How Rescue Spa’s Danuta Mieloch Became the Queen of Skincare
Inside the cult of good face.
It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m walking out of the best bathroom in the city — a bathroom where the air smells faintly of sandalwood and the gleaming white sink is bedecked with French hand soap and orchids. The peace inside this bathroom — which is technically a locker room, with multiple powder rooms, showers and a sauna — stands in such stark contrast to the frenetic Center City streets outside (and, for that matter, to my own bathroom, where I haven’t enjoyed such glorious solitude since I birthed my first child in 2013) that I found myself lingering just to soak in some quiet, to breathe the luxurious air, to apply some expensive hand cream.
Anyway, I’m finally walking out of this bathroom when a woman with dark hair steps in front of me and clasps my hand expectantly. “You must be Mishka?” she says. I tell her I’m not, but I don’t let go of her hand because her skin is so unbelievably soft. Like that of an infant. Wearing velvet. Fleetingly, I think about asking her what, exactly, she does for that skin, but instead I simply tell her that the reason I’m here at Rescue Spa right now is to see her boss, Danuta Mieloch. “Ah,” she says, gently disentangling her hand from mine. “Well, enjoy!”
I’m a little jealous of Mishka — I’m sure whatever treatment she has coming will be heaven — but the truth is, it’s a pretty big deal that I’ve snagged time today with Danuta, who is not just the owner of our city’s best-known day spa but also one of the most in-demand aestheticians on the East Coast. Clients use words like “magical” and “life-changing” when they talk about her facials, which might seem hyperbolic, but I myself have written more than once about the astounding way three stubborn lines on my forehead disappear after a session with her. No Botox needed! Danuta (“Dana” — pronounced “Donna” — to friends) has, in fact, long been a media darling, a skin-care Confucius who freely dispenses nuggets of wisdom to Vogue and W and the New York Times.
Not surprisingly, she and her stable of aestheticians at Rescue are also magnets for bold-faced names (Claude and Ryanne Giroux are Rescue clients; so are Jeff Lurie, Sharon Pinkenson, and more than one news anchor) as well as trusted counselors to acned young people, boomers (and X’ers, and millennials) trying to stave off injectables, brides prepping for their weddings, and anyone else able to indulge in a facial that starts at $120. (It’s more — quite a bit more — if Danuta is doing the work.) What you get at Rescue in return isn’t just a cleaner face, but a promise: Beautiful skin, her tagline goes, is a matter of choice, not chance. You can do it! She’ll help.
But all the love and considerable renown she’s cultivated in Philly since opening Rescue in 2004 pales in comparison to the attention she’s gotten since the 2017 debut of her second location, a high-ceilinged two-story stunner in New York’s Flatiron District. Now, Danuta Mieloch is a household name, if you live in the kind of household where you know what serums do1 and are versed in the benefits of double-cleansing2. New York magazine loves her — the best facial in New York, the editors declared in 2018. So do the beauty gurus at Into the Gloss. (“My skin hasn’t looked or felt this good in ages,” an editor raved to a bajillion or so of the site’s millennial readers.) Naomi Campbell, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Alexander Wang are clients, and the luminaries and influencers who tag #RescueSpa or rave over Rescue’s favorite skin-care products are legion. Danuta Mieloch! Rescue! Her name, her brand, her devotees, her wisdom nuggets — they’re all suddenly everywhere.
And now she’s here, gliding out of the elevator, spotting me in her spa’s petite cafe, offering me a warm hello and a European-style double cheek-kiss. This isn’t an affectation; Mieloch is European, from the Polish city of Bialystok, a couple hours’ drive from Warsaw. Of course, that’s part of her appeal: She honed her craft in places where women are thought to have beauty secrets to which the rest of us aren’t privy. That she has, at 52, the bearing and bone structure of an Eastern European model — all eyes and cheekbones and lips, golden hair with highlights the color of new pennies and, obviously, unlined, gorgeous skin — doesn’t hurt.
In the end, though, these things — the looks, the worldliness, the accent — are but small pieces of the puzzle when it comes to explaining Danuta’s rise as a bona fide beauty icon. (A bona fide beauty icon from, yes, Philly.) Same goes for the lovely oases she’s created — these peaceful, sumptuous worlds where water is laced with citrus, where skin is soft and radiant, where the energy is feminine and women reign supreme. These things make her memorable, certainly. But when it comes to considering the ascension of Danuta Mieloch, facialist, to Danuta Mieloch, Beyoncé of skin care, you have to understand that the story is about more than just skin. It’s about self-determination and our modern conception of beauty and the (big!) business of inspiring women. And also — let’s be honest — the power of a very good exfoliator.
