As anyone who has struggled with persistent acne knows: I will try anything if it means I could possibly have clear skin.
My severe cystic acne began in my early teens and only got worse until I started my first of three rounds of Accutane. But this was after literally trying every single other prescription topical and oral acne medication available without much luck.
Of course there's a catch, though.
Accutane's extremely drying side effects — exacerbated by the Midwest's bitter temps and bone-dry air — caused my lips and hands to crack and bleed, despite carrying Vaseline around with me religiously (my grandmother even sewed a pocket inside the kilt of my school uniform so I'd never be without it). That's why my dermatologist suggested I go get moisture-packed monthly facials, with anti-inflammatory light therapies, to counter the medication's dryness on a monthly basis.
And so began my journey of getting facials like clockwork. It became a nonnegotiable, skin-recovery step in my strict routine — well, until March 2020.
After two decades of regular facials, taking a 10-month hiatus thanks to the pandemic was a serious shock to my skin.
"You know your skin better than anyone," I tried to reason with myself. "Just stay calm and keep using the same products you've been using for years."
But of course, no one stayed calm in 2020 — including my face.
Three weeks into New York City's lockdown, my skin freaked out. But, you know, considering the strong connection between prolonged stress and skin problems, it was really only a matter of time until my skin caved to my anxiety-riddled nerves.
Plus, to make things even better (note my sarcasm), I seemed to have developed a bit of just about everything.
All of my old skin problems resurfaced and new ones bloomed: Patches of visible dryness marked my face, yet my T-zone was coated with oil, painful pimples, redness for no reason. Old acne scars were getting darker by the day and for the first time in my life, waves upon waves of tiny red rosacea bumps flowed freely across my cheekbones.
My skincare routine turned into a science experiment as I tried to soothe my temperamental and erratic skin. At-home glycolic peels, expensive hyaluronic acid serums, vitamin C moisturizers, hydrating sleep masks — you name it, I tried it! But my ungrateful skin only became more and relentless.
So when estheticians were finally allowed to return to work after nearly seven months of closures, I was thrilled (albeit briefly).
Apprehension and mental gymnastics ensued. Weighing whether or not to prioritize my skin during a pandemic seemed...ridiculous and definitely embarrassing to admit. And even if I did get a facial, my anxiety and guilt wouldn't let me enjoy it, so what was the point anyway?
After six weeks of debate, my skin reached a breaking point. Mid-breakout, my desperation for a deep cleaning prevailed and I booked a 90-minute facial at Joanna Czech's SoHo Studio.
Despite experiencing a sizable amount of stress during the pandemic, I was surprisingly not all that nervous going in for the facial.
Before I even booked, I went over the studio's lengthy and specific COVID-19 policies: staggered appointment times, multiple temperature checks for clients and staff alike, a minimum distance of six-feet (except during treatment), no outside shoppers, and an exhaustive health questionnaire for me to complete two days ahead of my appointment with questions about recent travel (lol, does couch to bed count?), as well as negative COVID-19 test results.
The studio's professionalism and commitment to their next-level protocols before I even stepped foot through the doors helped me feel safe and definitely ready for all my blackheads to disappear. And those pre-appointment policies were peanuts compared to the in-studio protocols.
On the day of my appointment, I took the half-empty subway from Brooklyn to SoHo for the first time in what felt like an eternity. Once I got off, the city isn't as I remember it, with the SoHo cobblestone streets being eerily empty. I'm again reminded that although things are reopening, we're still in the middle of a pandemic and nothing back to "normal."
At the entrance, a masked security guard props open the door to take my temperature, then ushers me inside to an empty elevator. The elevator door opens to a masked and smiling — we've all become experts at reading eyes for smiles, haven't we? — Raquel Medina-Cleghorn, lead esthetician in New York and head of studios, who warmly welcomes me into the empty waiting area, although I can't help but notice a roped off wall of products behind her to curb needless touching.
She takes my forehead temperature again and directs me to the restroom to wash my hands.
