Spa review: The magic of vitamin A in The Mandarin Spa’s Environ Optimal Skin Facial

Updated on June 21 2017

Sitting across from us inside a spa suite at The Mandarin Spa, 75-year-old Dr. Des Fernandes looks barely a day over 55. A plastic surgeon by trade and the scientific director of his own premium skincare brand Environ, he attributes his healthy skin to his high dosage intake of vitamin A each day — 60,000 IU, which is more than 20 times more than the recommended daily intake for an adult.

Dr. Des Fernandes first started the brand Environ while researching how to reverse sun damage, as well as trying to help his patients heal damaged skin to get ready for surgery. He explains that vitamin A is what the skin uses to keep cells healthy from the DNA-level. “In 1985, it was released in a scientific paper that you could use Retin-A to treat photo-aging, and make old skin look younger,” he tells us. “By 1987, I realised that all of our skin cells are factories to make Retinoic acids. Retinoic acids are a form of vitamin A, found in Retin-A.” Dr. Fernandes began applying Retinoic acids on himself, slowly increasing the dosage, from the day he turned 40 years old in 1982.

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We’ve heard of buzzwords like retinol and Retin-A tossed around and splashed on labels of over-the-counter beauty products, but what are they really? The answer is that they’re derivatives of vitamin A, and are sourced and absorbed into the body differently. Retinol is the naturally occurring vitamin A formed in the body, but needs to be converted into retinoic acids by enzymes to be effective for the skin. Meanwhile, Retin-A is derived from retinoic acid and has an immediate effect on the skin — it’s typically found as a prescription ingredient.

“Vitamin A is the only molecule in the world that effectively slows down the skin’s decay,” Fernandes tells us, in some cases even reversing the damage. Prolonged use and dosage builds up irreversibly, and stopping the dosage won’t bring back the wrinkles, it will just return to the regular rate of decay.

However, beauty companies tend to not want to manufacture vitamin A for the skin in high doses, as irritation is a common side effect. “I was very sensitive to vitamin A. Today, I use 100 times stronger concentrations of vitamin A than I was used to in the beginning. You can make your skin adapt by slowly increasing the dose,” he says.

With Environ products, its latest Youth EssentiA range is offered in tiered quantities, so as you move up each tier you are slowly exposing the skin to higher levels of vitamin A, antioxidants and peptides, which effectively cleanse and protect the skin from the environmental stressors of living in a big city such as Hong Kong — without stripping us of the skin’s protective oils. “We’ve developed the products that are the best to treat the skin problems for this part of Asia,” says Fernandes.

With high doses in the body, vitamin A can act as a natural barrier to the sun’s harmful rays, like a natural sunscreen. Unfortunately, it is sensitive to sunlight and can still be damaged by UVA and UVB rays over time. It’s therefore important to keep a constant level of vitamin A in the bloodstream.

To kickstart a high powered vitamin A regime, The Mandarin Spa at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong also offers advanced skin treatments using Environ’s skincare range as its exclusive Hong Kong stockist. We recently got to try a session of the 90-minute Optimal Skin Facial, which pairs Environ products together with a DF machine, incorporating ultrasound and electric currents to help induce a more intense penetration of active ingredients including vitamins A and C. The currents also aid with greater oxygenation, increased blood flow, collagen and elastin improvement in the skin — boasting all for instantly visible radiance.

Following a hefty cleansing ritual, the therapist applies what is called a Lac Pam Gel, a conductive lactic acid gel that when paired with an electric current, is used as a mild skin peel. With my eyes half closed, the therapist handed me a conductive rod — previously having warned me that I might experience a tingling sensation or ringing in my ears. I was to hold onto the rod, which was linked to the DF machine, for the duration of the treatment, so that it could pass an ultrasound current through my body and work its magic.

As she turned up the dial to an acceptable level for me, I indeed began to feel the faint ringing just between my ears, like a long bell I could almost hear in the distance. I powered through, hand nervously clutching the rod tightly under the spa blankets. It wasn’t as comfortable as your average spa facial where you can just spread your whole body out at ease, but I was excited and curious to see the results.

Using a metal-tipped tool to complete the circuit, the therapist worked through parts of my face in a rhythmic, small circular motion (which eased my apprehension a little about the current coursing through my body), with each stroke helping to soak up the applied vitamin A and C serums deep into my skin.

A thick alginate mask was then applied, and as it was setting, the therapist massaged my lower legs with swift, featherlight movements. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed by the massage. It was merely a pleasant side offering in the treatment, but thankfully the main goal of the session was fabulously achieved: after applying the final moisturiser, I opened my eyes to see my skin aflush with a healthy, glowy vibrancy, my skin tone remarkably even and my pores utterly obliterated.

My cheeks felt pillowy soft but with a firm bounce, with areas that were normally slightly red like under and around the nose and chin beautifully balanced. The only thing that could have stepped this treatment up more was if it could remove my dark circles, too. But that’s a long term issue that you can only really improve with a healthier lifestyle and better sleep schedule than mine.

While the Optimal Skin Facial was not the kind of treatment that sweeps you into a land of bliss and relaxation, it’s a potent ritual that doctors up your biggest skin concerns. If this is what bare skin can look like with a regular dose of vitamins, I’ll gladly sign up to get those higher prescriptions.

To maintain beautiful skin every day of your life, Dr. Des Fernandes says using a combination of vitamins A, C and E are imperative (and the minimum requirement) for great skin. His ritual consists of needling his skin after showering — yes, with a 0.1mm needle roller, also known as Environ’s Cosmetic Roll-Cit (pronounced “kit”, and stands for Collagen Induction Therapy) — and the tiny punctures help to enhance the effectiveness of your skincare regime, as well as balance skin texture and restore skin tightening. “I’m using hyaluronic acid, a peptide product, the Youth EssentiA cream, then I add more vitamin A, what we call retinol-A — I put it all in my hand, mix it, then apply it, morning and night,” Dr. Fernandes says. “I would use vitamin A every day of your life. If you start early enough, you will get better skin. I am sorry I only started when I was 40. I would have preferred to have started when I was four.”

HK$2,200 for 90-minute Optimal Skin Facial. Cosmetic Roll-Cit starts at HK$780. The Mandarin Spa, Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, 5 Connaught Road Central, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2825 4888; Reserve by emailing mohkg-spa@mohg.com.