Kaitlyn McLintock
April 06, 2020 4:22 pm
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Keeping up with the surge of “cure-all” wellness fads is a job in and of itself. In our column Wellness Inspector, we do the work for you, closely examining these trends to see if they’re worth your hard-earned pennies—or whether they’re just hype.

Even if you aren’t totally familiar with microcurrent and the science behind it, you might be familiar with the beeping devices that are sold at places like Ulta and Sephora. Maybe you’ve read about microcurrent facials, or maybe you’ve heard the word uttered in association with celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and J.Lo (both of whom have been known to use microcurrent devices).

The point is that you’ve probably stumbled across something microcurrent-related before, and, if you haven’t, it’s probably only a matter of time before you do. That’s because microcurrent has been steadily growing in popularity over the course of the last few years, partly thanks to the rise of at-home devices, which people swear by for lifting, toning, and tightening the appearance of the skin—all without any pain or downtime.

How does a microcurrent device work? 

It all has to do with the device’s low-level electrical current. “Microcurrent is an electrical neuromuscular stimulator, which sends weak electrical signals to the muscles in your face, stimulating them and causing them to activate,” explains Morgan Rabach, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical NYC. “There is some evidence that microcurrent can also help stimulate collagen.”

Microcurrent isn’t anything new. In fact, according to Tera Peterson, co-founder and CEO of NuFACE, her brand launched its first device all the way back in 2005, and the technology has actually been used in aesthetics since the ’80s. Microcurrent sends “soft, gentle waves through the skin, tissues, and down to the facial muscles,” she explains, adding that “it energizes the facial muscles similar to how exercise energizes the muscles in the rest of our bodies. Unlike anywhere else on the body, the facial muscles are directly connected to the skin, so the result of energizing the muscle is often an improved, lifted appearance.”

What do microcurrent facials do? 

Because the electric current stimulates facial muscles—and therefore lifts, tones, and tightens—it’s an effective anti-aging tool. “It may help improve muscle tone in the face, and has been used in a medical setting for people that have nerve injuries in the face, such as Bell’s palsy,” Dr. Rabach explains. “By stimulating and activating the muscle, the muscles become more responsive. In a cosmetic setting, the increased muscle tone leads to a lifted appearance, with tighter, toned skin.”

Because of the way microcurrent goes beyond the surface of the skin, affecting the actual facial muscles underneath, it’s sometimes referred to as “skin fitness.” As Peterson puts it: “Microcurrent is like a little workout for the face. It stimulates skin all the way down to the muscle for an immediate improvement in facial contouring, toning, and tightening, as well as an improvement in lines, wrinkles, and skin radiance.”

What does a microcurrent facial feel like? 

The words “electric current” might sound scary and intimidating, but rest assured: The reality is not. Because these devices use such a low-level current (which is the reason it’s called microcurrent in the first place), there’s no pain associated with treatments at all. Instead, you might feel a strange vibrating sensation, and your muscles might twitch and tense. It’s hard to explain, but this is because your muscles are activating without you actually activating them.

Personally, I feel microcurrent the most when used around my forehead and my mouth. When I use my Trinity Device on my forehead, I feel little tingles go up my scalp. When I use the NuFACE Fix Line Smoothing Device to minimize the appearance of fine lines around my mouth and to subtly plump my lips, I sometimes experience a vaguely metallic taste in my mouth.

A microcurrent device should never tug or cause pain, and if it’s not gliding across the skin properly, chances are that you need to apply more of the Gel Primer meant to be used with the devices. That’s a key step anyway, because without it, the products aren’t nearly as effective.

“Using the leave-on gel primer is an absolute must,” Peterson explains. “The hyaluronic acid-rich formula is specifically designed to deeply hydrate and prep the skin for optimal microcurrent conductivity, and is necessary for the NuFACE Microcurrent treatment. Without the primer, the current will not be delivered down to the muscle. A good analogy is when a pregnant woman goes in for a sonogram and the technician uses a conductivity gel to see the baby. A normal serum or cream would not suffice.”

If you’re not sure what product to get, one effective microcurrent device is the ReFa CAXA Contouring Tool, which uses a triangular shape, rollers, and a solar panel that converts light to low-level microcurrent waves to sharpen facial features. I start by using it like I would a traditional gua sha tool, flipping it to fit the contours of my face and swiping it over the skin to encourage lymphatic drainage. Then, I use the rollers to massage the delicate skin around my eyes and on my brow bone and neck (this is my favorite part). Because the microcurrent is so mild, I don’t feel any sensation when I use this tool, apart from the light pressure and lifting motions I apply. I simply place it near a window with the solar panel facing the sun, and I pick it up when I’m ready for a facial massage and lymphatic drainage.

How often can you use at-home microcurrent devices? 

“NuFACE devices are safe and gentle enough for everyday use, either morning or night, and most clients see results after just one treatment” Peterson says. “Results are both instant and cumulative. For optimal results, we recommend using it for five minutes a day, for five days per week, for the first 60 days. After that, you can use it two to three days per week to maintain your results.”

Dr. Rabach seconds the fact that at-home microcurrent devices are typically safe enough for daily use. However, there are a few exceptions. “Because it’s an electrical current, patients with metal implants, cardiac pacemakers, or open sores should not use these devices,” Rabach notes. “Pregnant women should also avoid as these have not been tested [for pregnant women]. Patients that have Botox may not benefit from the muscular stimulation, as their muscle movement is blunted by the Botox.” Also, you’ll want to wait two weeks before using a microcurrent device after receiving Botox to prevent the injection from settling in undesired areas.