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The 'Hannibal Lecter facial' has people sending electricity into their faces. Is it safe?

When one sits down for a typical spa appointment, Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic serial killer from "The Silence of the Lambs," is probably the last thing that comes to mind.

But a galvanic facial is no typical spa appointment. Nicknamed the "Hannibal Lecter facial," the pricey treatment involves running a minor electric current through the skin. At one studio in Southern California, the current is administered while the client wears a brown mask, similar to the muzzle Anthony Hopkins wore while playing the fictional killer in the film.

The facial is a favorite among some skincare enthusiasts, but dermatologists say they need to see more research before they can give their stamp of approval to sending electricity into the face in the name of wellness.

Some galvanic facials involve wearing a brown mask, similar to the muzzle Anthony Hopkins wore while playing Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs."
Some galvanic facials involve wearing a brown mask, similar to the muzzle Anthony Hopkins wore while playing Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs."

"I would tell (patients) to wait a few more years until there's some better research out there," says Dr. Danilo Del Campo, a Chicago-based dermatologist. "But it seems to be a very promising field, and I'm hopeful that there might be something that might come out of it."

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We Got A Hannibal Lecter Facial

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How does a Hannibal Lecter facial work?

Despite a lack of research on galvanic currents for facials, some swear by the treatment. Emily Bernstein, a senior editor at Overheard LA, recently documented her experience trying one for the first time at the Marianne Kehoe Skin Studio in Southern California. She exclaimed her skin "has never looked better" shortly after the treatment.

Various forms of galvanic facials are offered at different skin studios across the country. Prices vary by location, but they can cost up to $180 a session. Touted benefits include increased firmness and tightness, improved circulation, reduced pore size and boosted hydration.

Kehoe, a holistic skincare professional, has been giving galvanic facials to clients, and receiving them herself, for decades. She says the treatment improved her skin's acne and pore size.

"I absolutely adore the treatment, because I feel like it's great for all skin types," she says, adding that her version of the facial is based on using minor galvanic current alongside vitamins and minerals. "The galvanic current was definitely my saving grace."

She adds it's important to seek out galvanic facials from reputable, experienced professionals, and that she's never had a client experience a safety issue during the treatment.

Dr. Anthony Rossi, a New York-based dermatologist, says perceived benefits are likely temporary and the result of heat on the skin from the electric current. Minor heat, such as from steam or a hot pack, he says, has been known to improve circulation and help fight acne.

"This idea that you're heating up the skin a little bit probably is what's helping improve the circulation and improve the blood flow to that area, and that's what's giving the skin a glow and helping with the acne, which is what I speculate," he says. "There's not a ton of research on why galvanic facials are helpful."

Dr. Del Campo adds another possible benefit is the use of the electric current to push other ingredients from the facial deeper into the skin.

"The thought is that that positive energy from the electrons pushing into the skin helps to push whatever's on the surface of your skin deeper," he says, adding that this could result in getting hyaluronic acid deeper into the skin to boost hydration or peptides deeper to boost collagen.

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Still, this aspect needs to be further investigated.

"The question is how well can it push large molecules through the epidermis?" he says. "How far can it go? What pH is best for it? How well does it stay active? These are all questions that are just quite frankly unknown, but it seems like it's a promising aspect that has not had much high quality research put into it."

Anthony Hopkins also played Hannibal Lecter in the 2002 film "Red Dragon," a prequel to 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs."
Anthony Hopkins also played Hannibal Lecter in the 2002 film "Red Dragon," a prequel to 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs."

Is the Hannibal Lecter facial safe?

Galvanic facials are not for everyone. Dr. Del Campo warns anyone who has sensitive skin, is pregnant or has any metal, such as a pacemaker, in their body to steer clear.

For safer, more tried-and-true means of improving the skin, he recommends retinoids, exfoliants, SPF and, of course, consulting a board-certified dermatologist.

If you can't resist a Hannibal Lecter facial, however, Dr. Rossi says it's essential to seek one from a reputable source with reliable equipment. Though he says these facials are likely safe for most people, if something goes wrong, the consequences can be severe.

"If it's a faulty machine or if there's too much energy, you run the risk of getting a burn, which can cause scarring," he says.

Up next: What are the benefits of retinol and is it safe to use?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hannibal Lecter facial: Can it really improve the skin and is it safe?