Well, Actually is a weekly column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. Each week, she’ll test health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.
Living in New York City, it is hard for me to envision owning a house (the median price for a Manhattan apartment is a hair below literally $1 million) let alone any kind of land. But it is possible tend to one’s face. This is what I thought about while standing in my bathmat-size bathroom rolling a piece of equipment not in farming dirt, as my great-grandparents did, or on grass, as my dad does, but on my own skin.
My modern lawn tool is called a microneedle: a roller barrel with a couple hundred sharp protrusions. The point of these protrusions, as advertisements of the product explain, is to poke beneath the first layer of skin, making hundreds of tiny holes. Like an aerated lawn ready for oxygen and rain, it primes my face for treatments and serums. My skin will heal from the trauma more taut and more glowy; the cells on my face their own little comeback story.
At least, this was the hope. Is there a point to trying to prod one’s skin into submission?
There is science behind the strange procedure. One of the first reports of microneedling in the literature is of using a tattoo gun without ink to repair scars, in another, a hypodermic needle is described as “incisionless surgery.” The time-consuming technique of a professional dipping a single needle in and out of skin to prompt it to repair itself eventually evolved into rollers, and pens wielding needles in clusters. It can help skin mask the ghosts of teenage acne, or turn back the clock a bit on signs of aging. It’s especially useful for treating scars and discolorations in patients with dark skin, for whom harsher (and more effective) removal methods involving lasers can be risky due to their propensity to cause burns.
When done by a dermatologist, the handful of sessions needed to make a clear difference in skin can run a few thousand dollars. The budget of this column (and also this human) does not account for multi-thousand-dollar treatments, nor the $200 at-home version that won an Allure Best of Beauty award in 2017 in the category “Skin-Care Devices (For Rejuvenation).” (The company declined to send a sample unit due to a volume of requests.) So I ordered a $26 Microneedle Face Roller System with a hot-pink roller from Dermstore. It had good reviews and was recommended as a suitable starting point by the retailer’s blog. DIY face surgery lite would reach me in two days, according to the tracking info.
In studies demonstrating microneedling’s effectiveness at restoring skin, the needles are up to 1.5 millimeters in length. The procedure is done after a topical numbing cream has been applied to the face and had time to kick in. So, it’s not supposed to hurt, but it can cause pocks of blood to surface. (In a dermatologist’s office, the needles might be a tad shorter, and blood less common.) Even in the best of the before-and-after’s, skin is far from airbrushed; the Emory Aestetic Center couches the results–which, after all, are still from a non-surgical procedure—as “subtle but significant.”
The needles on the unit that showed up in my mailbox were one-sixth the length of those used in studies, just 0.25 micrometers. There aren’t studies that detail the effects of using shorter needles. As one researcher I emailed pointed out, they just don’t reach as deep, and could altogether fail to reach the layer of skin that’s most helpful in growing fresh young collagen. An expert quoted by the American Academy of Dermatology argued that at-home needles were typically too dull to penetrate the skin at all. Two dermatologists I spoke to didn’t recommend them as a treatment to make headway on whichever specific condition you are trying to correct, but agreed in theory that they should do something—if only something very subtle. Dhaval Bhanusali, a dermatologist based in New York and Miami, says at-home microneedling can provide an “extra kick” to whatever creams they’re paired with, and possibly a little boost to collagen growth. To that effect, Bhanusali sometimes tells his patients to use a microneedle roller at home along with his custom topical hair-growth treatment.
I started rolling the barrel around on my face, going over each spot several times, as the instructions detailed. It was kind of soothing and made me feel slightly meditative. You can’t pick up your phone while you’re rolling little needles on your face. You need to pay some attention, but it’s not an intellectual challenge. But on balance, it wasn’t pleasant, either. They didn’t go deep enough to draw blood, but the pricks themselves stung, if only just a bit. Most importantly, I noticed no difference in my skin after several sessions.
Atop this, the questionably effective home microneedle also needs care of its own. “The biggest thing I’m concerned about is infection,” Bhanusali says. The first several times I used the device, I failed to disinfect it first as both the box and experts advise. I struggle to imagine myself caring for a device that’s meant to care for my face on a regular basis, buying my microneedler its own little cleanser. Therein lies the real issue with microneedling at home, for me. So much of skin care is a little dubious, including the sheet masks that I apply to my face from time to time. But this thing doesn’t feel like care: It feels like I am rolling a bunch of small dull needles on the third-softest area of my body. The home treatment isn’t worth the pain. If only I could afford a spin with the bigger equipment.
Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.