That was Jessica Richards’ reaction in 2005 when her neighbor in New York’s West Village opened a salon that offered only blow-drying and styling—then an utterly novel concept. Ms. Richards, an ex-Vogue editor who owns Shen Beauty, a boutique-cum-spa in Brooklyn, is no longer so incredulous. “Now I go into a meeting,” she said, “and I’m the only one in there without a blowout.” Blow-dry bars across the country are an indispensable part of many women’s lives in 2016, and that’s hardly the only difference between then and now. Over the last decade, the beauty landscape has grown considerably more crowded with new, wallet-taxing options like 15-minute laser facials, eyelash extensions and apps that can book you a manicure on your own sofa. When you visit the dermatologist, any number of jowl-tightening, saddlebag-zapping treatments are available right there in the office, at a few thousand dollars a pop. And thanks to the Kardashians, even those of us who don’t work in show business are familiar with the complex stage- makeup art of contouring. Those palettes of foundation add up. That’s not to imply there’s a conspiracy to make women overspend in the pursuit of physical perfection.
Some of the above can be quite helpful and convenient for women who need and want to look good. But there is quite a bit to parse in terms of what’s worth the money and what’s not. “I think people are confused because they’re told so many different things in so many different places,” said Shen’s Ms. Richards. Certainly one way to cut through the noise and to avoid spiraling beauty expenditures is to ask a professional you feel you can trust. To encourage candor in her salespeople, Ms. Richards doesn’t pay them by commission. Her own top recommendations are Antonia Burrell’s Cream Supreme Moisturizer for $115—“the best anti-acne product on the market in the most hideous packaging”—as well as LED light therapy, which involves a board (for the face) or a bed (for the body) of infrared lights that are meant to tighten the skin and kill the bacteria that cause acne. New York-based facialist Joanna Vargas has also developed a reputation for a skeptical, no-nonsense approach to new procedures. “One of the reasons people come here is that I’m known for vetting technologies,” said Ms. Vargas.
“If you ask me whether you should do [nonsurgical face-lifts] Thermage or Ultherapy, I’m going to give you an honest answer.” (The answers vary by client.) She will also be truthful with clients she feels are doing the wrong thing, like a 29-year-old woman she saw a couple of years ago who was frequently getting pricey and harsh chemical peels from her dermatologist. “She was a beautiful girl who worked in finance and made a lot of money,” recalled Ms. Vargas.
“But her skin felt like scar tissue from all the peeling.” In terms of effectiveness, one of Ms. Vargas’s near-universal recommendations is also LED light therapy. “It’s appropriate no matter your age or skin type,” she said. “It will keep your elasticity over time.” And since it doesn’t require an esthetician to administer, it’s not exorbitant—$150 for 20 minutes. Though services are typically more expensive than products, product junkies know that little purchases add up over time. They might look into a new service called “The Makeup Refresher,” from GlamSquad, the on-demand beauty app that lets you book private hair stylists and makeup artists. For $135, a makeup artist will sift through and streamline your products, tossing those that are old or don’t suit you.
“We don’t sell anything, so it’s a very different experience than if you’re at a department store makeup counter,” said CEO Alexandra Wilkis Wilson. ‘My regime has been through years of trial and error. This is where I am.’ It can also be enlightening to ask other women how they allot their beauty budgets. Take fashion designer duo and sisters-in-law Veronica Swanson Beard and Veronica Miele Beard. While Ms. Swanson Beard swears by the restorative properties of lymphatic drainage massage ($60-100) and the effectiveness of Georgia Louise facials ($650), Ms. Miele Beard doesn’t partake in either, relying instead on a couple of well-chosen face products (Dr. Perry’s CleanThyme cleansing bar, $45 for a pack of 3, and NightThyme serum, $65.)
Her priority is ensuring that her makeup application—a mix of Tom Ford, Dior and CoverGirl—is flawless each morning. “In New York, you never know who you’re going to see. I’m only high-maintenance in that [regard],” she said. The exact price of someone’s beauty regime is a very personal piece of information. But, as style and beauty expert Mary Alice Stephenson pointed out, we’re in an era when women are more prone to share such things. Ms. Stephenson, founder of Glam4Good, an organization that provides make-overs for women in need of a boost, from veterans to breast-cancer survivors, is refreshingly transparent—and a believer that money spent on beauty isn’t frivolous.
“I’ve seen how beauty empowers and self-esteem brings joy,” she said. We asked Ms. Stephenson and three others to tally the big-ticket expenditures they make over the course of a year. The process was eye-opening, but all stood by their choices. “I’m sure there are people who do a quarter of what I do, and I’m sure others do more,” said jewelry designer Jennifer Fisher. “But [my regime] has been through years of trial and error. This is where I am, and I’m not apologizing.” ( By Mary Alice Stephenson, style expert and founder of Glam4Good )