Do Caviar Facials Really Work?

A day at the spa can be relaxing and invigorating: a facial, a massage, maybe a fabulous skin treatment with intriguing ingredients — even exotic foods.

The spa industry is growing, with American women spending almost $9 billion on spas in 2001 alone. Spas offer a wide range of services, which they say can promote health, beauty and a sense of well-being.

Primetime decided to investigate claims about some of the more exotic treatments offered by spas. During a two-month investigation, Primetime staffers visited spas and beauty clinics in New York City, recording their visits — and the spa operators' claims — on hidden cameras. Primetime then showed the tapes to medical experts, and confronted the spa operators with what the experts said.

Truffles and Caviar — for the Face

Primetime first focused on upscale spas and some of their popular treatments. One of the most popular ingredients at the moment is exotic foods. At the Brigitte Mansfield European Spa, the signature treatment is a facial using rare truffles, an expensive delicacy imported from France. The mushroom-like truffles are chopped and mixed with fragrant oils, then brushed on the face. The spa, which ended the treatment with a caviar cream, says the $140 treatment replenishes the skin with minerals and nutrients.

But experts consulted by Primetime said it is impossible for humans to absorb nutrients through the skin — whether they are from truffles or any other source. Dr. David Leffell, a leading dermatologist, said the spa's claim that clients can absorb truffles' goodness through the skin is "pseudoscientific gibberish."

"You can't absorb truffles through your skin," said another leading dermatologist, Dr. Debra Jaliman. "If you ate them you would get the nutrients of the truffle, but just putting them on the skin surface and washing them off is in my estimation a waste of truffles."

The spa also offers a $140 oxygen facial called the Supercharge, a three-step oxygen treatment. "We stimulate the oxygen production, right, so we have more oxygen in the skin," said the spa's owner, former model Brigitte Mansfield.

But Primetime's experts said the only way for humans to take in oxygen is through the lungs and into the bloodstream — not through the skin. They disputed Mansfield's claim that the treatment puts oxygen into the skin. "If it were true, we would have to rewrite all the high school biology textbooks," said Leffell, who is professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

Another popular ingredient in facials is collagen, a naturally occurring substance that stops skin wrinkling. At the Georgette Klinger spa in Manhattan, for instance, a technician offered "a warm mask with 100 percent collagen that will help extra-nourish" the skin. But according to Primetime's experts collagen is a large molecule that cannot penetrate the skin. "You can't put it in by creams or potions, lotions — it doesn't work" said Jaliman.

The two experts were also skeptical about the Mansfield spa's Parafango Detox, a mud and wax mixture applied to the body that Mansfield claimed can "loosen up" toxins so they can be flushed from the system by drinking water. The doctors said the only way to release toxins from the body is through the kidney or liver. "Your skin is not a detoxifying organ," said Leffell. The experts said it is also impossible to sweat out toxins through the skin.

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