It’s hard to overstate what a big deal skin care is right now. Remember that line from When Harry Met Sally — “Restaurants are to people in the ’80s what theater was to people in the ’60s”? That’s how it is with skin care — and skin care’s parents, self-care and wellness — in 2019. It’s sheet-mask3 selfies and buzzy Korean beauty products and 24 of your friends selling Beautycounter and the recurring “Why Is Your Skin So Good” column on The Cut. It’s also the crop of recent think pieces about skin care as feminism, as a capitalistic ruse, as a coping mechanism in tough times, and it’s the newish spas in Philly with futuristic facial treatments involving stuff like stem cells and blood plasma infusions. It’s everything, and it’s all around us.
Given all that, it might be tempting to suggest that this moment gave rise to Danuta — a simple story of right place, right time. But that would be wrong. If anything, it’s Danuta who helped spread the skin-care gospel before it went mainstream. Take, for instance, Lotion P50, a product currently on every beauty editor’s short list. Danuta, who’s known about it for decades, spent years so evangelical about the stuff that it became her calling card: Literally every person I talk to for this story uses it (full disclosure: me too!), and every Rescue aesthetician routinely recommends it. Produced by the high-end French company Biologique Recherche, P50 is an exfoliating toner whose purpose is to help skin look clearer, brighter, smoother. When applied, it burns a little,4 and stinks — Glossier founder and millennial beauty tycoon Emily Weiss once wrote that her boyfriend called the smell “trash face” — but as word has gotten out, in large part thanks to Danuta, people have gone bananas for the stuff. On the internet, where P50 has been dubbed “Jesus in a bottle,” Rescue is so often hyperlinked that you’d think it was the only spa where you can get it. It’s not — a smattering of others sell it — but Danuta has exclusive rights in Philly and was also savvy enough to secure very rare rights to sell the lotion online, where it’s Rescue’s best seller. (They won’t disclose exactly how much they sell, at $67 for 5.1 ounces, but suffice it to say: a lot.)
Danuta’s roots in the skin-care world, however, were planted long before this moment, back in the days when we were all still slathering our faces with Noxzema,5 back when she was a tiny six-year-old in Poland, borrowing her mom’s lotions and creams to make her own little potions. Why play house, she wondered, when you could play apothecary?
She had two big sisters, nine and 10 years her senior, and a lovely mother. “I was surrounded by women who were taking care of themselves,” she says. “I sort of inherited a passion for taking care of skin — some of which I think is because the climate is more severe there.”
When one of her big sisters became “super frustrated” by her acne, little Dana helped her apply masks made of brewer’s yeast and egg whites. “It was sort of my passion,” she says. “I had dreams as a young girl that I would develop a beauty elixir, and nobody would ever age.” I laugh. She laughs. And then she says: “Seriously.”
You know how some people have a natural eye for interior design, or a way of mixing ingredients that makes their food taste better than yours? That type of intuition is what Danuta cultivated with faces. “I’ve had a million facials,” says Therese Obringer, a longtime client turned friend. “I’ve always had problem skin, and she changed that. She really, really changed my skin.” (This sentiment is repeated many, many times over the course of my reporting, if not about Danuta herself then about one of the Rescue aestheticians she’s trained.)
“I have an innate talent,” Danuta says matter-of-factly, which is how she says a lot of things: straight, without sugarcoating. She’s not bragging; it’s just a gift she’s been blessed with that helps her understand what touch and which tools will fix your skin. But more importantly, she’s spent a lifetime practicing that intuition, perfecting it. At this point, she’s done more than 10,000 facials — that’s 10,000-plus hours of working with people’s faces. (Ten thousand is the number of hours Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell says it takes to achieve true mastery in a field.)
“I have an innate talent,” Danuta says matter-of-factly. She’s not bragging; it’s just a gift she’s been blessed with that helps her understand what touch and which tools will fix your skin.
After high school, Danuta attended aesthetician school in Poland, which sounds less like beauty school and more like nursing school: For two years, you train alongside dermatologists; then you break off the third year to focus on the beauty part, which is steeped in a tradition of taking skin care seriously. She graduated, then was off to New York City to join her sister. That was 1991; Danuta was 25, spoke no English, had only ever seen New York in movies. She arrived with $20 in her pocket and a suitcase full of “creams and potions.”
