Are Facials For Men?

Getting pampered in a Brooklyn barbershop proves a revealing — and refreshing — experience.

Henry Phillips

During a recent trip to Blue & Black, a new barbershop in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, barber Tony DeAngelis asked me if I wanted their brand new face treatment. My answer, in part because I didn’t take the time to think about it and in part because I was there seeking something new and interesting, was yes. It wasn’t until DeAngelis was applying a hydrating mask, and my photographer coworker started chuckling almost imperceptibly somewhere behind me, that I realized what I was doing. It was a facial. The kind girls get, unironically, at the spa.

I really enjoyed it.

The people I’ve told about it have had a few different reactions, almost all of them disheartening. My dad told me, half jokingly, not to mention it to my cousins, who are the kind of guys who build barns on weekends, then let the topic slide on to his latest construction job. My coworkers — usually, I’ll point out, quite the hardline dandies when it comes to grooming — sneered at me before moving on to playground jabs. Friends were flummoxed, then disapproving. My girlfriend didn’t seem bothered, until I asked her (as an exercise rather than seriously) how she’d feel if I started getting them regularly. Then she seemed bothered.

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I don’t take particular care to use face creams, and I’m no skincare crusader; hell, I’m a grooming Neanderthal. I don’t use conditioner. I’ve never exfoliated. Still, now that I’ve had one, getting a facial treatment seems pretty lathered-and-dried; it’s sensible, and backed by grooming and healthcare professionals. Especially in metro areas but also across the U.S., we’re in a golden age of men’s grooming. We dudes are encouraged to exfoliate and hydrate, to style our hair, to use pre-shave and beard oil and build our knowledge of cologne. Products are basically thrown at us. The jury returned a while ago and found that mocking those who take special care with their grooming is ignorant. Taking care of yourself is very much in.

But while all of these products, even the extravagant ones (GQ has recommended a $140 facial serum), are pushed as a bold new aspect of manliness on their own, using them together, in a particular order, crosses the line. The cucumber-eyed green Wicked Witch of the West mask is still owned by women and eccentric movie villains.

It’s an embarrassment that men are embarrassed.

Not that you have to get one, but still, it’s an embarrassment that men should be embarrassed. Here’s what DeAngelis did to my face, which in practice wasn’t any more emasculating than getting my beard trimmed. First he leaned my back near-parallel with the floor in the barber’s chair. Then he draped a hot damp towel over my face that he’d treated in a eucalyptus serum. My sinuses opened up like the convertible roof of an Olympic dome. “It feels like I’m back in the womb”, I said — and at the time, it felt unfunny. Then the towel came off. He rubbed in an exfoliating scrub. More hot towel, which I realized felt like dipping into a hot tub feels, except only for my face. Scrubbed off the gritty exfoliating scrub. Hydrating mask that smelled like grass and tingled.

The mask came off. Hot towel. Hydration serum applied with a facial massage that made my muscles feel limber enough for some Jim Carey gymnastics. Cold towel, like getting hit the face with a snowball if getting hit in the face with a snowball felt sharply refreshing rather than deeply enraging. Special serum (or was it oil?) dabbed on my eyelids. Another brisk towel and I was done.

These are Blue & Black’s proprietary steps, and together they cost $25; they’re unique because up until recently the facial treatment has been thought of as part of the spa experience, not the barbershop one. Funny thing, that, according to DeAngelis. “To pass the New York state barber exam you have to give a facial. It’s part of classic barbering, but somehow it just got lost in the last few years. A lot of people are afraid to do it, or they don’t want to bother with it.”

I entered the facial tired from work and left it with a face that felt scrubbed, melted and raw against the night air. When I looked in the mirror after the twenty minute process I looked a healthy shade of pink and I had a big ole smile. I felt the exact same bliss that a cigar and two fingers of Scotch had compelled the night before; the evening seemed more immediate as I left for home, and drinks with a friend felt far more inviting than it had before.

This relaxation is a big piece of what DeAngelis and his contemporaries are trying to build: the barbershop as a destination. “Barbershops have become somewhere…where guys can be like, ‘I have this half hour to myself right now, don’t have to deal with my girlfriend, kids, other peoples kids'”, he said. “We’re trying to make an environment where people can come out, be themselves, get cleaned up, have a beer, chill out.” Black & Blue describes itself as “normcore” — which made me think of sweats, white reeboks and thinly veiled pretension, but really it’s just an unassuming open space with a distinctly bright style and a spare, eclectic set of decor. DeAngelis is gabby, tatted up and unassuming (“I’m like trimming people’s beards and talking to them, and I’m like, don’t look at mine”). The carport picture that fronts their website and adorns the barbershop’s wall is a random photo that he and his business partner thought looked cool. Overall, this feels like a safe place.

Of course, the barbers reinforce that relaxing premise with their services. Having your face heated, massaged and coated with serums is a perfect vehicle for that relaxation. “You hold a lot of tension in your face”, DeAngelis says. “I’ll be trimming someone’s beard and be like, ‘hey man, just relax’. Their forehead’s all scrunched. And then they think about it for a second and then they relax. We’re all running around just trying to get from one place to another, just full of that nervous energy. Sometimes it’s really hard to decompress.”

“To pass the New York state barber exam you have to give a facial. It’s part of classic barbering, but somehow it just got lost in the last few years. A lot of people are afraid to do it, or they don’t want to bother with it.”

There are also the actual benefits to your skin to think about — which I wasn’t entirely sure existed, until a licensed dermatologist straightened me out. “Properly done, facials can not only brighten and plump the skin, but also help to gently remove impurities, unclog pores, and lightly exfoliate to remove outer cells and stimulate a refreshing of the skin layers”, said Dr. Jessica Krant, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York who runs her own practice, Art of Dermatology. “Hydrating the skin (which should be done daily with a light moisturizer, ideally with SPF in it) helps also to make the outer cells juicier so they transmit light through the skin and make everything seem brighter, smoother, and less wrinkly. This also has an optical effect of hiding minimal irregularities in color from sun damage and age.”

And the heated eucalyptus towels that made me feel prenatal again? “Hot and cold towels are mostly just fun. Steaming the face moistens it, and the lotions seal in the moisture, while chilling the skin is refreshing and bracing, and brings a glow to the cheeks, which makes you look instantly healthier.”

Krant did have some words of caution. “Over-exfoliating creates inflammation, which leads to dryness and flakiness, so more is not always better. I’m always a fan of the general idea of gentle facials, but since safety and results are highly dependent on the person performing the facials, and injuries and skin burns could happen (from too much glycolic acid, for example), I don’t make a practice of recommending them specifically for patients on a regular basis.” The doc’s final word: “If someone enjoys them and has a safe, reliable place to go, I’m all for it.”

In Blue & Black, blindfolded by a hot towel, I felt safe, DeAngelis, reliable. Since then, my face hasn’t experienced a renaissance; I’ve broken out here and there, like usual, and the pores on my nose will still need to be photoshopped when I finally get that cover story in Vanity Fair. I won’t be getting a regular facial, but I would consider getting one again down the road, if I’m bored and stressed or even just have time after my next hair cut. I spilled to my girlfriend, thinking she’d be relieved after her initial unease about the idea.

She’d been thinking about it, she said. How could she love that I smoked cigars for enjoyment and to relax, yet not be okay with me getting a facial treatment for the same relaxation without the health risks? I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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