Last Updated on October 19, 2020
Aging. As much as we prefer for it to not happen, it’s a fact of life. And unfortunately, our skin is very good at showing our age.
That’s because our skin contains very specialized cells and structures. After you reach the big 2-0, the skin synthesizes less and less collagen. Estrogen levels slowly decrease, fat decreases and sinks, and eventually the skin is left dry, wrinkled, thin, and stretched out. It also is more easily damaged.
While the endless search for the fountain of youth continues, we can thank celebrities—our fearless and capital-endowed investigators—for finding the best ways to look ageless.
So what exactly are these seemingly magical treatments celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, Victoria Beckham, and countless other stars are using?
A hint: It doesn’t involve surgery! *
The answer is energy-based skin treatments. These treatments use varying wavelengths of electromagnetic field energy to change the properties of your skin.
*Although many have also had surgical procedures
Types of Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs)
Everyone is exposed to a complex mix of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) on a daily basis, some natural, some man-made. All of these fields fall on the Electromagnetic Spectrum.
Your cells react differently to these varying frequencies, based on the frequency’s properties and the body’s sophisticated mechanisms for dealing with these frequencies.
However, the body does not possess protective mechanisms for all biological effects, especially ones that stress your body for long periods of time.
We know that ionizing frequencies (Gamma rays, X-rays, UV rays) can instantly damage cells.
In terms of non-ionizing frequencies (visible light, infrared, microwaves, radio frequency (RF) waves, extremely low frequency (ELF) waves), they cannot instantly damage a cell, but some have been shown to lead to adverse health effects with chronic, long-term exposure.
The specific radio frequency EMFs used in cell phones and mobile devices can create thermal and biological damage after chronic exposure. These frequencies aren’t naturally occurring, and the cell doesn’t have defense mechanisms to protect itself from over-exposure. This leads to oxidative stress and other biological effects, like DNA fragmentation and cell mutation.
However, some non-ionizing frequencies, like visible and infrared light, are naturally occurring, and have not been shown to create damaging biological effects.
Energy-Based Skin Tightening Treatments
Some light energy frequencies have actually been found to be healthy for cell growth and healing, whether it’s by stimulating collagen and elastin production, or by increasing antioxidants and blood flow.
These energy frequencies have been harnessed in non-surgical skin-tightening and skin-restoring treatments. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there was an increase in overall non-surgical procedures by 4.2% in 2017. Non-surgical skin tightening procedures, including (RF) radio frequency treatments, increased by 15.1%. There was over half a million skin rejuvenation procedures done in 2017.
These procedures target different layers of your skin to help reduce wrinkles, sagging skin, age spots, uneven skin tone or texture, sun-damaged skin, acne, and scars.
Radio frequency waves are used for ‘RF’ skin tightening, infrared waves are used for laser phototherapy and resurfacing, and visible light waves are used for LED light treatments.
Ultrasound skin treatments, while very similar in terms of effects, use a sound wave instead of an electromagnetic light wave.
Radio Frequency (RF) Skin Treatments
Radio frequencies are a low-energy form of radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum. These treatments are able to tighten skin suffering from wrinkles and laxity by directing this low-energy (0.3 to 10 MHz) to thermally heat cells and create new collagen and elastin in the middle layer of the skin.
RF treatments can also boost blood flow and break down cellulite and fat. The heat reaches the deeper layers of your skin and subcutaneous tissue (3mm deep) due to radio frequencies, which have long wavelengths and can penetrate through many different materials.
Dr. Harold Lancer—who uses RF and laser treatments on clients like Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, and Scarlett Johansson—explains collagen like this: “Heating the skin can change the collagen by immediately contracting the molecule itself, remodeling or ‘reorganizing’ the molecular network, and stimulating fibroblasts (the cells that build the collagen ‘mesh’) to create new collagen.” It is most often administered via a laser device placed over the skin, but can also be given by probes inserted into the skin to target deeper tissues.
Besides the face, RF treatments can be used to treat excess pockets of fat on the stomach, hips and thighs, reduce cellulite and tighten saggy skin caused by weight loss or pregnancy.