“I was scared,” she says, although getting Danuta to dish on difficulties of any sort is near-impossible. She tells me that in the face of challenges, she finds her strength by focusing on the “big picture.” This, too, she says in her simple, matter-of-fact way that makes it hard to know if I’m hearing the steely Eastern European immigrant grit in her or the Zen yogi who studies kabbalah. This is the yin-yang élan of Danuta Mieloch: She’s a controlled CEO disinclined to oversharing and also a warm conversationalist who remembers the most minute details of your life, someone whose talent is zeroing in on your physical flaws but whose calling is making you feel beautiful; a believer in the magical effects of radio frequencies and also just dirt;6 a poster child for Continental glamour who identifies as a Philadelphian. This is also the lure of Rescue: It conveys enveloping warmth and prettiness and also near-scientific seriousness when it comes to beauty.
As Danuta settled into her new home, her sister took her to a Polish-owned diner in the East Village and said, “Until you learn English, you can either work here or work cleaning houses.” Danuta, who took the job waiting tables, laughs: “I learned English in six months.” There wasn’t a moment, she says — not when she was elbow-deep in coffee cups, not when she was studying verb conjugation on the subway, not even when she had to go back to beauty school to get the proper state licenses — that she faltered. The U.S. was her home; she was a skin-care expert. By the mid-1990s, she was working as a New York aesthetician.
Within a few years, two important things happened. First, she took a trip to Paris, where she trained with the founders of the super-luxe Biologique Recherche skin-care line — the people who make P50. And then, in 2000, she took a job at the renowned Paul Labrecque spa in New York. She spent several happy years working there, made a nice living, developed a following. But by that time, Danuta was in a different space — newly divorced from a husband of 13 years, professionally experienced, and craving the control of owning her own place. She’d grown tired of feeling like she knew the right way to help people but didn’t always have the tools she needed. “But,” she says, “you know how people say out of your biggest frustrations, good things come?”
She looked into opening a spot in New York, but the real estate was too expensive. Instead, she started exploring other cosmopolitan (but more affordable) options, which brought her to Philly. And voilà: She found 4,000 square feet of sunlit space on 17th Street, blocks off Rittenhouse Square. From there, Danuta invested in the good stuff: products and tools that nobody here had really seen before, including a machine called — no kidding — the remodeling face machine, which uses tiny electrical currents to tone facial muscles.7 She spent her savings — the bank was uninspired by her plans — and hired five people and debuted Rescue Rittenhouse in 2004. Within a month, Karen Heller at the Inquirer came for a facial and wrote an enthusiastic endorsement. And suddenly, Rescue was a thing. There were waitlists. People were taking Amtrak from New York to see Danuta. They liked her style: She appraised without judgment; she didn’t up-sell with scare tactics; she was the real deal — the sort of European beauty guru you’d read about in Vogue. And their skin!
Danuta started hiring and training more employees, and the business flourished. She began selling her favorite products online, which was the idea of Kim Zimmerman, Rescue’s longtime marketing and e-commerce director, who was once a buyer at Urban Outfitters. It took some advocating, Zimmerman says: Danuta isn’t one to leave much to chance. In the end, though, she agreed to give it a shot. “Dana does a good job of taking educated risks and letting people try something and take ownership,” Zimmerman says. Today, the online retail shop makes up about 40 percent of the business.
Zimmerman speaks admiringly of her boss of 10 years, using words like “mentor” and “generous” and “inspiration.” She’s not alone: Most employees I talk to express similar sentiments, save one former staffer who painted Danuta as less steel magnolia, more Devil Wears Prada. Still, she sighed, “The facials really do live up to the hype.”
In 2013, Rescue grew still more, moving to its current 7,000-square-foot location at 16th and Walnut. Three years after that, around her 50th birthday, Danuta knew it was time to think about what came next. Maybe now she should try New York, she thought. Don’t misunderstand: She loves Philly. Philly has been good to her, and she loves its energy; she considers it home. But New York had obvious appeal.
“The idea of looking for space, though, it was always a little bit intimidating,” she says. Those New York brokers, the sky-high rents. But she was sitting at lunch one day, in town to see Deepak Chopra, “and I look out the window and see a big sign that says ‘Store For Rent By Owner.’” It felt like kismet; the space was perfect. The price … was daunting. But back in Philly, Danuta couldn’t stop thinking about it, and the timing. The retail business was going gangbusters; skin care was on the rise; she was a little restless. “And finally, I was like, okay, where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
And there was, because now this is where she finds herself, splitting her time between Philly and New York, where she employees 48 people. It’s 75 in Philly, for a total of 123 employees, mostly women. Danuta takes pride in the fact that at her spa, employees — especially working moms8 — can make a living and have some flexibility. In fact, most of her time these days is spent teaching those employees. Passing on her knowledge is where her passion lies, she says — and beyond that, the growth of the business relies on it. Danuta considers her main roles Mentor and Keeper of the Vision.
