When you ask me if dermarolling at home is a good idea, what you’re really asking is whether you should repeatedly puncture your face all over with miniscule needles. To which I say, “Why would you want to do that?”
I’m not being facetious! When considering any new skin treatment or product, I think it’s important to back up and identify the benefit you’re after, because that should factor into your decision. Dermarollers, and other at-home microneedling devices like dermal pens and dermal stamps, are typically marketed as tools that can help to improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, or acne scars. But most people who ask me about them are interested because they’ve heard the rollers can make the skin care they’re already using more efficient by channeling it deeper into the epidermis. To help you decide if those potential benefits outweigh the risks (and there are a few, which we’ll get to), it helps to have some perspective on how the whole “sticking needles in our faces” trend came about.
Back in 1995, two doctors reported that they’d had success treating indented scars and wrinkles by carefully puncturing them with hypodermic needles. Soon after, a plastic surgeon who was trying to add color back to patients’ depigmented scars discovered that the motorized needles of a tattoo machine improved the texture and appearance of scar tissue even when it was used without ink. Both techniques work on the same principal: “inducing controlled trauma to trigger a healing response,” says Dr. Tony Nakhla, a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon in Orange County, California. “You’re basically making little holes with the needles and letting your body fill them in with collagen and elastin and all the things that make skin look healthy and plump.”
By the 2000s, dermal needling had made its way into aestheticians’ treatment rooms and, eventually, the home market. Today, there are all sorts of dermal needling and microneedling pens, rollers, and stamps — including motorized versions that deliver topical serums as the needles penetrate the skin. Very few of these, such as the SkinPen Precision system, are classified as medical devices, which means they’ve been tested for safety and shown to be effective at “improving the appearance of facial acne scars, facial wrinkles, and abdominal scars,” according to the FDA. But most of the hole-poking tools and gadgets — including the ones sold at beauty retailers — are not medical devices.
At this point, you probably want some answers. Are they safe to use at home? Yes. The needles used in these devices are generally those less than 0.25 mm and are safe to use at home.
Are there cosmetic benefits from at-home needling tools? Yes, but they’re pretty minimal. Why? I’ll let a dermatologist answer that: “They may help to improve penetration of skin-care products, but most home dermarollers are limited in their length and, therefore, not very effective at improving fine lines, wrinkles, and acne scars,” says Dr. Jenny Liu, a board-certified dermatologist in Minnesota.
Now you’re probably thinking, If it makes my skin care work better, that’s a great benefit! Which means it’s time to bring up the risks, so you can assess them in tandem with the rewards. If at-home dermal needling is done incorrectly, “it can lead to infections, scarring, and worsening of your skin condition,” says Liu. The risk of scary complications — like inadvertently spreading chicken pox all over your face or getting an infection caused by the herpes virus — is really small. But there’s another, more likely, risk that’s directly tied to the penetration benefit: Some skin-care ingredients that are beneficial in small doses can cause irritation or other issues when their potency is increased (e.g., by infusing them into your skin via microscopic holes).
Most of the studies done on the safety of cosmetic ingredients are done on intact skin, according to Dr. Lance Setterfield, an expert who literally wrote the book on medical dermal needling, and dermarolled skin is not intact. Setterfield points out that one of the tests doctors do for skin allergies is scratch a patient’s skin, apply an ingredient, and observe the reaction. When you apply a serum before or after dermarolling or microneedling at home, you’re basically doing a giant allergy test all over your face with a roulette wheel of ingredients. Skin care with natural ingredients can be especially problematic (a recent study of 1,651 “natural” skin-care products found that nearly 90 percent contained at least one of the top 100 most common allergens known to cause contact dermatitis). And serums specifically designed to be used in conjunction with dermarollers aren’t necessarily better (one I reviewed contained 28 ingredients — including four on the FDA’s list common allergens found in cosmetic products). Even if you don’t have an allergy or irritation, there’s a huge unknown factor: When most cosmetics companies create serums with active ingredients, they don’t do it with the expectation that we’ll be power drilling them into our skin!
So even though I love an at-home product that makes a pricey skin treatment more accessible, I don’t think this one is a good idea. If you want the benefits, head to the pros. “As long as microneedling and micropenning are performed in-clinic by a qualified and experienced practitioner who does not cut deep into the skin or create scarring, they can have outstanding results,” says Dr. Anne Marie Fombu, an aesthetic nurse practitioner for SkinSpirit, a chain of aesthetic clinics.