Is it Safe?
While the cells heat up, there is a very low risk for heat damage due to the controlled application. In a study of over 600 patients, the results showed that there were no permanent side effects and only 2.7% of the treatments resulted in temporary side effects.
When looking at the entire spectrum, the energy level of radio frequency waves is at the low end. And while that doesn’t mean it’s free of harmful effects, adverse biological symptoms have only been shown to occur from chronic exposure to radio frequencies.
While cell phones may be up against your body for very long periods of time, RF treatments are short (a half hour) and usually completed in 10 or fewer sessions, which greatly reduces the probability of it causing the type of biological cell damage that chronic cell phone radiation can cause.
Additionally, a cell phone RF emission is about 2.4 gigahertz, which is about 10 times higher than the 0.3 to 10 megahertz used for RF skin treatments.
This means that with such a short duration of exposure, there should not be much cause for concern that these skin treatments will create any of the health effects shown with cell phone radiation. However, it is still a relatively new treatment, and recurrent treatments over a long time period might produce different effects. Most skin care offices will not treat women who are pregnant, since the baby is more vulnerable to the effects of radiation.
LED Photo Treatments
LED treatments use nonthermal, noninvasive light energy in different colors and wavelengths to achieve a therapeutic outcome. LED lights don’t give off heat, which makes LED phototherapy different than other skin treatments. Instead of thermally promoting skin renewal, visible light biologically affects your cells.
Originally developed by NASA in the 80s to help astronauts with tissue healing and repair, it has been used clinically for wound healing, basal cell carcinoma, and various diseases.
Now, LED light treatments are used extensively for aesthetic purposes. Studies show that natural light enhances activity within the lymph system to reduce swelling and inflammation. Benefits include boosting collagen, reducing acne bacteria, and preventing pigmentation. This 20-minute treatment can also complement other skin procedures.
LED lights range from 400 THz to over 600 THz.
Red and near-infrared (heat-less form of infrared) therapy is the most popular. It goes the deepest (up to 10mm) and stimulates cellular mitochondrial respiratory pathways, which protect against nitric oxide and oxidative stress. This creates ATP, collagen, and elastin to combat wrinkles and environmental damage. It is helpful for wound and muscle healing, and has been shown to increase testosterone levels. It is used by many athletes and fitness experts like Ben Greenfield.
Green light is used to even out skin tone by targeting melanocytes, preventing excess pigment from reaching the top layer of skin.
Blue light is used on acne. The result is free radical formation and destruction of the P. acnes (Propionibacterium acnes) cell membrane, which creates acne vulgaris. A study conducted at the University of Chicago found that blue and blue-red light had the greatest effect on acne.
Is it Safe?
Research shows that phototherapy treatments are a very safe option, since they have zero thermal effects and are non-invasive treatments. Unlike the sun, harmful UV light is not emitted by LEDs.
Research on how visible light affects the body has only shown positive biological changes, or no changes at all. However, heightened power levels and prolonged exposure might create different effects on cells.
Because LED phototherapy is a popular at-home treatment, the strength of the devices are lessened, and there are many other differences that might not replicate the clinical results of LED phototherapy done at a physician’s office.
Laser treatments send infrared energy (sometimes mixed with visible light) into your skin. They can be ablative or non-ablative.
Ablative lasers use mid-infrared wavelengths from 2,790-10,600 nm, which kills and removes blemishes, age spots, freckles, and acne scars due to its high absorption in the water in our skin. Ablative lasers may require local anesthetic injections or sedation, and have more side effects and recovery time. However, they are more effective at treating skin irregularities, and might only need one session.
Nonablative lasers use near-infrared wavelengths from 700-2150 nm can treat wrinkles, help with skin texture and pigmentation, and tighten skin by heating cells similar to RF treatments. Non-ablative lasers go deeper into the skin (3mm), where heat stimulates collagen and elastic fiber production and a new layer of skin to form. This causes your body to begin creating new, fresh looking skin. They are often fractionated, sending thousands of tiny columns into the skin in a sort of checkerboard pattern, with intervening normal skin. In these microthermal treatment zones, heat is delivered to a fraction of the treatment area to lessen the recovery period and reduce complications.
