Touch & glow

THERE WAS A time when all one needed for flawless skin was a jar of Ponds cream as part of a nightly cleansing routine. And nothing could compare with an indulgent facial massage, so basic and primal that all it required was a pair of good hands and the latest miracle cream.

Beauty rituals have radically changed, largely due to ageing baby boomers' zealous pursuit of ageless, wrinkle-free skin.

Today, face treatments have also become increasingly reliant on machines to deliver more than just the natural afterglow of a relaxing spa experience.

Parked in spas and facial salons - looking more like modern-day torture instruments - hi-tech machines have become a mainstay of the anti-ageing arsenal. Their popularity, especially in Asia, is evidence of the growing demand and acceptance of cutting-edge technology in the name of beauty.

Skin purists may frown at the gadget trend. But, according to Dee DeLuca-Mattos, president of the Medical Spa Society in the US, the benefits of using machines in facial treatments far outweigh the benefits of manual touch.

'Skincare equipment offers us the ability to drive the products into the deepest layers of the skin and offer deeper exfoliation,' DeLuca-Mattos says. 'Technology is advancing at an astounding rate and the beauty of today's equipment and technology is that they're totally non-invasive and offer long-term results.'

Add to that a list of benefits that include toning slackened facial muscles to create a mini-lift, lightening skin pigmentation and an overall reduction in the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, and the use of hi-tech machinery is anything but science fiction.

The machines are as varied and complex as today's spa treatments, using galvanic and high-frequency currents in tandem with spa products.

'Galvanism operates on the principle that 'like' poles repel and 'opposite' poles attract,' says spa and skincare expert Daryl Moore. 'Simply put, all products carry an electrical charge that, through the use of a galvanic current, allows maximum penetration.'

In Environ's Ionzyme DF machine, galvanic current and low-intensity soundwaves boost the penetration of vitamins A, C and E well beyond the outer layer of the skin. Developed by South African dermatologist Des Fernandes, the treatment is claimed to reverse the ageing process (albeit temporarily).

Another new delivery method involves the no-needle oxygen injections, using pressurised jets of oxygen. This 'shoots' topically applied formulations into the deepest layers of the skin, as well as supplying purified oxygen to the epidermis to stimulate cell activity, enhance metabolism and restore skin elasticity.

In the case of the Beautytox treatment at the Intercontinental Hotel's I-Spa, pulsed oxygen pressure released into the deeper layers of the skin is said to relax facial muscles and reduce the depth of wrinkles. (Hence, the treatment's indirect reference to the popular Botox injections.)

Machines do more than just push products into the skin. They can also subtly lift the face. In particular, the use of low-amp electrical current - or micro-current - has proven to be effective in subtly reshaping the face. It was initially (and strictly) used to treat people suffering from Bells palsy (facial paralysis) and stroke patients.

But doctors found that using this type of low-amp electrical current produced noticeable and dramatic changes.

The technology was adopted by the skincare and medical fields in Europe, the US and Asia for diminishing the effects of ageing and improving overall skin condition. This is the basis of the popular computer-aided cosmetology instrument facials.

More recently, intense pulse light (IPL) technology has become popular. It works with a broad spectrum of light energy in a range of wavelengths to address many conditions simultaneously.

It's claimed to be able to correct a variety of benign skin conditions, including facial skin imperfections from sun damage and photo ageing, enlarged pores, dull complexions, small veins and rosacea.

At the Elemis Spa in Central, the IPL treatment stimulates the production of collagen, tightens the skin and promotes new skin growth. Although there's a noticeable difference after the first treatment, three to six sessions are recommended for longer-lasting results.

This is the case with many machine-driven treatments. They work best when performed repeatedly in a series. For today's spa consumers, this may defeat the notion of a quick-fix solution.

However, innovation comes at a hefty price because these treatments are usually the priciest on the menu. At best, hi-tech facials offer effective non-invasive solutions to anti-ageing and - at the least - are said to slow the ageing process.

But for all their merits, machines are unlikely to take over from the hands-on approach. A recent focus-group study of Hong Kong spa users By Asia Research found that 'machines are accepted as long as they don't completely take the place of touch. Women still want to be touched.'

Experts say the two should complement each other. The important thing is skill. Nothing can replace the hands of a well-trained beauty therapist. Although machines are said to be practically idiot-proof, they can be dangerous if their operators don't know how to use them properly.

Ultimately, the real skill still lies in the therapist's hands.