One of the best side-effects of being a beauty writer is having friends and family ask me about products and treatments: Do they work? Are they worth it? What should I use? Lately, these talks always circle back to one thing, devices. Specifically, microcurrent devices à la NuFACE or ZIIP. The same questions are asked: Do they work? Are they worth it? But there also tend to be other questions, like how do they work? What are the risks? Even though I’ve owned a NuFACE for years, I really didn’t know the answers. Thus began my deep dive into the world of microcurrent. I got into it with dermatologists, estheticians, acupuncturists, and manufacturers. I consulted medical journals and ancient texts, and I even had a treatment done, all to bring you, me, and everyone we know the exhaustive guide on microcurrent.
A Little History
While these devices may seem trendy, one of the first known uses of electricity as bodily treatment goes as far back as the 1st century AD when Roman physician Scribonius Largus (beautiful name for a baby) suggested those suffering from gout or headaches should step on the electric ray fish. Over the next 2000ish years, electrotherapy remained a constantly evolving form of treatment for various ailments. In the 1980s, physicians began using microcurrent to treat patients with Bell’s Palsy, a neurological condition that causes facial paralysis. Soon after, in the ’90s, we began to see microcurrent devices used for aesthetic purposes in spas and dermatologist offices. Still, they didn’t become a household concept until they actually landed in our households with the creation of hand-held devices.
How do they Work?
Whether you’re at a spa with a large, plug-in device or at home with your PureLift, microcurrent devices work by emitting low-level electrical currents through your skin to your facial muscles. “There are as many shapes of microcurrent electrodes as there are machines,” explains esthetician Raquel Medina-Cleghorn, “but most devices use two probes, one for the positive current and the other for the negative. It’s this movement of electrons that we refer to as microcurrent.”
You’ll have to use a conductive gel for the machine to work: Most brands will package their devices in a set with their own gel, which usually have added benefits like hyaluronic acid and collagen, but you can also use aloe vera or ultrasound gel.
The main difference between in-spa treatments and home devices is frequency level. Rachael Gallo, esthetician and COO of the facial bar Silver Mirror, clarifies, “our in-spa devices use high-frequency levels ranging from 1300 to 1700 Hz, whereas home devices use low-frequency levels ranging from 1 to 8 Hz.” And while all this talk of electrocuting your face may sound a little freaky, know that microcurrent devices are operating on such a low level that you shouldn’t feel anything more than a light tingle and some twitchy muscle contractions. To get scientific, you would need a device that is twice as strong to reach the detection threshold, aka when you would really feel it, and 20 times as strong to reach the pain threshold.
What are the Benefits?
It sounds a bit like adspeak, but the truth is microcurrent treatments are like a workout for your face. As we age, our facial muscles atrophy, causing looser, saggier skin. Microcurrent stimulates these muscles and increases their size just like squats do for your derrière. The more developed the facial muscle, the tauter the skin. Following a treatment, “the most visible and immediate results are a lifted, sculpted appearance,” says Medina-Cleghorn, “accentuated facial contours, plumped lips and cheeks, and smoothed fine lines. Eyes will appear wider and more awake, and skin will look revitalized.”
I received a facial from Medina-Cleghorn at Joanna Czech spa and saw dramatic results. After treating one side of my face but before the other, she handed me a mirror—that cheekbone was poppier than it's ever been, and one eye was two stories above the other; that’s how lifted it was. [Editor’s Note: I saw the selfie taken at this very moment, and it turned a skeptic into a true believer.] After completing both sides, my face was evened out to its usual level of asymmetry but far more sculpted. At home, with my NuFACE mini, I see similar, albeit slightly less dramatic results. With both, I notice a pleasant tightness to my face.
I found one of the most fascinating benefits of using microcurrent is that it increases ATP production. ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is “an energy molecule found in the cells of all living things.” Mitochondria make ATP by breaking down glucose (via our food) and, in turn, use that ATP to fuel most of the critical processes in our bodies. As we age, our mitochondrial function decreases, causing us to produce less ATP. Using microcurrent to stimulate our tissue can help increase the number of these molecules. “By increasing production of ATP, the skin cells are more energized and better able to carry out their various functions, resulting in healthy-looking, rejuvenated skin,” explains Medina-Cleghorn.
Are there Risks?
Although I could see the immediate benefits, I still wondered if there were any risks connected to microcurrent. Dr. Sherwin Parikh, dermatologist and founder of Tribeca Skin Center and A.P. CHEM Beauty, assured me there were little-to-none, “The tiny microcurrents are completely safe, but in general, we don't recommend pregnant people doing unnecessary aesthetic procedures, and certainly if someone is sensitive to any type of mild buzzing sensation they won't appreciate microcurrent devices.” Many of the derms I reached out to didn’t use microcurrent devices but agreed that they were not dangerous. San Francisco dermatologist Dr. Dana Feigenbaum put it bluntly: “There is scant evidence to support use, but it is definitely not harmful.”
Along with pregnant and nursing people, microcurrent devices should not be used (or used with caution) by those with epilepsy, cancer, diabetes, a pacemaker, or anyone with metal in their face. If you’ve done Botox or filler, it’s advised that you wait 2-4 weeks before doing any spa or home treatments that use microcurrent.
Gua Sha vs. Microcurrent
Facial Gua Sha is the traditional Chinese medicinal practice of using a carved stone or metal tool to massage the face. A common question I’ve been asked is if Gua Sha and microcurrent are essentially doing the same thing, one analog and the other digital. Acupuncturist, herbalist, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Sandra Lanshin Chiu L. Ac. clarifies, “The results can be similar, though the way it achieves them is very different. While microcurrent targets the muscles with electric currents to produce greater tone, Gua Sha stimulates facial muscles and fascia (the connective tissue that wraps our muscles) with a smooth, repetitive stroking that amplifies the microcirculation.” Chiu also says, “Unlike microcurrent, Gua Sha can be used to smooth skin texture and relax and soften fine lines. Microcurrent tends to 'tone' and tighten muscle while Gua Sha tends to relax muscle contraction and tension.” Gua Sha can relieve TMJ, facial puffiness, and congestion. As an avid Gua-Sha-er, the difference between these two treatments is noticeable. My device gives me a more lifted, tighter appearance, while Gua Sha relaxes my muscles and drastically decreases inflammation. I asked Chiu whether she encouraged using microcurrent and Gua Sha in tandem, “Absolutely! I think it is a wonderful combination! I recommend doing facial Gua Sha first to reset and release muscles and tissue, then follow with microcurrent to tone and tighten where it's needed most.”
So…Are They Worth It?
Okay, now that we have all the facts, the question remains: are these microcurrent treatments and devices worth it? I’m going to say yes. While spa treatments and home devices are pricey, the results are immediate and dramatic. Like with any exercise, you must consistently maintain a routine to continue to see results. Gallo recommends “treatment a minimum of every 28 days as the cellular turnover happens, and at-home usage three times per week.” If going to the spa is not in the cards for you Medina-Cleghorn suggests “using an at-home device five to seven times per week for six weeks, then slowing down to two to three sessions per week for maintenance.” Usually, I’d end this with something quippy like, “beauty is pain!” but by now, we know that microcurrent doesn’t hurt one little bit.