Inside Sensora Spa, where Rebekah Swank got her first professional facial. 

Everything we see and hear tells us to be better: work harder, be nicer, get cleaner (but don’t wash your hair too often), eat healthier. So is it any surprise that we are now being told to take better care of our skin? Whether you believe the skincare craze is a con or the real deal, you can’t deny that it’s taking over the beauty industry.

Jia Tolentino wrote an article for The New Yorker about her induction into the world of skincare. In it, she writes, “In recent years, the concept of skin car e—specifically, of skin care as a phenomenon that invites unlimited expenditures of money, strategy, and time — has exploded kaleidoscopically.” It’s true. More and more beauty brands are focusing their creative efforts on natural skin products, rather than formulate new makeup.

I am only slightly ashamed to admit that I am a member of the skincare cult. I started using the Glossier Super Pack two years ago. From there, I began researching, experimenting and spending way more money than a college student should — all on skincare products. The deeper into the world of skincare I dive, the more I wonder if any of it is really worth my investment.

With the help of a couple of University students, I set out on a quest to determine what’s real and what’s a hoax. From a high-end facial treatment, to a $6 drugstore shower product — what gives you the best bang for your skincare buck?

HIGH-END: Sensora Spa, IMAGE Signature Facelift, $90

I had never received a professional skin treatment before, but I knew one thing about them: they are pricey. Depending on what you’re looking for, facials can cost hundreds of dollars for a single 60-minute session. So it begs the question: what the hell are they doing to people and why does it cost so much?

I went into Sensora Spa for my first facial feeling excited and open to new possibilities for my beloved skin. Although, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical of the results. I checked in at the front desk with a soft-spoken women with a British accent. The woman clicked around on her computer, and handed me a mini iPad to fill out a form while I was waiting. Before I could sit down, she asked if I wanted some water while I waited. I said, “Yes, please.” When she responded, “Still or sparkling?” I knew they weren’t messing around.

While sipping on a can of chilled Perrier, I filled out a questionnaire about my skin: my routine, my skin type, which topical treatments I use, how often I go in the sun, how much water I drink daily. I was impressed by their desire to get to know my skin. When I finished, Lani Zimmerman, my esthetician, sat down next to me to discuss my treatment options. I had acne in high school, and some in college too. My main concern was treating the scars it left on my temples and around my chin. She suggested the IMAGE Signature Facelift, an enzyme peel that would help exfoliate and rejuvenate my scar-ridden face.

Zimmerman took me into a ten foot by ten foot room to begin the process. The treatment room was dark, lit only by a purple light shining on the wall opposite the door. Tiny lights shined on the ceiling, created a fake night sky. A cart covered with skincare products and tools stood in the back corner. A bed topped by white sheets was in the center of the room, a white towel draped across it. Serene flute music played quietly. “Holy shit, this is boujie as hell,” I thought. Zimmerman left, I undressed, wrapped myself in the towel, got under the sheets, and she came in again.

After a quick look at my face with a bright lamp, Zimmerman began by cleansing my skin. She gently rubbed an orange-scented gel all over my face, and draped a steaming towel over it. She wiped it away with lightly textured facial pads before applying the enzyme peel. Zimmerman warned me that the peel my tingle or burn a little, but I only felt a slight warmth on my face.

The peel smelled like citrus and tea tree oil, and consisted of three layers: first, a papaya enzyme peel with aloe to give it its jelly base. The second layer was a hydrating enzyme mask, containing vitamins A, B, C to hydrate and plump the skin. Third, a gritty exfoliator from the IMAGE Ageless line, which had alpha hydroxy acid, glycolic and lactic acids. She placed another hot towel around my face and let the peel work its magic, letting it sit for several minutes before gently wiping it away.

Not to sound too much like Carrie Bradshaw, but I couldn’t help but wonder: why are these products so different from the skincare products available at Target? And why do they cost so much?

“The difference between over-the-counter products and products you buy from a spa or directly from the retailer themselves is — to be honest it’s kind of a weird no-man’s land of what is official and what’s not,” Zimmerman said.

She called IMAGE and similar products “cosmeceuticals.” They are cosmetic products that contain medical properties, and that’s why they aren’t officially recognized by the FDA. Zimmerman said these kinds of products can’t be sold at stores like Walmart or Target because of “liability issues.” She went on to specify the biggest difference between drugstore and spa-quality products: “All of your over-the-counter products can only sit on the very outer layer of the skin.” Cosmeceuticals can penetrate multiple layers of skin, and do a better job of treating different skin ailments. That’s why Zimmerman doesn’t recommend any drugstore skincare brands.

