What I Learned From My 11-Step French Head Massage

A little more complicated than rinse, lather, repeat.
A little more complicated than rinse, lather, repeat. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In an ideal world, I’d be the Anthony Bourdain of beauty travel. I have a No Reservations approach to beauty: I want to know what the locals are patting, dabbing, and smearing on their faces. This is why I love a good international drugstore product, and why, in Paris for Fashion Week, I signed myself up for a head massage, a special service offered at fancy salons across Paris. French socialites don’t just get their bodies massaged; they take care of their heads too.

I learned about the experience from Natalia Vodianova, who has mentioned Leonor Greyl’s head massage for several years in beauty interviews. As a successful model with a Calvin Klein contract, she’s not exactly lacking fancy treatments, but it’s her indulgence of choice. She’s not alone — when I visited the Leonor Greyl Institut on a free Wednesday afternoon, the no-frills salon was full of short-haired dowager types who were sitting under heat lamps with their Birkin bags next to them.

Given the French approach to leisure, getting a head massage is not an in-and-out situation — it’s a case of getting your head examined inch by inch. By my count, it was an eleven-step process (take that, Korean skin-care routines). It began with a scalp analysis. My aesthetician, Marie, waved some kind of intense micro-camera over my hair and scalp to create a black-and-white picture of my follicles magnified 300 times. Horrifyingly, my scalp looked like it was covered in dust mites. And for once, I had washed it the night before, using what was my favorite shampoo and conditioner for color-treated hair. “Ewwwww,” I said, a reaction that needed no translation.

“Silicone,” said Marie. “Tons of it.” Even with Marie’s charming French accent, the word struck terror into my heart. Like parabens, silicone is a much-maligned beauty ingredient, known as an artificial shine coating for the hair that continues to build up over time and make your hair less healthy.

“It’s okay,” said Marie, leading me over to a heated lounge chair, where she began steps two through ten, which can be summed up as oil on oil on oil. First she brushed Huile de Palme (palm oil) all the way through my hair to nourish it. Then came a dropper bottle with drops of Régénérescence Naturelle, a scalp-treatment oil that Marie massaged into my forehead using the fleshy part of her thumbs, running the pads of her fingers and palm through my scalp from the front of my head to the back of my neck. Had I not been worried about weirding out Marie at this point, I would probably have moaned, but instead I said a restrained “C’est bon” as she clucked excitedly.

Next came Creme aux Fleurs, a creamy mask that was painted onto my hair using a hairbrush as yet another scalp-revitalizing treatment. Another fragrant oil that smelled different than the first two was applied on top of that, followed by another intense all-over head massage. I think the massage lasted ten minutes but it felt like half an hour. Marie’s careful movements along the meridians of my scalp made my head feel like it was being cradled in a warm amniotic sac.

At this point, somewhere around the application of product No. 5, I began to lose track of all the steps and fall asleep, lulled by Marie’s gentle massage. (There goes my short-lived Anthony Bourdain–inspired beauty career.) But I recall Marie wrapping a cotton headband  around my head and sticking me under a heat lamp for several minutes. I woke up later to the sound of running water.

“Time to wash!” cheered Marie, who then lovingly and gently washed my head as though it was a delicate cashmere sweater. The rinsing part in particular took four times longer than what I usually do (ten minutes), using a non-EPA-approved amount of water. “You especially need to rinse your hair this long because you have an oily scalp,” she said. “See! You are done, only when you are like this!” and she squeaked my hair like a DJ with a turntable.

She worked a growth oil through my scalp and then cupped it all over with a small suction machine “to oxygenate and de-stress the tissues,” she explained. The final step before the blowout utilized a device that looked like a wood-buffing tool. It vibrated and buzzed as she moved it along my hair.

Was it wildly decadent? Yes. Am I going to adopt an eleven-step hair-care routine into my own life? No way. My skin-care routine interferes with my timeliness and social life enough as it is. But to the chagrin of my super, I have changed the way I wash my hair. Although I haven’t started double-washing it (one part of me is enough), I do try to approach shampooing like a luxurious experience, rather than something to get through. I wash till I get that desired squeak, and I’ve noticed that my hair feels cleaner and looks bouncier between washings. And I’ve given up that apparently silicone-coated shampoo and conditioner. American spas, please get on this already.

Leonor Greyl Institut, 15 Rue Tronchet, €120.

What I Learned From Visiting a French Head Spa