Beauty Schooled

American consumers spent over $200 billion on beauty products and services in 2009 — an awful lot of lipsticks and manicures — yet the average salon worker earned just $9 to $15 per hour. But these numbers don’t tell us the human costs. Like, what happens when these products aren’t subjected to pre-market safety testing. And how a 13-year-old feels when her mom takes her for a bikini wax. Or why many of us would rather not make eye contact with the woman we’re paying to scrub our feet.

From November 2009 to August 2010, I spent 600 hours learning to excavate pores, apply makeup and wax, well, everywhere, with the hope of finding some answers.

Also: The names and identifying details of all Beauty U folk have been changed (unless otherwise noted) to protect their privacy.

Field Trip.

My 600-hour adventure in esthetics school. Learn more about the project and catch up with Week 1.

Temptu ScanMe. Airbrushed.

Today we pile into Miss Jenny’s SUV and drive over to the fancy mall for a demonstration of the AIRbrush Makeup System by Temptu at Sephora. Miss Jenny has been planning the trip for days, making at least nine phone calls to confirm that everything is set. We’ve been told to arrive no later than 4 PM because the Temptu demos finish at 5 — but arrive to a nearly empty store and two brand reps overjoyed to have some prospective customers: Gus, ing knee-high Doc Martens and Sam, who is dressed vaguely like an alien extra from Star Trek.

I had it all tangled up with those mall kiosks that make t-shirts with your name inside a heart or next to a palm tree, but apparently, airbrush makeup has been around since MGM sprayed hundreds of Ben-Hur extras. The new, consumer-friendly version is not cheap ($225 for the machine, plus $30-$55 for the “pods” of highlighter, blush, and foundation), but I guess when you consider all that silicone, silica, iron oxide and water you’re getting (plus the same parabens, thickeners, preservatives, dyes and fragrance that appear in many of your old-school, low-tech cosmetics), it’s a bargain?

Temptu Airbrush Makeup Machine & Pods

I try to calculate how long a single pod of blush ($35) is supposed to last while to my right, Sam tells Meg why Temptu will be so brilliant for her dry skin, and on my left, Gus tells Stephanie why Temptu will be so indispensable for her oily skin.

When it’s my turn, Gus tells me that Temptu is especially well designed to combat redness and breakouts (thanks for noticing) and aims his pod gun at a spot on my chin. “You just have to be patient,” he says. “It takes awhile to cover everything perfectly and you have to practice.”

Temptu in ActionShe is being very patient.

That’s probably why Temptu holds workshops for professional makeup artists to learn their equipment — all you have to do to attend is buy $150 worth of product, after which, I’d guess I would be a convert, too.

Miss Jenny, who has been humming with excitement about this trip all week, seems disconcerted as we examine the results. “I’m not sure I like wearing this much on my face,” she admits. “We look awfully matte.”

We console ourselves by pocketing as many free lotion samples as we can find, then take our newly poreless faces off to P.F. Chang’s for lettuce wraps before driving home.

[Photo Credits: Gus's fine airbrushing work and my scanning, plus this guy and this one.]

Esthetics is a Science. See: Skin Transplants.

My 600-hour adventure in esthetics school. Read about the project, or catch up with Weeks 1 and 2.

So, it’s not all trips to the mall and fancy eyelashes, kittens.

Tonight we studied the history of skin care. Oh, those Egyptians and their wacky kohl eye shadow — great for making eyes look larger and brighter if you don’t mind that it’s a not-so-distant cousin of arsenic. Milady’s apparently does not, because that’s all it has to say about that.

We carried on to Science. Because science is really where it’s at, if you ask Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians.

Page 10:

Esthetics, from the Greek word aesthetikos (meaning “perceptible to the senses”), is a branch of anatomical science that deals with the overall health and wellbeing of the skin, the largest organ of the human body.

Pages 15-16:

Experts predict that the skin care and medical industries will continue to work closely together to create products and treatments that promote dramatically younger-looking skin. Skin care products will be more potent, will contain both medical and natural ingredients, and will be available in more efficient delivery systems that penetrate deeper into the skin. [...] Gene therapies — and even skin transplants for wrinkled skin— are on the horizon as well.

