"I quit my derma-rolling experiment just two tries in—here's why."
In the age of wildly popular YouTube beauty vloggers and Instagram models touting step-by-step tutorials, more and more skin-care procedures typically done by dermatologists (say, popping a gnarly zit or slathering chemicals over your face) are being given the DIY treatment.
Of course, those bathroom-performed procedures don’t typically involve scraping multiple tiny needles across the surface of your face.
Enter microneedling (or collagen-induction therapy), a procedure that’s been around for decades, but has only recently started to gain traction for at-home use. “Mirconeedling uses a device covered with tiny needles to create micro channels, or tiny holes, in the skin,” explains Anna Avaliani, M.D., a cosmetic and laser skin care specialist in New York City. “The process stimulates the skin’s natural ability to heal itself by creating collagen that fills in fine lines and plumps the skin. It also reduces acne scars, wrinkles, and pores." Avaliani performs in-office microneedling procedures with sterile and surgical-grade needles.
But while the pointy procedure is heralded by the likes of Vogue and even Gwyneth Paltrow as skin care’s next major anti-aging innovation, those names are also speaking to the derm-performed procedure specifically, rather than the self-performed variety. Now, lots of people swear by using derma-rollers, a type of tool that's supposed to give you similar results to microneedling but at a fraction of the cost. According to RealSelf.com, the average price of microneedling is $625, but that varies depending on where you live. Compare that to the average cost of a derma-roller, which RealSelfsays is about $125.
There are a few differences between derma-rollers and in-office microneedling besides the price. As Avaliani explains, the needles for professional microneedling are considerably longer than those on derma-rollers (three millimeters as opposed to one) and are sharper. Oh, and there’s this: With a derma-roller, you’re poking your face with tons of tiny, sharp needles sans the supervision of a processional.
Despite visions of myself resembling Hellraiser when using the tool, I’ve never been afraid of needles, so the procedure definitely intrigued me. I am also riddled with purplish, protruding acne scars and a generally poor, sensitive complexion, so a skin-care routine that didn’t involve harsh chemicals or medicines (namely, those prescription-grade acne creams and medications I went through during my teenage years) sounded infinitely more bearable.
In order to see what the buzz was about surrounding microneedling (in addition to seeing if this “miracle cure” could finally be the agent I was seeking in regard to my acne scars), I opted to try a derma-roller at home for a week. I quickly came to find out, however, that the DIY treatment definitely has its drawbacks.
Application #1: Is This Thing Working?
Prior to my experiment, I sought Avaliani’s advice in terms of how to properly use the derma-roller. She didn’t mince words when giving me counsel: “I urge caution in doing this at home because the risk of infection and scarring is ever-present,” she warned. “If the needles on the roller are not surgical grade, there is a potential for needles to break off and be stuck inside or under skin. This is a major risk for infection and potential scarring as it will need to be surgically removed.”
There's also a lot of conflicting information out there about how best to use a derma-roller. Some beauty bloggers suggested saturating the skin beforehand and after with a serum, while others advised against it due to the possibility of infection. Some said to use the tool each day, while others advised every other—or even once per week. And don't get me started on the number of YouTube tutorials there are on the matter.
Confused, I asked Avaliani’s advice again, despite her being slightly against what I was doing in the first place. She recommended sterilizing the device prior to starting (although I assumed mine was sterilized already). I cleansed my face with my usual face cleanser, followed by my nightly serum. Next, I rolled the vibrating, glowing derma-roller back and forth in four quadrants: forehead, right cheek, left cheek, chin and jaw. Avaliani recommended testing one area prior to moving onto the next (just to be sure it wouldn’t set my skin ablaze), which I did. The process was surprisingly… cathartic. The derma-roller almost felt like a more penetrative face scrub, minus the mess. I completed the routine by sealing my now-perforated pores with my regular moisturizer.
Reviewing my microneedled face in the mirror, my complexion appeared just as it had 10 minutes prior. Avaliani did recommend avoiding makeup the next day to reduce the chance of infection, but I chose to omit that particular advice. And despite a slight sting and redness the next morning, the entire procedure felt surprisingly noninvasive.
Application #2: Wait… What's That On My Face?
After my semi-successful first attempt at microneedling my face at home, I had no apprehension when embarking on my second attempt. Most articles I was read online recommended leaving a few days in between sessions, so heeding that advice, I waited three days before breaking out the derma-roller again.
Again, I cleansed my skin and applied my usual serum. My face had some breakouts on it, not unusual for my acne-prone skin. This time, however, instead of the light, soothing scrub-like sensation I’d felt during my first at-home session, with only a few rolls in, I felt my first actual prick on my lower right cheek, followed by a particularly painful stinging sensation. I wasn’t rolling harder or faster than usual, but for some reason, the procedure was much more penetrative this time around.
Assuming the prick was nothing, I opted to continue rolling up, down, and sideways across my face in the four quadrants as I had done a few nights before. But upon further inspection of my complexion post-microneedling session, something just… didn’t look right. Although it wouldn’t have been noticeable to probably even my best friend, a white, raised bump—no bigger than a dime—appeared on my right cheek. It had not been there when I started derma-rolling that night, and it was not a zit.
It wasn’t that the bump was protruding so badly I had to run to the emergency room. Rather, just the notion that a DIY beauty treatment—of which I’ve completed many in the name of journalism—could physically alter my skin in such a way so quickly was unnerving to me. The slight swell remained solid for a few days, and was irritated each time water or soap came in contact with it. Uninterested in what new, splotchy marks might mysteriously appear on my face should I try this again, I opted to put down the derma-roller for good.
So… What the Heck Happened?
According to Avaliani, the white puff on my cheek could have been caused by two things. “The white color of the skin may have been a sign of too much swelling in the area,” she explains. “The swelling was likely caused by slight pressure on the skin’s capillaries, which then compresses and turns the skin white for a few seconds or minute.” However, the particular device I used also had LED lights, which Avaliani says could have burned my skin in that spot. Regardless of what caused the bump (and the pain!), I wasn’t willing to revisit my experiment to find out.
Overall, Avaliani doesn’t recommend performing at-home microneedling under any circumstance. “I believe derma-rollers cause superficial tears in the skin,” she explains. “The rolling needles can easily break and leave small broken fragments in the skin. Additionally, skin and needles must be verywell-cleaned to avoid any kind of infection. I don’t believe at-home microneedling is safe or effective at all.”
Of course, her recommendation contrasts praise from hordes of beauty bloggers and skin-care experts touting the amazing benefits they’ve received from their derma-rollers. And who knows, maybe I'm just being a worry-wart. But as someone with splotchy, sensitive skin prone to any kind of freakout, I’m certain the DIY treatment just isn’t for me.
Your best bet? Know your skin’s limitations—and always consult your dermatologist before beginning any kind of at-home skin care treatment. Especially if that treatment involves tons of tiny needles.