IPL, or Intense Pulsed Light, is a different type of treatment (not technically a laser) that uses a blend of visible and infrared light in one pulse to treat a variety of targets at once, such as dilated blood vessels and brown spots.
Is it Safe?
Laser treatments can have the most side-effects compared to the other skin treatments, since the ablative lasers are invasive and vaporize skin cells.
In the hands of a poorly trained individual, they can be dangerous and lead to scars, burns, and pigmentation problems. Nonablative lasers create a temporary swollen sunburnt effect. These side effects come from the thermal effects of the laser.
As for long term effects, research has not shown any harm from these infrequent treatments. Although it is a dose of light-energy radiation, it is short and controlled to specific areas, similar to the other light energy treatments. Laser skin treatments have not been shown to cause cancer or any long term adverse biological effects. They have actually been used to remove precancerous cell lesions, reducing the risk of developing skin cancer.
Ultrasound Skin Treatments
While it is an energy treatment, ultrasound therapy is a little different. Instead of an electromagnetic wave, it is actually a high frequency sound wave.
As the name suggests, ultrasound uses frequencies so high we cannot hear them. While our ears can hear frequencies up to 20,000 Hz, these ultrasonic treatments start at 0.5 MHz and reach 10 MHz for shallower treatments. The optimal temperature is found with frequencies between 4 to 7 MHz.
There are many treatment options using ultrasonic energy.
Diagnostic ultrasound, called sonography, sends high frequency sound waves into your body, which bounce back to create an image. This is used during pregnancy for fetal development imaging.
Ultrasonic therapy treatments send higher frequency localized sound waves to heat up cells through vibrations. This has been done for promoting blood flow and healing for injuries since the 1950s. In 2008, high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) was introduced as an aesthetic treatment to tighten, reduce wrinkles, and lift the skin on the face and neck.
HIFU waves can penetrate up to 5mm deep—deeper than radio frequency and laser—reaching the second layer of muscles (SMAS) below the facial muscles. Similar to radio frequency and laser light treatments, ultrasound treatments release concentrated energy to heats up tissue and produce new compact collagen fibers. However, HIFU delivers precise and intense fractional ultrasound energy, while radio frequencies heat an entire specified area. HIFU is done once, while RF treatments need a couple sessions.
Is it Safe?
Because it is a sound wave and not an electromagnetic wave, it does not pose the biological health risks like EMF radiation exposure.
The potential side effects come from the thermal energy produced. It can cause overheating effects, create gas bubbles that put pressure on tissues, and move fluid surrounding your cells. Because of this, you should be mindful of using it on sensitive skin. For sonogram imaging of fetal development, there have been some studies showing associated risks.
In a study conducted at the Hanyang University Seoul Hospital, some patients experienced temporary discomfort with the higher energy ultrasonic waves. After the procedure, there was some incidents of temporary swelling and bruising, but no long term adverse effects. In the first five years of HIFU cosmetic treatments, between 2009-2014, there have been 35 studies that have shown HIFU treatments to be safe and effective.
Should I Use These Treatments?
It is important to be mindful that these treatments are all a form of energy that you are directing into your body at varying levels of intensity to change the properties of your skin.
While wireless EMF radiation emitted by mobile devices has been shown to be harmful, both thermally and biologically, current research on light energy skin treatments has not found any significant adverse health implications, besides temporary thermal side effects. RF, laser, and ultrasound treatments all pose thermal effects, that can lead to infection, permanent scarring, or pigmentation issues.
While LED light treatments don’t have any thermal effects, their biological changes can vary based on your body and skin type. In all the treatments, the controlled and relatively short exposure time lessens the risks of adverse health effects.
However, most of these treatments have only been available to consumers for the past 10-20 years, and while the treatment procedure has evolved to be safer, research is still developing as the popularity of these skin treatments increase.
Please consult a doctor when considering these treatments. Only trained professionals should be conducting these treatments, or instructing at-home treatments. Your skin type and stage in life can make you more susceptible to side effects. It is important to understand if these treatments are right for you and your skin.