It may be worth noting that Merriam-Webster has a slightly different take on the matter:

Main Entry: aesthetic

Variant(s): also esthetic

Function: noun

Date: 1822

1. a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.

Eh. Philosophy? Science? If you cut us, do we not bleed? We wear white lab coats, too, you know.


PS. Thanks to Nutmeg Knitter —who, in addition to being a great knitter and mom is an actual scientist — for the lovely shout-out and for turning me on to the fantastic Operation Beautiful. Ending Fat Talk? Yes. More of that, please.

[Photo Credit: Flickr]

Career Opportunities

During a back wax, pants should be worn. (This guy is not Frank. And he did it for charity.)

Miss Jenny asks us to go around the room and talk about which field of esthetics we’re most interested in pursuing. Everyone is deciding between being a makeup artist or “medical esthetics,” which is where you work in the office or medi-spa of a plastic surgeon or a dermatologist. Sometimes you apply camouflage makeup to burn victims or people recovering from a face lift. You might also perform facials or, with advanced training, laser hair and spider vein removal. And of course, you’ll handle the retailing of whatever skin care line your doctor has displayed in her waiting room.

“I want to do something to help people,” says Blanche. “Something not so superficial, if you know what I mean, though that’s just my opinion.”

We also talk about having the right personality to work in a spa. “I’m scared I’ll get some Miss Diva rich person snob,” says Blanche and we all laugh. “I don’t think I have the right personality to handle that.”

Miss Jenny says that you learn to handle difficult clients. She once had a man (“a top-rated psychologist”) undo his pants and put a wad of cash on the counter in preparation for a back and chest wax. “You don’t need to take your pants off for me to wax your back,” she says. “I did his back and then said, Frank, I’m going to step out so you can get yourself together and turn over for your chest wax.” She ignored the cash. Frank came back and kept his belt on next time.

Meg worries about having health insurance. “I just can’t see myself working on commission in a spa. It’s too uncertain.” She’s a single mom and has a couple of chronic medical conditions that require frequent doctor’s visits and medication.

“It was always my goal to be a spa esthetician,” says Miss Jenny, who works on commission, earning 46% of every $45 makeup application and $50 back wax she performs. “I knew when I was in school that this was what I wanted to do.”

[Photo Credits: Yanda Time and Premier Pigments]

The Fantasea Face

My 600-hour adventure in esthetics school. Learn about the project, or catch up with Weeks 1 and 2.

We’ve been practicing the daytime face for two weeks now, so tonight, Meg and I are messing around in our FantaSea makeup kits. They’re filled with clever compartments and secret drawers, all fitted with perfectly pressed cakes of color that beg you to swirl your brushes through them, like walking on fresh snow. There’s even a black plastic comb fitted into the hinge, though no one can explain what we’re going to do with that.

“Remember girls, the daytime face should be very, very light,” says Miss Jenny for perhaps the millionth time. She’s been toning down our preferences for smoky eyes and pouty lips all week. “Very light. You need to be very restrained with your color selections.”

Meg dips her brush in a coral blush and dabs her cheek. We peer at the orange streak. “Nice and light,” I decide. She follows up with neon blue eye shadow, while I layer on the frosted pink lipstick. ”Perfect for daytime,” says Meg approvingly. We add sparkly gloss, green shadow for contour, and more orange blush, then admire our Technicolor faces in the Fantasea mirrors. It’s the kind of makeup you used to put on at a middle school sleepover party, while your one friend was in the bathroom dying her hair some impractical color, before you all sat down to eat an entire pan of brownies in one sitting.

“My God,” says Meg. “We’re so pretty!”

“Oh you girls are making me laugh,” says Miss Jenny.

I think this is kind of the moment when we all realize that we’re becoming friends.

Placenta. On Your Face.

I had my first Beauty U facial last night — whenever we don’t have any regular customers in the spa, the senior students borrow one of us freshman girls to practice on — and it reminded me to tell you about this.

Jezebel is pretty sure that the Daily Mail is over-hyping this placenta facial as the latest Hollywood craze business (you think?) but it’s not the first time afterbirth has made the rounds as the beauty ingredient du jour. Shiseido, Mila Skin Care, Plazan Cosmetics and other high-end brands have all offered luxe anti-aging products in recent years with this so-called miracle ingredient, derived from bovine and human, um, volunteers. (It’s especially popular in Japan.)

