(LifeWire) -- Diane Maler searched for the perfect way to care for her sun-damaged skin for 20 years. The Los Angeles resident had scores of facials and tried practically every product on the market, but nothing really worked.
That is, until her dermatologist, Dr. Harold Lancer, recommended a facial treatment that contains human placenta.
"I get more compliments now than at any time of my life," says Maler, a 47-year-old industrial designer, of her improved complexion. "(The facial) smells good, it feels good. I don't have any problems with it. I think of it as a very nourishing treatment."
The placenta is obtained from Russian maternity wards and is treated to prevent biological contamination and disease transmission.
Applying afterbirth to your face may sound extreme, but it's not the only offbeat treatment being touted by some spas and dermatologists. There's gemstone therapy, skin treatments that contain nightingale droppings or 24 karat gold leaf and even facials for your fanny. When it comes to the timeless quest to stave off aging, it seems, some people will try just about anything. What's not clear is how effective these treatments are and whether their benefits are more psychological than medical.
Placentas and nightingale poop
Louise Deschamps, a licensed medical aesthetician (skin-care specialist) who works with Lancer in his Beverly Hills, California, practice, says she performs 20 to 25 placenta facials a week -- some combined with LED (light emitting diode) therapy as an added anti-aging treatment -- and counts among her clients such red-carpet regulars as Denise Richards and Megan Fox. It's not cheap: Facials run $350 to $500, depending on products used.
"They're not doing it because it's hip. They're doing it because they're concerned about their skin," says Deschamps, who adds that the placenta facials are good for people with acne-prone skin that has been dried out from over-exfoliation.
But Dr. Robin Ashinoff, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University's Langone Medical Center, says she doesn't know of any studies on the dermatological benefits of placenta. Of anecdotal evidence that placenta facials work, she says, "it's probably the LED that's doing it." LED treatments stimulate the skin to produce collagen, Ashinoff says, giving it a more youthful appearance.
At the Diamond Spa in Wailea, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, they offer a different kind of facial. Lead aesthetician Lula Pacheco swears by the combination of cleansers -- including a quarter teaspoon of dehydrated nightingale droppings -- that begin each facial she administers for $144 to $225 a pop.
Historically, nightingale bird droppings were used to remove stains from delicate silk garments in Japan, as well as by geishas to whiten and even skin marred by frequent and heavy use of makeup, Pacheco says.
"At first they're hesitant, but the product is very micronized," says Pacheco of her clients. "When it's done they just love how their skin feels and looks."
But does it actually work? That's up for debate. Bird experts at both the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology were at a loss to explain the benefits of nightingale droppings as a skin treatment. Brian Keller, a dermatopharmacologist and executive vice president of San Francisco-based Bio Zone Laboratories, which manufactures custom private-label dermatological products, offered one possible reason.
"The reason this product may work is the high concentration of urea in the fecal-urine combination in bird feces. Urine has a lot of urea in it and it has long been used as a skin-softening agent," he says. "It's obviously shrouded in a lot of mystery."
Breasts and bottoms
Joanna Tan's friends thought she was crazy when she told them about her "fanny facial" treatment at zensAsian spa in the Sunset district of San Francisco.
Spa owner and aesthetician Corrine Zhong says the treatment is similar to a regular facial. It involves cleansing, steam treatment to open pores and soften skin, followed by a massage with oil made of grapeseed extract with antioxidants and finally, a seaweed mask to hydrate and detox, or a firming mask to firm and brighten. The cost? Fifty bucks for a half hour.
After a few fanny facials, Tan said her skin texture has improved, and dark spots have lightened. "It's hard for me to see, but my boyfriend tells me," she says.
Zhong offers other unique treatments, including a breast massage.
Breast massages are non-sexual and use a medium-firm pressure and sweeping motions to get the blood circulating in the breast's tissues, similar to a Swedish massage.
"The nipple is never touched," says Zhong, who gets the massage herself about once a month. Zhong says following the massage her breasts appear higher, which may be a temporary result from increased blood flow.
Dr. Ashinoff says that if breast massages were the key to tightening breasts and keeping them firm and perky, many plastic surgeons probably would go out of business. But she suspects that much of the benefit of any beauty treatment is probably in the mind of the recipient.
"It may do wonders for your mental state, even if it doesn't do anything for your physical state," Ashinoff says.
Clothing designer Suzy Houghton of Brentwood, California, for one, believes such treatments work. Another client of Beverly Hills dermatologist Harold Lancer, Houghton swears by gemstone and color therapy to tone her face.
The treatment is a modern twist on the ancient practice of crystal healing, says aesthetician Dee Bartolo. In her suite, Bartolo administers the AuraLift treatment using a machine with two probes. Each probe bears a single tourmaline -- one pink and one green -- and a cotton-tipped probe that conducts the microcurrents. The probes are pressed on acupuncture points and colored light passes through gemstone, lifting and toning skin muscles, Bartolo says.
"I saw a significant difference in my eyelids. I look less tired and they're fuller," Houghton says.
NYU's Ashinoff is more skeptical. "While there may be some truth to [the benefits of these treatments], as a physician I can only tell patients what I know to be true scientifically," she says.
But Houghton, for one, is satisfied. After her first treatment, the 40-something mother of three decided to go out on the town and leave her makeup at home. "I felt radiant," she says.
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Liane Yvkoff is a freelance writer in San Francisco.