Raquel then leads me down the hallway to a sparkling white and very orderly treatment room, illuminated with beams of sunlight. She hands me a plush terry cloth robe and points out a UV sanitizing device on a side table for my phone. As I look around the room, I notice two air purifiers placed on opposite sides and I blurt out how relieved I am that the room doesn't smell like the inside of a Clorox jug, prompting her to explain that they use special non-irritating wipes and sprays from Rejuvenate. Thanks to their accelerated hydrogen peroxide base, the cleaning products are not only virucidal and fungicidal (among several other -cidals), but they also cut down contact time from 10 minutes to just one. That's all I needed to hear.
I carefully take off my mask, pop into the soft white wrap and wrap myself under the just-out-of-the-dryer smelling covers.
The esthetician then strolls back in and dons a large plastic visor that covers her entire face, ear to ear, flips on a dentist-style light and gets to work evaluating my skin. She asks questions about my skincare routine and any skin concerns. I have zero chill and immediately launch into my own evaluation about how I'm back to being 17, just with wrinkles now too, and how my inflamed skin stressed me out, how vain I felt even worrying about my skin during a pandemic, how nothing worked, and everything I tried just made it worse.
Radiating yoga teacher-level chill vibes, she calmed my concerns and indulged my chit chat throughout the appointment, answering my questions in full nitty-gritty science detail. And honestly, chatting with a new person IRL felt even better than the facial.
She dims the light and begins the facial with a light cleanser, using a Pre-Cleansing Oil from Environ followed by a facial massage with their Hydrating Clay Masque, all while using Czech's renowned massage technique full of sweeping pressure, quick pinches and light slaps (this helps with lymphatic drainage and stimulates blood flow) for maximum skin absorption.
After, she starts the diamond abrasion by methodically sliding a strong suction device — roughly the size of a fancy fountain pen — taut across my entire face and neck to vacuum up all of the impurities that have been relaxing in my pores for the past 10 months. Then, an Ultrasound Water Peel flushes out even more of my impurities while the ultrasound waves and high-frequency vibrations simultaneously micro-massage my face. But while that may sound like a lot, it's not as intense-feeling as it sounds. Raquel even told me that it is so gentle, they even use it on patients undergoing chemotherapy and using Accutane.
Next, Raquel layered on three Biologique Recherche serums — Colostrum, Dermopore and Placenta — to address my skin's specific problems. But I was truly unprepared (in the best way possible) for what came next: billows and billows of powerful cryogenically cooled air blown onto my face to soothe inflammation, redness, and increase serum absorption. It was wild and invigorating and I loved every minute of it.
While Raquel used three different LED devices — first an ultrasound with LED to boost cellular energy, then a microcurrent with LED to lift and sculpt facial muscles for sky-high cheekbones, and finally a half-moon LED panel flush with piercing flashes of bright pink, purple, and orange light and a matching LED caboodle for my hands for anti-aging goodness — I ask how the protocols have changed their business. She tells me that before reopening, they hired a certified industrial hygienist to develop custom protocols specific to the studio's layout and unique spaces.
"We spent many, many hours with our CIH talking through the various changes for our NYC studio and pored over OSHA and CDC literature," she tells me later in an email. They designed a three-'zone' structure for the studio: a hot zone, decontamination zone, and safe zone. Each zone had a specific and isolated function, like "where our supplies should be stored, where our staff would doff and don their PPE, where they would have lunch breaks."
In collaboration with their CIH, the team developed and presented to all employees a 19-page (!) response plan in case of staff or client exposure, and they continue to meet with their CIH to evaluate and refine practices to this day.
After she told me this, my first thought was that I was probably safer in their studio than any other public place I had been.
Raquel wraps up the facial with Vita Peptide eye cream, Doctor Rogers Restore lip balm and a blend of two richly moisturizing Biologique Rechere creams: PIGM 400 and Masque Vernix, to brighten dark spots and hydrate. She hands me a small mirror and I was shocked. My skin wasn't angry as it always is after facials, not even an errant flush of redness, truly a transparent testament to just how gentle the various tech devices and skincare products were.
Raquel leaves me to get changed and I spend the first three minutes alone just gazing at my radiant skin in the mirror. I instantly feel physically and emotionally lighter.
My totally rejuvenated skin looked even better the next day: plumped, smooth, even-toned, dewy and just... gorgeous.