The companies claim that placenta, the organ that nourishes a developing baby in the womb, can boost your metabolic processes, accelerate tissue regeneration and rid your body of toxins, all to help you achieve younger-looking skin. Dermatologists dispute whether it really works.

So that means people with medical degrees are actually sitting around saying “Hmmm, can placenta make you look younger or not?” instead of asking these companies more obvious questions like, “Are you high?” and “Where the heck are you getting this stuff?”

Poole Hospital, in Dorset, England, made headlines last year when it received about $10,000 in “donations” in exchange for delivering up to 70 frozen placentas per week to Sigma-Aldrich, a biochemical company that sells raw materials to cosmetic companies. The moms who signed consent forms after giving birth thought their placenta was being donated for medical research. You know, like to help sick people. Mila Skin Care and Plazan Cosmetics say their placenta comes from maternity wards in Russia — it’s not clear whether those moms know they’re donating (or are perhaps being compensated directly) in the name of beauty science or not.

Okay, so there’s the obvious ick factor. We can be grown ups about that, I guess. But what I’m still working on: Is it okay to turn a body part (albeit a rather temporary one) into a commodity? What makes a woman donate or sell her child’s placenta in the name of erasing crow’s feet? Or is it even more creepy that she may not know it’s happening?

[Photo: Daily Mail]

The Makeup Practical

My 600-hour adventure in esthetics school.

Learn more about the project, or catch up with weeks 1, 2 and 3.

Sometimes, practicing makeup feels like a middle school sleepover. But when we take our Makeup Practical (that’s Beauty U speak for a test that involves a physical demonstration of what you’ve learned) there’s no talking allowed. We’re suddenly aware of how warm it is in our windowless classroom, and how six people adds up to twelve eyeballs staring at you.

There’s a lot to remember. The order of the daytime makeup application: Concealer, foundation, powder, blush, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, lip liner and lipstick — yes, that’s all for daytime. You forgot it already. The sanitation procedures (you have to spray your pencil sharpener with alcohol before and after you use it to sharpen your eyeliner or lip liner, and you have to sharpen them every single time). How to keep the foundation from caking and the eyeliner from running jaggedly across your client’s lids. I have yet to master these last steps.

Miss Jenny perches on a revolving stool next to you, clipboard in hand, taking notes, poker-faced. It’s enough to make Stephanie drenched in sweat by the time she’s finished. Meg’s hand shakes as she starts to stipple on the concealer. I apply eye shadow then try to think in a blind panic whether it’s liner or mascara that comes next. We use an entire roll of paper towels wiping alcohol off the sharpener.

We’re getting braver about touching each other. Miss Jenny has demonstrated how it’s okay to stand in between your client’s knees in order to reach their eyes. You balance one hand on your hip when you’re applying lip liner — don’t ask me why, but this works.

When it’s over, we are exhausted. Miss Jenny comes around to give everyone their grades and there’s a lot more debate than when we take our written exams. It’s hard to dispute a wrong multiple choice question, after all, but it’s a little more subjective to say whether Sue blended the eye shadow enough or Blanche chose the right shade of concealer.

“Look, it’s very hard to get 100 on the makeup practical, girls,” says Miss Jenny. “That would mean you were flawless. Nobody is perfect, okay?”

Of course not. That’s what all the makeup is for.

The Facial Begins

I soap my hands up with cleanser and hover over Stephanie’s face. “Go on, get in there!” says Miss Jenny. “You won’t hurt her.” We’re spending a lot more time talking about how to touch your client now that we’re done with makeup and starting skin care. “Always let them know you’re coming,” says Miss Lisa. She cups a dollop of cleanser in each palm, then presses the tops of her curved fingers into Sue’s shoulders before proceeding up her neck and face. That shoulder move is key. “If you touch their face right off the bat, they’ll jump out of the bed,” Miss Lisa explains.

