No matter how casually I try to say this, it's not something -- even with today's liberated attitudes -- that a male admits easily: The other day, I dropped into a beauty salon for a facial.

Ah-hah! I can see those smirks forming already. That's what I was afraid of when I phoned for an appointment. Until recently, skin care -- that fragrant regimen of cleansing creams and cotton balls -- has been almost solely a female concern.

That may be changing. Salon operators say that increasingly males -- from hard-hat construction workers to trendy young professionals -- are showing up in their shops to wage war against wrinkles.

Males, they say, now make up from 25 to 50 percent of their clientele for services that go beyond facials even, to hair and eye-lash coloring, pedicures, manicures and wax treatments to remove hair from the ears and nose.

It is say cosmetologists, yet another step in the revolution of male groming habits. Once males forsook the barbershop for the hair-styling salon, it wasn't far to the beauty parlor. At the same time, men's skin-care products -- facial scrubs, moisturizers, cleansing lotions -- have become a multimillion-dollar business.

When Robin Weir operated a small salon in Foggy Bottom, his customers were almost exclusively women. But he saw a trend coming, and when he opened on April 1 his "complete cosmetology center" near Dupont Circle, he set aside several rooms for men. They've been full.

Now, Weir estimates, about half his clientele is male, most of them career-oriented young professionals.

"My average facial client," he says, "is 30." Usually, it's someone in a job "where he meets people. He wants to look his best. He's going after a position. He wants to do everything he can.

"If two people with the same qualifications" interview for a job, believes Weir, "the person who is well-groomed is the person who is selected."

The trend appears to be nationwide. At the recent Las Vegas convention of the National Hairdressers and Cosmetologists Association, where Weir was installed as vice president, male cosmetic techniques took up a substantial part of the program.

While men may feel an initial twinge of embarrassment about asking for a facial, says Doris Williams of Statesville, N.C., the association's new "style director," once they've had one, "they accept it and enjoy it. It's very relaxing."

The salon receptionist, she says, should make the new male customer "feel really comfortable" in that unfamiliar environment. "once he's there, he likes it." Her clientele ranges from high-school youths to males in their 50s wanting to hide the gray in their hair "to keep a younger image in the job market."

I stepped inside Charles the First's salon on Connecticut Avenue NW, expecting, I think, to find myself confronted with rows of disapproving female eyes peering from beneath hair dryers. Instead, I spotted several other male customers having their hair cut. Not so bad, so far.

The decor, more pop art than feminine, further eased the apprehension.

The receptionist first sent me to a small dressing room, where I removed my jacket, tie and shirt and put on a baggy black smock. She then introduced me to Carla (she uses only her first name), the salon's facialist and a walking advertisement for her work. At 35, she has the clear skin of a woman maybe 10 years younger.

Carla says that with proper care "skin ages less rapidly. Definitely." She also advises a healthy lifestyle: Keep out of the sun, get your rest, eat a balanced diet and watch out for alcohol.

After a facial, she says, you can expect to look as fresh as if you had just had "10 hours of sleep."

In the salon's private facial room, Carla wrapped my head in towels, leaving only my face visible. She then began a treatment that may vary slightly, depending on whether your skin is oily, dry or normal, or you have special problems such as acne.

To my "normal" skin (a touch of oil at nose and forehead), she first applied a cleansing lotion, using an upward motion with her hands to spread it "under the facial hair, into the pores and off."

For the next 20 minutes of the hour-long procedure, she applied hot towels to my face "to open the pores," increasing the temperature with each towel. It's this step that initiates the facial's most unarguable benefit -- it relaxes you.

Some salons use steam machines at this step and other mechanical devices, but Carla prefers the manual techniques she learned in her native Milan where, she says, her mother ran two hairdressing salons.

She has studied beauty care most of her life. She learned theatrical makeup helping her sister, a La Scala dancer. And for one year, a wealthy Persian Gulf family invited her to Bahrain as their private facialist.

Once my face was well-steamed, she applied "a scrub," a grainy, slightly abrasive lotion of honey and almond paste that, she says, softens the skin and "cleanses away dead tissue." Then, while removing the lotion with a towel, she looked for small bumps that indicated clogged pores.

"Gently press, do not squeeze" to clean the pores, she advises. That could lead to a blemish. Carla makes a point of giving her clientele home-care tips between salon visits every four to six weeks.

"Men," she says, "are the best customers. If you tell them to do something, they'll do it."

Once a week, she suggests, do for yourself the steps described so far: Begin with a cleansing lotion, open the pores with hot towels and then apply a scrub lotion. Finish by wiping on an astringent, paying particular attention to oily areas.

For greater relaxation, do it sitting in a hot bath.

After applying an astringent to the oily parts of my face, she began a gentle 10-minute face and eye message that I found immensely relaxing. Strangely, she says men generally want to skip this step.

She has built her facial clientele to about 45 percent male, in part by "pushing their girl friends to bring them in." She sells their wives and sweethearts "gift certificates for Christmas and birthdays.They don't have any excuse for not coming."

The next step in the facial has been a cartoonist's delight for years -- the face mask. If you're going to feel foolish during the process, this is the time. I had expected a mudpack, but Carla applied a smooth, peppermint-smelling lotion that, she says, firms up the facial muscles and closes the pores as it drys and hardens.

"Smile," ordered a photographer who showed up at that moment. "Don't, insisted Carla. "You'll crack the mask."

While the mask hardened, she applied camomile compresses to my eyes. "It soothes the eyes and relaxes them," she said, and I believed her.

The mask is allowed to set for several minutes. To remove it, she used towels dipped in ice water. "In the summer, it's wonderful."

Next she again patted on an astringent. As the final step, she spread an avocado oil on my lips and a liquid vitamin E oil on my eyebrows to combat a touch of dryness.

"Voila!" she said, handing me a mirror.

After an hour of being patted and rubbed, my face glowed and tingled. To me, as Carla had said, it look well-rested.

For the hour treatment, Charles the First charges $25, which appears to be fairly standard in Washington. Salons advertising services for men are listed in the Yellow Pages under Beauty Salons and Skin Care.

What, if any, are the lasting benefits of a facial, I can't say.

Dr. Harvey Blank of the University of Miami, president of the National Association of Professors of Dermatology, believes the process can do little to slow the skin's aging process. It's effect is surface, he says, "and that effect is gone the next day."

Still, he says, a facial "is a very pleasant thing." And, after all, if it makes you feel better, "Isn't that why the Egyptians used cosmetics 5,000 years ago?"