Do Chemical Peels and Facial Devices Really Work?

Microdermabrasion, microcurrents, oxygen facials and chemical peels—do they really work? We present the facts on these facial treatments, plus reveal whether “medi-spas” are worth the cost.

Facials often include the use of chemical peels and devices that promise to improve wrinkles, dark circles, puffy eyes, acne (and so on). But are they really worth your hard-earned dollars? We present the research-backed facts behind these facial treatments to reveal which work and which don’t.

Microdermabrasion

Microdermabrasion is a popular skin-resurfacing treatment offered as part of a facial. It utilizes a machine with a small vacuum-like tip that first shoots a jet of small, abrasive crystals (usually aluminum or magnesium oxide) onto the skin, then vacuums them off.

There’s no question: microdermabrasion exfoliates skin and can help refine pores, improve the appearance of acne scars, and even out blotchy, thickened, sun-damaged skin. But when overdone, or done too often, it can be harsh enough to lead to collagen breakdown. And if the treatment is too strong, it can cause dark or light patches to appear on some skin tones.

The bottom line: Tread carefully when it comes to microdermabrasion treatments.

Oxygen Facials

Scientific research shows that once the skin has taken in sufficient oxygen from the air, that’s all it can actually ingest; there is no benefit to trying to force more in. In fact, the short-term impact of oxygen-infusion machines can be an increase in free-radical damage. Yes, too much oxygen can be a bad thing. (Be sure not to confuse oxygen facials with hyperbaric oxygen treatments for wound healing—they’re completely different procedures.)

The bottom line: Despite their popularity, oxygen facials are a waste of time and money.

Microcurrents

Some estheticians tout the benefit of using microcurrents on skin. These low level electrical stimulation devices have two purported purposes: one is to open channels into the skin, allowing ingredients to penetrate better, and the other is to passively stimulate muscles to improve skin tone.

Ironically, opening channels into skin isn’t necessary for skincare ingredients to penetrate; they do fine on their own. Plus, not all skincare ingredients are needed deep down. Some are best used near the surface.

Muscle stimulation relies on the age-old myth that sagging skin can be lifted if your muscles are toned. Facial exercises fall into this category as well, but those stretch skin; passively stimulating muscles with microcurrents is technically a better method, but you’re unlikely to see any improvement.

The bottom line: Microcurrents aren’t bad for skin, but there is no research showing it’s worth the expense.

Chemical Peels

High-strength chemical peels can be helpful for advanced skin concerns such as discolorations, acne scars, and wrinkles. While both glycolic acid (AHA) and salicylic acid (BHA) peels are effective, research has shown that a salicylic acid peel can have sustained effectiveness with fewer side effects.

However, chemical peels do have shortcomings when it comes to treating issues like acne. First, peels are not cures; they must be performed repeatedly (although not too often, or you start hurting skin—it’s a delicate balance). Second, peels can be pricey.

The bottom line: High-strength chemical peels can be effective, but before choosing this option for acne, you should try topical options.

Dermatologist Facials

Some dermatologist’s offices have become “medi-spa” centers, offering many of the same facial services found at salons or regular spas. You’ll end up paying a premium to have these kinds of treatments performed at a doctor’s office (even if they’re done by an assistant).

What dermatologists can provide, that salons and spas can’t, are prescription skin treatments: injections of Botox and fillers, lasers and other light treatments, and higher-strength peels. These procedures can be incredibly effective, but you can get them from a regular dermatologist—no need go to an overpriced medi-spa.

The bottom line: It’s not worth spending extra money for a facial just because it’s performed at a doctor’s office.

Wondering about other facial treatments and their pros and cons? See our article, Should You Get a Facial?, for more info.

References for this information:

Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, August 2015, pages 455-461
Journal of Novel Physiotherapies, April 2015, ePublication
Dermatologic Surgery, January 2008, pages 4550
The Journal of Physiology, February 2002, pages 985-994