I press on Stephanie’s shoulders and then start stroking up her neck and over her chin and cheeks, circling into the folds around the nose and then around her forehead, until she’s covered in a thin layer of foam. Even though she’s lying on a facial bed wearing only a Velcro towel while I sit at her head and look down, it’s somehow less intimate than applying makeup. I think because her eyes are closed.

After spending four weeks with Stephanie, I know an assortment of random “getting to know you” facts: She has a 1-year-old nephew, she curses her oily skin, she just had two dates with a guy but there wasn’t any spark.

But suddenly she stops being Stephanie, aunt, skin-obsesser, dater of spark-less dudes, and just becomes A Face — an upside down series of planes and curves that I need to cover in cleanser and then wipe clean with a wet cotton pad. It’s like when you say a word too many times in a row and suddenly can’t remember what it means. Stare at the photo above for a minute too long and you’ll see what I mean.

I repeat the cleansing, per Miss Jenny’s instructions, and then apply toner. Then I stop, because we haven’t learned to do anything else yet. Stephanie opens her eyes and is Stephanie again. We laugh.

“Remember, we’re promoting relaxation,” says Miss Jenny. That means you want your client to totally unwind and let their guard down (“they become the bed,” Miss Lisa likes to say). But there aren’t many other scenarios where you see someone at their most relaxed — but also most vulnerable. If Stephanie and I were training for any other profession, I wouldn’t have much reason to scrub the underside of her nose. It’s a weird thing to be responsible for someone else’s relaxation when you’re feeling anything but that yourself.

Feed Me! (A Quick Housekeeping Detail.)

I’m making some updates to my feedburner, and the old feed is being replaced by a snazzy new feed. So if you’ve already subscribed by clicking the handy icon (over on the right side of the page) you may need to quickly re-subscribe… now!

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Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. I’m working on getting to the bottom of this Peruvian gang allegedly killing tourists for their cosmetic ingredient-containing fat, plus there’s lots more to say about placenta. Stay tuned.

So, You Want to be (Not Really) a Millionaire.

My 600-hour adventure in esthetics school. Learn about the project or catch up with weeks 1-4.

Simon Scott, the founder of Scott Consulting, which offers business training for the beauty industry, is a born guest speaker. He makes jokes about his “Austin Powers accent,” wears a shiny pin-stripe suit, and says “hello!” whenever he thinks he’s made a particularly great point. He also insists we give a round of applause whenever a student answers a question.

“Fact,” says Simon, giving us a faux-stern look over his horn-rimmed glasses. “80 percent of students who graduate beauty school leave the industry after five years.”

“Fact!” says Simon, warming to his theme. “Beauty salons have the second highest failure rate of any business.”

We’ve been restless and chatting — about Simon’s accent, where to order dinner during break, Miss Susan’s oddly vertical updo — but that shuts us up quick. He asks us to volunteer ideas as to why so many beauty school graduates drop out, and some of them (“no money,” “bad hours,” “no one is hiring”) sound like they might hit pretty close to the mark. But Simon shakes his head mournfully at all of these.

The reason (say it with me now) is No. Business. Skills.

And we’re in luck because Scott Consulting has just what we need to fix that.

“Fact.” Simon is conspiratorial now. “Customers don’t care about your life. They’re paying for your full attention while they’re in the salon and they don’t want to hear you yammering on about your kids or your dog.”

Over the next 75 minutes, Simon does his level best to pack in this and as many other Business Skills as he can teach us. Some, like “stop tipping waiters,” are supposed to improve our personal lives as well. “If you tip everyone all the time, even if they just give you mediocre service, how can you reward someone who gives you really great service?” Simon asks, faux-socratic now, apparently having never waited a table in his life.

Hairdressers, Simon wants us to know, make 42 percent of their annual salary from tips. That’s enough to take you from $14 to $24 per hour or $48,000 per year (his numbers, note that the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates your median hourly wage as $11.13).

“So you see how important it is to give really great service,” Simon sums up, since in his world, one only tips on merit, and never, say, a moral imperative to do your part for an unfairly compensated workforce. “It truly accounts for almost half your income. Hello.”

Then he asks us how much we think we can earn, provided we develop our Business Skills, and are still in the industry five years after graduating.

