dealing with any active breakouts or congested skin that needs a deep, purifying cleanse, chances are you'll benefit from an acne facial. According to celebrity master esthetician Sarah Akram, "Anyone struggling with mild to moderate acne including blackheads, whiteheads, and clogged pores in general" is a good candidate.
Although, if you have severe, highly inflammatory acne (think cystic or nodular bumps), both Akram and Armstrong recommend consulting a dermatologist before booking a facial. "Once you establish a plan with your dermatologist, seeing an esthetician in between is still an option," Akram notes, but you'll want to have a personalized strategy before jumping into treatments.
How it works.
Of course, every esthetician has their own style, so not all acne facials follow the same exact form. But generally, here's what you can expect:
- Cleanse: As with any facial, you'll want to start with a clean canvas. During an acne facial, an esthetician might double- (or even triple-) cleanse the skin to remove all traces of buildup.
- Exfoliate: To prep the skin for extractions, the esthetician will include some sort of exfoliating step, be it a gentle peel, tea-tree-oil-infused toner, or even a gentle, vibrating scrubber to manually remove congestion. The key here is to "penetrate into the pores to break up built-up oil for easier extractions," notes Armstrong.
- Extract: Up next, the extractions: The esthetician will either use the finger method or a comedone extractor tool to gently remove blackheads and whiteheads. Gently is the operative word here—if a spot looks too deep or angry to extract, the professional will likely skip it.
- Treat: "High-frequency [devices] are then used to kill any leftover bacteria on the surface and decrease inflammation of painful cystic acne," notes Armstrong. At this point, your esthetician may also introduce LED light therapy to calm the skin and prevent future breakouts from forming.
- Moisturize & calm: Again, acne-prone skin shouldn't skimp on hydration. "Hyaluronic serums used at the end of an acne facial help to keep the skin hydrated and protected," says Armstrong, while Akram tends to use an algae-infused mask to calm the skin and supply it with nutrients. Followed by moisturizer and SPF, your skin should feel clean and refreshed.
Risks & warnings.
Acne is a very complex condition, so this type of treatment is not without its warnings. Feel free to ask your esthetician about any questions or concerns you have before diving into the treatment—still, it helps to come prepared.
- Keep your skin care routine gentle pre- and post-facial: Since this is a pretty deep clean that likely features exfoliants, you'll want to stow any heavy-duty actives (like AHAs, BHAs, and retinoids) a few days before and after your treatment. Think gentle, milky cleansers, humectant serums, and nourishing emollient creams. After the facial, barrier-supporting ingredients—like ceramides, colloidal oat, and aloe—are your best friends as your skin recovers.
- You may need more than one session: As we referenced above, an esthetician might skip over an especially angry or deep blemish, so you may not be able to lift all the gunk in one go. "Your esthetician may not be able to extract everything during your first visit—this is why we recommend multiple treatments to achieve the best result," says Akram.
- Know that there will be downtime: Clearing out clogged pores is not the most, well, calming experience. As such, your skin might be red, tender, or inflamed for a couple of days post-treatment. That said, an acne facial might not be the best option the day before a special event—a HydraFacial might be the better method in that case.
- If you have severe acne, see a derm: "Cystic acne is something your esthetician cannot treat—it is highly recommended to see a dermatologist first before coming to see an esthetician, as you may need medical-grade skin care," Akram says.
- Keep up with your routine: Acne facials can be transformative, but they do not work magic. "Results improve with each session, as well as using proper at-home care in between services to help achieve clearer skin," says Akram. Plus, let's not forget about holistic lifestyle factors that affect the quality of your skin (everything is skin care, we say here at mbg). "Your eating and drinking habits also play a role in skin health," agrees Akram. "Lack of water and poor eating habits are contributing factors to breakouts, whiteheads, and dehydrated skin."
If you're in need of a deep cleanse and plenty of extractions, you might want to try a purifying acne facial. Of course, the best candidate for this treatment is someone who's dealing with acne—if your main concern is dryness or fine lines, this probably isn't the best method for you. Not to fret: There are plenty of other types of facials for you to choose from.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.