To that end — the growth — she recently hired Jennifer Labs, another longtime client/friend, who is coming off a 12-year stint with Comcast, where she was a vice president and worked in strategy and operations. Now, Labs is working with Danuta to navigate what comes next for Rescue. And no, it’s not every day spa that can tap a corporate strategist to help guide the brand’s momentum and think five or 10 years down the road, but Labs says she genuinely believes this spa is different. As is Danuta. “She has an internal compass that points her in the right direction,” Labs says. “It’s usually not wrong.”
At last! I’m naked, wrapped in a soft white towel and lying face-up under a warm, heavy sheet that feels like a hug, inside the NYC Rescue, which is huge (9,000 square feet) and gorgeous. High ceilings. White brick. Soothing everything.
Despite all the serenity, I’m fretting — first, because I’ve never before conducted an interview lying down, or without clothes, and second, because I’ve been skipping some nightly face-washes9 and last night I drank too much wine, and now that I’m staring down 40, the consequences of this show up on my face. Danuta, however, isn’t a scold: “Your skin looks very good,” she says. I feel proud. “Maybe just a little dehydrated around the eyes. But we will take care of this.” And she starts to work, a relaxing progression of warm towels, creams, P50, massaging,10 the face remodeling machine, an LED light, little microdermabrasion wands brushing over me, then more warm towels, more lotions. There might be more, and I might have the order wrong. It’s hard to keep track.
The “we” feels generous — I’m just lying there — but actually, this is an important part of Rescue’s whole thing, the idea of personal agency: They give you a regimen, but you’re the one doing it.11 There’s a great deal of optimism in the idea that you’re in control of at least a piece of your own destiny, and it’s a soothing prospect particularly for people who’ve struggled with bad skin, or for anyone living in the uncontrollable mayhem that is 2019. There’s also an unusual amount of cheerleading at Rescue. “It’s lovely that Danuta’s aestheticians will say, ‘Your skin looks great,’” says longtime client Eileen Tognini. “It’s not this psychology of: You’re clogged and dirty; you have to keep coming back. It’s like positive encouragement.
Tognini, an interior designer and art curator (with a strong background in marketing), believes that Danuta isn’t only an expert in “user experience” but a masterful businesswoman in general. She worked intimately with Danuta to design the current location of Philly’s Rescue and talks about the busy brain under that placid exterior: “Calm is what she has to sell,” Tognini says. “But at the same time, calm is not always what you need to build a business that is on a meteoric ascent.” Danuta balances it, she says. “And there’s brilliance in that.”
There’s brilliance in a lot here, business-wise. For example, unlike many beauty brands right now, Danuta’s doesn’t revolve around wooing one specific demographic — not just the skin-obsessed, or millennials, or even people who can afford to regularly drop $120 on a facial or eye cream. If you can’t do a facial, “Email us!” Zimmerman says. “Skype!” They’ll recommend drugstore picks12 for your skin and tell you which Rescue products are most worth the investment (probably P50).
If you’re somebody who finds the idea of investment skin care to be insane, I can assure you there’s no shortage of women right now who can explain to you the appeal of spending serious money and time on skin — especially millennials, who are noticeably keen on the trend13 and who, Danuta says, make up the bulk of her New York clientele. Not only is makeup trending toward a more natural look, offers one 27-year-old in the beauty industry, but “just look at our cultural icons on social media.” Paragons of perfection, all. (Also: talented at Photoshop!) “J. Lo is aging backwards,” she says. “Here I am, at 27, and when I smile and see crow’s-feet, I’m like uuuuughhhh.”
She goes on: “You know, beyond that, there’s the ritual aspect to taking care of my skin. It feels grounding. I grew up going to church on Sundays. I don’t do that anymore. For me, having rituals is part of overall wellness.”
This notion — skin care as a form of self-care (or as a means of taking control in an uncontrolled world, or as a new commitment to a “more natural beauty,” or as a relaxing hobby, or as any number of things other than simply washing your face) — is a popular one these days, as evidenced at very least by the great number of writers in places like the Times, the New Yorker and Huffington Post who have argued as much. (Danuta, it bears noting, has been linking skin care and self-love for as long as I’ve known her — roughly a decade — and was probably doing so back when she was six, playing apothecary.)
In short, 2019 is a good, golden time to be in the skin biz, when the church of self-care is on the rise and a tweet from the right person can launch an exfoliator frenzy. And it’s an especially good moment if you were on top to begin with — if you’re someone with 10,000 hours of facials under your belt who’s also always ahead of the curve and can relate spiritually to a Philly audience and a supermodel audience. What I’m saying here is that it’s not any one thing that explains the reign of Rescue. It’s all the things.