“We joke here, ‘friends don’t let friends use St. Ives,’ but I would rather someone use Equate night cream than just be dry.” Zimmerman understands that skincare is expensive, so she tells people to purchase the best products they can, and stay away from the “scrubby stuff.”

To finish my treatment, Zimmerman patted a light vitamin C moisturizer and sunscreen onto my face and neck. My skin felt dewy, moisturized and refreshed. She sent me home with three samples of products Sensora carries in the spa, and a bill for $90. Yes, beauty is pain.

In terms of the service I received at Sensora Spa, I would say it’s one of the best beauty experiences I have ever had. When it comes to the treatment itself, I don’t know if I would get the signature Facelift again. It left my skin feeling great, but I didn’t see the lasting effects I wanted in order to justify spending so much on the facial.

MID-RANGE: Origins Clear Improvement Charcoal Honey Mask to Purify and Nourish, $34.00 at Sephora, 4.7 out of 5 rating

Not everyone can afford a facial that costs an arm and a leg. To be completely honest, I can’t afford it either (but made the pampered, relaxing sacrifice for you and for Chalk, because I’m just that kind of person). Most skincare fanatics turn to products that are better than Neutrogena, but won’t assault their bank account.

Origins is a tried and true skincare brand with numerous highly rated products. For this experiment, I decided to stick with a product like a facial in that it’s used only occasionally as a facial treatment for hydration and exfoliation. This particular mask contains wildflower and fermented honey to nourish the skin, and bamboo charcoal to draw impurities out of the pores. It also has lavender, lemon peel and spearmint essential oils, which makes this product smell like magical garden.

Minnie Wedding, a senior from Gulf Shores, Alabama, really enjoyed using the mask. “I put on a thin layer, but it dries quickly, which is nice and time convenient. It doesn’t turn hard like most masks, which I like a lot,” Wedding said. She liked that the mask was made with natural products, but she didn’t like the way the mask looked when it was on her face. It’s black from the charcoal, but it’s also littered with tiny flecks of gold. When it dries, it looks like you’re a bronze statue.”The gold shimmery color surprised me. It doesn’t look as natural as I would expect it to,” she said.

Liza Overton, a second-year pharmacy student from St. Charles, Missouri, also said good things about the mask. “It felt good from the moment I put it on,” she said. Overton liked the product because she felt like it worked well on her high-maintenance skin: “I struggle the most with keeping my skin in balance. I have combination skin, it’s a constant battle of spots that are too dry and looking oily.”

Origins uses natural ingredients and it’s cruelty-free; two things that are important to a lot of people in the skincare community. The charcoal and honey mask leaves the skin brighter and more hydrated. It’s easy to use, easy to remove, and it’s not all that expensive. I will probably buy this product again.

LOW-END: Aveeno Positively Radiant 60 Second In-Shower Facial, $6.79 at Target, 4.8 out of 5 rating

Aveeno has long been considered to be the natural, “high-end” skincare and makeup drugstore brand — or at least that’s what I thought when I was in high school. It makes a variety of products including cleanser, eye cream and body lotion. This facial-like product contains glycolic acid and lemon peel extract. You apply it to your face (and neck if you feel like it) while you’re in the shower, leave it on for one minute and then rinse it off. The steam from the shower acts as a damp hot towel, helping the product penetrate the skin.

I have used the 60 Second In-Shower Facial once a week for about a couple months. My opinion: it’s alright. I have pretty tough skin, so it takes a lot to treat it. I didn’t think the Aveeno shower facial did much for me.

However, Minnie Wedding thought differently. “The steam from the shower made me feel like I was having a little spa moment, which is nice when I’m a broke college student and can’t afford it,” she said. She’s right in that it’s very reasonably priced; the cost-per-use is almost unbeatable. Personally, it’s not my favorite product, but I would recommend it to people who want a product that is easy to use and quick.

All three of these treatments are great for different reasons. The professional facial was relaxing, refreshing and I felt like my skin was actually clean and hydrated. The charcoal honey mask from Origins is effective and fun. Aveeno’s shower facial is quick, cheap and low-maintenance. Overall, the best bang for my buck was the Origins face mask because it was fairly inexpensive and I could see real results. Will I still splurge on a pro facial in the future? Hell yes.