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We Find Out: Which Salon Treatments Are Really Worth It

June 29, 2012

I have always been a DIY kind of gal when it comes to beauty.

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It's not that I'm cheap -- though my bank account definitely profits from my thrifty lifestyle. The real reason I enjoy going it alone is that it makes me feel like a real beauty pro. Call it the, "Ha, I did it all by myself!" effect.

I have fun mixing up a homemade facial, giving myself a mini scalp massage, or creating a flawless Shellac manicure. Plus, it's a great feeling when someone compliments your new hair color or fresh blowout and you can casually mention, "I did it at home"

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Unfortunately, not all at-home treatments yield salon quality results. We've all heard "DIY gone wrong" horror stories (bikini waxing -- shudder) so, it's important to choose your "I got it" projects carefully. To help you out, we road-tested the latest at-home kits to see which ones are worth for the at-home effort and you're better off heading to the salon for. See them now.


SCALP TREATMENTS

There's been a lot of focus on the scalp lately, from entire hair care lines dedicated to scalp health to new scalp-focused treatments popping up at salons across the country. "Scalp stimulation is incredibly important for the health of your hair," says Kattia Solano, owner of Butterfly Studio Salon in New York City. "Every salon treatment should incorporate scalp massage." But does that mean you should splurge on a scalp treatment when there are so many at-home versions to try? Probably not.

Even though Solano is a salon owner, she recommends using Shu Uemura Essential Drops Purifying Blend, $48, at home. "In the salon, we combine two treatments in one -- you get the drops on the scalp and a mask on the ends," she explains. "But there's no reason you can't do the same thing in your bathroom." The main difference is the scalp massage. While you can -- and should -- thoroughly massage the drops into your scalp, you do miss out on the relaxing experience of having someone else do it for you.

Verdict: Opt for the DIY version.

CHEMICAL PEEL

If your skin needs major resurfacing, then Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, suggests seeing a dermatologist. However, for instant brightening and softening, many of the at-home versions work just as well as a peel you'd get at a spa. My personal favorite is Bliss That's Incredi-Peel, $49, which contains a blend of glycolic and alpha-hydroxy acids in a pad. Unlike most peels, you don't have to wash off the formula after 10 minutes -- you can actually sleep with it on and the ingredients release over time.

Our verdict: See a doctor if you're looking for drastic results; an at-home version works well if you're just looking for a little extra glow.

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HAIR COLOR

Boxed hair color has come a long way in recent years -- so much so that you've probably considered breaking up with your colorist to save some cash. And depending on what color change you're after, DIY is not necessarily a bad idea. "If you're only changing your natural color one or two shades, or if you're covering a few grays, you can definitely do that at home," says celebrity colorist Marie Robinson. She recommends Clairol Nice N' Easy Perfect 10, $13.50, for do-it-yourself applications.

However, if you love your multi-tonal highlights or platinum blonde look, you definitely want to see a professional. And surprisingly, brunette colors are the hardest to get right. "They turn orange really easily," explains Solano. "And once you change your salon color, it's going to be hard to get it back."

Verdict: Go to the salon for anything significant. Choose at-home color for subtle changes.

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GEL MANICURE

If you're a Shellac addict, you've probably done this math: two $50 manicures each month equal $1,200 a year. That's a lot of money to spend on your nails. While the at-home kits aren't cheap either, you'll get many more applications for the cost. I tested the Sephora by OPI Gelshine At-Home Gel Colour System, $159 (comparable to three in-salon gel manicures), and loved the results. There are 16 great colors to choose from, and the application process isn't any harder than a regular mani. The catch, of course, is how well you do your own nails to begin with.

Verdict: As long as you have a steady hand, choose DIY.

KERATIN STRAIGHTENING

There are at least a half a dozen at-home keratin treatments that have launched in the last year, and many of them are available at the drugstore. With all the controversy about dangerous ingredients like formaldehyde in some of the salon versions, I decided to try a do-it-yourself kit instead. Even though I opted for the higher-end Keratin Perfect 30 Day Brazilian Hair Smoothing System, $90, I was underwhelmed by the results. My hair was noticeably smoother, but the effects only lasted for a few days -- not 30. Plus, some of the shorter strands around my face became brittle and started to break off at the ends.

"It's kind of scary -- anyone can buy a professional iron that goes up to 450 degrees," says Solano. "But not everyone's hair can take an iron that hot." Unfortunately, both at-home and in-salon keratin treatments generally require that you flat iron your hair at 450 degrees. "In this case, doing it at home is going to be more damaging to your hair," she explains.

Verdict: Go to the salon.

Related: How to Straighten Your Hair Like A Pro

WAXING

At-home waxing can be scary -- especially if you're considering a DIY bikini wax. However, with the right tools and some practice, you should be able to get great results at home. The Sally Hansen Simple Wax Warmer Kit, $19.99, is a miniature version of the gadgets they have in most waxing spas -- and it works just as well. "Always start with clean, dry skin -- you don't want the wax to stick to anything but the hair," says New York City esthetician Natalia Higginbotham. "In the beginning, you'll only want to wax very small sections until you get comfortable." She also stresses the importance of breathing. You should inhale deeply; then exhale as you remove the strip. Another good rule of thumb is to only wax areas you can see easily.

Verdict: Go to a professional for a Brazilian; try DIY for everything else.


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