Are High-Frequency Acne Treatments Legit? Here's What Derms Think
My Instagram ads know me so well: Target me with a skincare product that showcases a new, bizarre-sounding technology (like handheld electrical currents) as a way to treat an old-as-time issue (namely, acne) and I’m there. After a few days of being badgered with promoted posts for high-frequency acne treatments, I’m now the proud owner of my very own buzzing, bacteria-killing wand. That being said, it was 100 percent an impulse purchase and I did not do my due diligence before adding to cart — so naturally, I had to consult a dermatologist (or three) before actually letting the aforementioned electrical currents anywhere near my face. Luckily, it seems as if derms are on board with the whole literal zit-zapping thing.
“Energy-based devices such as those that deliver electrical energy, electromagnetic energy, or laser-light energy have been widely used as an alternative to topical and oral therapies for acne lesions and acne scars,” Dr. Neil Sadick, M.D., a dermatologist with Sadick Dermatology in New York City, tells The Zoe Report. “More or less, all these devices deliver targeted thermal energy to the skin at various lengths.” When it comes to high-frequency acne treatments, like the popular handheld wands taking over Instagram feeds everywhere, electrical currents “heat the sebaceous gland and destroy the acne-causing bacteria,” Dr. Sadick says. They also oxygenate the skin, increase circulation, and calm inflammation. Most of these devices could be considered high-tech spot treatments: You simply wave the head of the wand over emerging pimples for a couple minutes and buh-bye, blemish.
Of course, you can’t just hold up any electrical device to a zit and expect to zap it into oblivion. These high-frequency tools specifically feature “electrodes containing argon gas,” explains Kerry Benjamin, a licensed aesthetician and the founder of Stacked Skincare, in an email to TZR. “Once the electrode touches the skin, the agron gas releases oxygen, whereby killing bacteria and calming inflammation on contact.” (FYI, bacteria can’t live in oxygen, which explains that chain reaction.) “By destroying the bacteria and regulating the production of sebum, they help unclog the skin pores, and allow more efficacious diffusion of oxygen and nutrients,” Dr. Sadick says.
If this all sounds a little too good to be true, you’re not wrong — high-frequency devices are not the skincare products to impulse-buy on the cheap (whoops). “You want to make sure to purchase a device that is well-rated and reviewed,” Dr. Devika Icecreamwala, M.D., a dermatologist with Icecreamwala Dermatology, tells The Zoe Report. “Many of these devices fall apart easily, which can be dangerous when using on the face or close to the eyes.” (See: the recent controversy over Neutrogena’s blue light therapy mask.) However, most professionals agree that the at-home tools are relatively safe. “Devices like these for home use do not exploit high energies like the ones we use in-office,” Dr. Sadick says. Put bluntly: You’ll see results, just not miraculous results.
High-frequency gadgets usually come complete with a few different “heads” to target specific areas of the face. “The ‘pointy electrode’ is great for deeper cystic pimples; the ‘mushroom’ works for larger areas on your face, like your cheeks and forehead; and the ‘spoon’ is great for under-eye area to help de-puff,” Benjamin explains. As for what to expect when you flip the power switch? A slight tingling sensation. Once you feel the tingle, “move the wand in a circular motion over the blemish for one to three minutes,” the aesthetician instructs. You don’t need to actually touch the pimple you’re trying to shrink, though — it seems counterintuitive, but Benjamin says “the further the tip is away from the skin, the deeper the current will go. For full results, pull the tip a fourth of an inch away from your skin.” The device shouldn’t be used for more than 20 minutes at a time over your whole face.
“It is safe for all skin types and tones, but do not use if you are pregnant or have a history of heart disease,” Benjamin warms. “Make sure to remove all jewelry before using the device.” And although high-frequency tools are aimed at eliminating acne, they should really only be used on the occasional pimple or cyst — chronic acne patients aren’t ideal candidates for this one, since it’s just too much surface area for one little wand to cover with efficacy.
Extenuating circumstances aside, Dr. Sadick gives his blessing to go forth and zap zits. “I am a big fan of combination therapies and methodologies to maximize and prolong the results of in-office interventions, so I always advocate the use of home devices,” he says. “Together with a treatment regimen from your dermatologist, and an at-home skincare routine, these are an excellent complement for preventing breakouts and ensuring skin health.”
Ahead, the high-quality high-frequency tools to add to your routine ASAP. (Can’t you just feel your pimples tingling in anticipation?)
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