Which At-Home Skin-Care Devices Are OK To Use?

Once upon a time, Allure ran advice columns by our favorite beauty pros. In celebration of our 30th anniversary, we're bringing back the tradition — but this time the expert is: us (we've learned a lot over the years). Send your burning (or itching, or otherwise inflamed) questions to [email protected], and we might answer them in an upcoming story. 

Lately I’ve been tempted to splurge on a skin tool I can use at home. Am I really going to see results? And how will they differ from results I might get at a doctor’s office? Help!

In an effort to give consumers even more dominion over their skin — and maybe in an effort to snag but a sliver of the skin-care device market’s estimated $13 billion in value — many beauty companies are wading into the chrome waters of the skin-tech industry. As of 2020, that industry was predicted to grow at more than twice the rate of the skin-care industry at large, meaning that if you have not yet considered buying yourself a microneedling device or LED mask, the opportunity will probably present itself soon.

Before you seize it, there are some things you should know. The Food and Drug Administration does not believe that all skin tech requires its attention. The agency does regulate things like professional microneedling tools, which plunge hundreds of needles, ranging from 0.5 to 3 millimeters long, across one's face to set off a series of cellular healing events. (Many dermatologists say this technique works wonderfully on scars and wrinkles.) And what about the DIY tools that these treatments have inspired, like rollers with a typical maximum needle length of 0.5 millimeters? Well, generally, the FDA does not pay attention to those guys, unless they talk too much game. A roller that "stimulates collagen production" or makes another specific body-altering claim will probably hit the FDA's desk, while one that "improves the appearance of fine lines" will receive less scrutiny. You might also be interested to know how often the FDA tests at-home beauty tools: Never, because it doesn't. "The FDA doesn’t do their own testing," says Corey L. Hartman, a dermatologist in Birmingham, Alabama. "They're relying on existing testing, plus what the company provides as testing."

If this makes you just a little wary, you're in fabulous company. "My fear is, how do you know which devices to trust?" asks Shereene Idriss, a New York City dermatologist. At times, marketing of devices is at odds with dermatological opinion. She’s wary of at-home rollers, for example, especially the fancier, less-disposable ones. She recommends using an at-home roller 5–10 times before switching it out. In contrast, one at-home roller sold online advises switching out the needles, at minimum, every 20-plus uses.

Things are even cloudier above the skin's surface. Idriss shares a bone-chilling tale about patients whose melasma got worse with the use of at-home LED masks, which emit light of different wavelengths to different molecular ends: "They bought them on Amazon. A lot of people are selling regular lights with colored bulbs and pretending it’s LED." The search term "LED light mask" on Amazon yields over 2,000 results.

LED therapy benefits — reducing inflammation, killing bacteria — had been well-documented by the time Neutrogena launched its at-home LED mask, which Allure covered in 2017. Two years later, the brand voluntarily recalled the device "out of an abundance of caution," having been made aware of the very rare possibility of eye injury. But various at-home LED masks are celebrated by dermatologists: Hartman recommends the Peppy Co model to his patients. He thinks the fit is good and he likes the results.   

Some might argue that bringing skin-care technology home allows for more sustained results. A bride's glow can be achieved quickly the day before her wedding by a microcurrent treatment performed in her dermatologist’s office, but it may not last the honeymoon. A handheld option allows for more frequent, if less powerful, treatments to keep the glow going. In particular, at-home microcurrent is not a bad idea, says Idriss. The electricity can tickle face muscles into temporary tautness and dermatologists agree that at-home microcurrent is safe. “Other than the big red flags — heart disease, pregnancy — if you're willing to use it on a daily basis, God bless,” says Idriss. But she's rarely, if ever, had a patient who was diligent enough to do so — nor is she. "I'd rather get Ultherapy once a year and be done with it." (Ultherapy lifts your face using ultrasound and is priced in four figures.)

The NuFace, an FDA-cleared microcurrent device that fits perfectly in the palm of a human hand (and costs $325), had "triple-digit" online sales growth in 2020. A friend got one for Christmas and uses it at least five times a week on her "quadruple chin," and several of my colleagues have seen some jawline tightening after daily NuFacing. (The device won a Best of Beauty Award last year.)

And yet, personally, I remain skeptical of skin-care devices. It seems they will not do very much 
for me or perhaps even make things worse, and I just don’t love those options. I'm also a little suspicious of the tech industry in general, which seems to employ a disproportionately large share of our society's villains. At my old job, blogging about beauty products for an audience the size of a classroom, I was harassed by a PR agency that represented a popular skin tool after I recommended against them. Years later, at an event for my current job, the PR agency's founder, who I'd never met, approached me and introduced the skin tool's inventor. "Isn't it great to be in business with your friends?" she said, as cortisol flooded my bloodstream. Now, whenever I see a tool of any kind, I run the other way.

Your Beauty Expert, Brennan Kilbane

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