So what will Danuta do with this moment? What comes next? Well, she says, nothing is for sure yet. But she’ll continue to expand, and — this much she knows — it won’t be in the form of a Rescue L.A., or a chain of Rescues dotting American metropolises. She’s dreaming of a more organic type of growth. Literally organic, like maybe a beauty farm: She loves the idea of a nature retreat somewhere in Pennsylvania where the soil is filled with minerals and she’d grow herbs and vegetables that you could eat and also maybe put into skin-care products and you could relax and be taken care of. It’s something that feels novel in America.
She’s also considering the possibility of creating a product or two of her own, which she’s been reluctant to do so far — even reluctant to talk about doing — not least because “if I’m putting my hands into something or putting my name on something, I have to do it from scratch.” And that means learning how to formulate ingredients — basically, becoming an organic chemist. “But I’m going to sign up,” she says. “Because in the end, I think we all have the same urge. We all have something we think about doing, and maybe we postpone it because we’re doing other things that are important. But I think for your life’s satisfaction, you have to do what you dreamed about, you know, as a girl.”
“Ah! The glow is real,” a red-lipped Rescue sales associate says to me after I emerge pink-cheeked from my facial with Danuta.
“I know!” I say. I’ve already sent selfies to three friends and my husband. The forehead lines are gone.
I take my time leaving the spa, because I know that once I walk outside these doors, it will be cold, and the lighting will be less flattering, and the air will just smell like air. I think about a question I asked while Danuta was massaging a mask (or something) on my face: Aren’t you afraid that the people you’re training to be like you will go be like you somewhere else? That you’re training competitors?
Danuta’s answer was, naturally, a contemplative “What is competition?” Over the 14 years she’s been running her spa, of course people have left to pursue their own dreams. One notable example is Chrissy Dress, who opened the popular Cure de Repos boutique spa in Chestnut Hill in 2016. “Danuta takes you under her wing,” Dress says. “My time at Rescue really gave me a good foundation.”
In any case, Danuta says, she wants people to thrive. You see? Sharing is baked into her business plan; sharing has made her who she is right now. Sharing her talent and her favorite products made her a phenom; sharing her wisdom nuggets helped make her famous. Sharing her techniques with her aestheticians made more happy clients; sharing free advice with people who call in makes future clients; and sharing what she knows to help people care for themselves, to feel better — that will be her legacy, no matter where this moment takes us. Well, she hopes.
Anyway, now it really is time to go; I have a train back to Philly to catch, and Danuta has three businesses to run and, more immediately, a puppy at her apartment who needs a walk. I grasp her velvet hand in thanks and head out onto the busy city sidewalk while she strolls past her solicitous employees at the checkout counter, past her towering display of gleaming wares, and finally disappears from sight into the glowing, beautiful world she’s created.
1. Danuta says a regenerative hydrating serum will help your skin look vibrant in the daytime.
2. Danuta says washing just once doesn’t cut it: “Wash twice with a gentle cleanser, then tone, and your skin is happy and clean.”
3. Danuta says most sheet masks are just temporary hydration “but also a nice way to spruce up before a party.”
4. Danuta says that’s the lactic and salicylic acids exfoliating your dead skin cells. (Note: There are different strengths of the stuff, some less burn-y than others. The original version, the burniest, contains phenol, a controversial ingredient that has been banned in European cosmetics.)
5. Danuta likes gentle, non-stripping cleansers.
6. Danuta is a believer in the health and beauty benefits of the minerals that come from fruits and vegetables grown in good, hearty soil.
7. Danuta says electric microcurrents — the same kind used to help physical — therapy patients heal faster —soften wrinkles, improve facial contours, and encourage muscles “to function their best.”
8. Danuta says she likes how the moms who work for her inspire other moms to find little windows to care for themselves, like five-year Rescue aesthetician (and mom of two) Suzy Zelley, who puts “both babies in the bathtub and soaks their heinies while I put my mask on.”
9. Danuta’s mom used to say that skipping a nightly face-wash ages you seven days.
10. Danuta calls this “skin therapy” and strongly believes that people need more human contact than ever in our very disconnected world.
11. Danuta says we should approach a skin-care regimen not as a chore, but as something wonderful to do for ourselves. Last year, she made YouTube videos of her (extensive!) morning and nightly skin-care rituals; more than 20,000 people have watched them.
12. Danuta knows all the best French drugstore brands, some of which cost as little as $15, and she has CVS standbys, too.
13. Danuta says when she first started, she had to talk women out of washing with soap. Now, it’s the opposite; well-versed consumers use too many things in too many combinations.
Published as “Gives Good Face” in the February 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.