If you’re one of the 80% of Americans who experience acne at some point in their lives: I’m with you, dear reader. It’s hard for me to pinpoint a time when I wasn’t treating my acne, covering up blemishes, and researching ways to quash my breakouts altogether for several hours per week. In my experience, these hormonal flare-ups are often followed by a just-as-persistent side issue: acne scarring. Some quick background: acne scarring is most common in those who suffer from inflammatory acne, but it also has other causes, like skin-picking.
Because my scars tend to really come out to play in the summer (exposure to the sun darkens these patches considerably and, sometimes permanently), I decided back in April that I’d try something different this season. My treatment of choice? Microneedling—the multi-benefit skincare trend that celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Demi Moore consider to be their holy grail.
To put it to the test, I decided to conduct a little experiment, documenting the process from start to finish, asking any and every question along the way, and sharing my progress in the end. Fortunately for me, Howard Sobel, MD of Sobel Skin RX was up for the challenge of working with me (and my scars!) on this.
Microneedling is a cosmetic procedure that uses needles to speed up the skin’s collagen and elastin production through “teeny, tiny, surface-level punctures to the skin,” according to Sobel. Though famed for reducing the appearance of acne scars, the treatment has also been shown to improve hyperpigmentation, sun damage, wrinkles, and alopecia. “The process [also] allows better product absorption, and will create a healthy glow and smooth texture—like a post-vacation complexion,” adds Sobel.
As far as safety, Sobel assured me that the treatment would be a great option for my concerns — but that skin type is an important factor he considers before treating microneedling candidates. “Microneedling is safe for all skin conditions except for those with pustular acne. This is because bacteria can spread to other areas of the face,” says Sobel. “If you have very sensitive skin or rosacea, I would also recommend getting the treatment done by a professional who knows how to work with your sensitivity rather than trying at-home [microneedling kits].”
I have combination skin with hormonal acne and rosacea, meriting the choice to visit a licensed medical provider. For the record, Sobel is wary of at-home kits for all users for many reasons: lack of proper sanitation, inexperience with the tools (which can lead to greater damage), and the nondurable metals used in unregulated at-home kits being a few. Net-net: See a professional.
Upon arriving at Sobel’s office, he and his entire staff welcomed me, answering any questions I had about my treatment. First thing on our agenda while we spoke: numbing the skin. I was instructed to sit with the numbing agent (pictured above) for 20 minutes, which brought on a strong tingling, cooling sensation, like applying your favorite moisturizer fresh out of your mini-skincare fridge, but with a prickly, buzzy feeling. When we were finished reviewing the procedure, they left me to relax and listen to music while waiting for my skin to reach peak numbness. As far as the sensation, it felt the most noticeable on my upper lip, otherwise, my face felt close to normal.
Sobel’s team transferred me to a second room for the procedure, which was to be performed by Sobel’s licensed medical assistant, Olga Bass. She used alcohol wipes to remove the numbing agent, as a way of ensuring that the skin’s surface was clean as a whistle before creating the tiny puncture holes. Full disclosure: The smell of the wipes was quite abrasive (which Bass warned me about), but it dissipated in a flash.
Then came time to introduce the needle: a thicker wand with a half-inch grid of gold needles at its tip. “Medical needles with a length of 0.5mm to 1.5mm are used on the face, neck, or chest and 1.5mm to 2.5mm can be used on the body,” shares Sobel. “The longer the needle, the farther it will penetrate into your skin.” Sobel’s office uses gold needles for their hypoallergenic properties, giving this practice a leg up amongst the sensitive skin population. Looking at the needles, I *did* have a small moment of panic over the pain that may follow, but Bass reminded me that the numbing agent would do its job and drastically reduce any sensation.
And so, it began. Starting with the jawline and snaking over the surface of my skin (the way a lawnmower cuts grass: first across and then upward), Bass used the tool to stamp my face with a plate of small needles. We only went over my forehead once since there are far fewer acne scars in that area, but we went over all other areas three times, which became more painful each time. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rank this procedure somewhere in between a 3 and a 6, with the bony parts of my face scoring a 6, (as well as my upper lip, since there are tons of nerve endings in that zone), and the rest sitting securely at a 3. That said, this was definitely not an “I nodded off mid-way” kind of treatment. It reminded me of the way I’ve felt while undergoing a wax: bracing myself for sharp, short pangs of pain throughout. Still, it was over before I knew it, and 20 minutes breezed right by.