“Maybe $100,000?” asks Rachel, a cosmetology student with freshly henna-ed hair. At Simon’s urging, we give Rachel a dutiful round of applause for using her words, I guess.

“One Hundred Thousand Dollars,” says Simon, pausing for dramatic effect. “Yes. That is what top stylists can make — that is what you can make! — in this industry. With the right business skills.”

At that, everyone breaks into applause.

Don’t Read This if You’re Squeamish about Skin, Part 1.

My 600-hour adventure in esthetics school. Click here to read about the project, or catch up with Weeks 1-5.

We’re continuing to practice our cleansing and toning, so tonight I work on Meg, who is wrestling with two milia that have erupted on her face.

We’re taught never to say pimple or zit, at Beauty U, mostly because it’s considered unseemly to tell a client that you’re going to pop a pimple for them. It’s classier to ask, “Would you like me to extract your milia?” Milia, because I know you were wondering, are “oil and dead skin cells trapped beneath the surface of the skin,” according to Milady’s. Miss Lisa says they may sometimes also be deposits of calcium or cholesterol, but then again, that could be just a myth.

Whatever they are, you want them gone. Brace yourselves for the illustrative skin shots:

(At least the baby is cute.)

So the mystery gunk hardens over meaning you can’t pop your milia open with your fingers in the bathroom mirror; it has to be extracted by an esthetician or a dermatologist. You can pop your comedones yourself, but that’s a whole other vocab card. (Yes, I made vocab flashcards this weekend at Miss Jenny’s urging, because there are a heck of a lot of technical terms to memorize for our Chapter 10 test.)

But back to Meg. After I finish my cleansing and toning, we call Miss Stacy over to take a look at the milia in question. She turns on the mag lamp, which is a lamp with a big magnifying glass attached and we peer at Meg’s milia together. I tried to come up with a clever metaphor for you on this, but it looks, well, like a magnified pimple.

I really enjoy Miss Stacy’s bedside manner:

Meg (worried): “Do my pores look so huge?”

Miss Stacy: “Yes. Because I’m looking at them through a giant magnifying glass.”

Miss Stacy puts on some vinyl gloves and prods the milia with a disposable lancet, which is like a little metal needle, though Meg says it doesn’t hurt. She prods and prods while I watch in the magnify glass, and a little bead of blood appears on Meg’s cheek. The gunk remains impervious. “I don’t want to hurt you,” says Miss Stacy. “But Miss Lisa won’t mind. She’s the queen of extractions.”

I fetch Miss Lisa like it’s the bottom of the ninth and we’re bringing in a ringer. She snaps on her own vinyl gloves and takes hold of the mag lamp. “Now what you want to do with the lancet is just come on in from the side,” she drawls, arrowing in with supreme confidence to land a hit just below the top of the first milia. It pops open without so much as a whimper.

“And here,” says Miss Lisa, plucking something off Meg’s cheek in triumph. “Is your milia!”

Meg and I examine the tiny piece of couscous sitting on Miss Lisa’s finger. “Go on, hold it!” Miss Lisa urges. It’s hard like couscous too. Meg holds it delicately on the pad of her thumb as Miss Lisa attacks the second one. This one doesn’t give up the ghost quite so easily and we determine that it needs another day or two to cook before it’s ready for extraction.

Meanwhile, Stephanie, Blanche, Sue and the other esthetics students swing by for a look at the milia. Us freshman girls are fascinated because we’ve witnessed our first extraction. The senior girls are excited for us because it was but 20 weeks ago that they stood in our shoes. They trade extraction war stories of pimples that wouldn’t stop gushing and smokers who bleed as soon as you prick them because smoking thins your blood.

The weird thing is, nobody is grossed out by any of it. Depending on our mood, extractions are either a fact of life (we all have skin, sometimes stuff oozes out of it) or a judgment on the owner of said skin (that’s what happens when you use the wrong products). We’re like the fighter pilots in The Right Stuff; the only ones who admit to danger are the ones who have the wrong stuff.

Is it a post-feminist way of embracing the body, warts and all, even as we groom it to milia-free perfection? Or is it just a form of self-preservation to buoy us up for the next encrusted pore?

[Photos: Medline Plus, Elle's Esthetic Studio, and Bien-Etre]