In our quest to look our best many of us have contemplated buying a handheld home skincare device. Perhaps a light device that claims to erase acne or get rid of wrinkles (check out this new gadget from Japan). Or maybe a home laser device that will remove unwanted hair (I’ve definitely considered that one). These devices cost hundreds of dollars and make big promises. Their appeal is obvious – invest your money once in a device and use it in the privacy of your home, on your time and schedule. No more trips to the spa or doctor’s office for light treatments and laser hair removal. The device is yours – for always and forever. But before you invest in a handheld piece of skincare equipment think again. Many of these devices are not worth both the investment of money and time.
In her book Feed Your Face Dr. Jessica Wu cautions against buying a handheld focused heat devices like Thermaclear or the Zeno Mini to treat acne (page 91):
There is some scientific evidence that heat may help clear acne. Pulsed light, lasers, and radio-frequency devices (which are available only at a doctor’s office) have all been shown to kill the acne-causing bacteria P. acnes as well as temporarily decrease inflammation and shrink oil glands. There are two main differences, however, between these medical instruments and a gadget you can buy at a drugstore:
1. Lasers and other medical-grade devices typically come outfitted with a fan or a chilled tip so the laser can reach deep into the dermis (where your oil glands and bacteria sit) without burning through the top layers of the skin. A store-bought device, especially one without a cooling system, won’t penetrate as deeply and therefore can’t be as effective.
2. Studies show that killing P. acnes bacteria alone isn’t enough to stop breakouts. To treat acne most effectively, you also need an anti-inflammatory component. Even some of the antibiotics we commonly use to treat acne (substances that by definition are intended to kill bacteria) are prescribed at very low doses that are meant to reduce inflammation rather than kill P. acnes. Medical grade lasers work because they kill bacteria and reduce inflammation, something handheld devices can’t.
Before you invest in any device there is something to keep in mind – the FDA clears medical devices for safe use but not devices labeled beauty devices. The majority of handheld devices are marketed as beauty devices which means that they aren’t necessarily entirely safe for home use. According to The New York Times article Taking Home the Lasers, Pulsers and Sonic Care there are many medical and compliance issues to keep in mind when it comes to these devices:
Dr. Sandra Lee, a dermatologist in Upland, Calif., fears patients will develop what she calls laserexia. “If it says, don’t use more than once a day, but if you’re a teen and you use it more than once a day, are you then at risk for scarring?” Dr. Lee said. “I worry about misuse.”
Some machines (among them TRIA Skin Perfecting Blue Light; LightStim for Wrinkles; and Levia Personal Targeted Phototherapy, which helps with psoriasis, eczema and vitiligo) have been peer-reviewed by medical experts, but not all. And the Food and Drug Administration clears only medical devices, not beauty devices, a distinction not always obvious to consumers.
“It gets squishy when companies say ‘We’re not making medical claims; we’re making beauty claims,’ ” said Dr. Mathew M. Avram, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Dermatology Laser and Cosmetic Center in Boston. “What is a medical claim? It becomes a hard area to define.”
“If you make a claim that you can benefit someone’s appearance and you’re going to use a device to accomplish that,” he continued, “I think there needs to be the same level of scrutiny that a device used in a physician’s office would undergo.”
There have been some crackdowns on unwarranted claims. Last spring, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (NAD) requested substantiation for promises made by VISS Beauty, for its Intense Pulsed Light Hair Removal Device. When the company refused to participate in a NAD review, the division referred the claims to the Federal Trade Commission and the F.D.A. And in September, the Federal Trade Commission shut down two smartphone apps, AcnePwner and AcneApp, for claiming that they could treat pimples with lights emitted from their display screens.
Even with effective devices, “there may be unforeseen uses and unforeseen consequences that may arise,” said Dr. Avram, listing the possibility of scarring, soreness, redness and hyperpigmentation, not to mention product malfunctions.
There’s also the “slight potential” for squamous or basal skin cancers from the ultraviolet light sources, said Dr. Neil Sadick, a clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, though he said that at-home devices used less energy than the machines in doctors’ offices.
The biggest hurdle, doctors say, is patient compliance; it requires some fortitude to beam a laser on your legs for 20 minutes a day. Dr. Sean Benham, a hair-loss and hair-transplant specialist in Santa Monica, Calif., likes the HairMAX LaserComb, a light-based hair-restoration device that costs about $600. But he said he saw many patients who simply tired of the routine, which involves “combing” the hair with an electronic wand for about 10 minutes, three times a week.
“People drop out of using it,” Dr. Benham said. “It’s so complicated and demanding, most of my patients say it just sits by the TV.”
There are opposing expert opinions to what I have quoted above. Dr. Leslie Baumann, on her Skin Type Solutions website, has the following to say about handheld home light devices in an article entitled do-it-yourself vs. in-office beauty treatments: Which should you choose?:
At-home vs. in-office light-based treatments
Dermatologists commonly use blue light in the office to improve acne, but a recent study shows that patients need treatments every three days for optimal improvement. Not so practical, right? That’s why at-home devices such as the Tria and Omnilux hold promise for keeping skin clear. But anti-aging devices are a different story. At this time, at-home wrinkle-reducing devices aren’t nearly as effective as their in-office counterparts, as while there may be an app for that as close as your phone, medically speaking it’s not going to do much for your skin. Bottom line: For acne, at-home devices are a do, but do-it-yourself anti-aging devices are a don’t.
Personally both the time and monetary investment would keep me from purchasing any of these products, but if you feel differently be sure to check out some reviews (like these on Sephora) from actual users before making your purchase. Certainly none of these products are impulse buy material – be sure to think before you leap into buying such products.