Paula’s Choice: Is Micro-Needling Worth It?

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Wondering about those handheld devices outfitted with dozens of “surgical-grade needles”? They look like they’d be painful, kind of like torture devices from the Dark Ages! Rolling or stamping these tools over your face as directed literally creates small holes in skin. Why do this? The needling is supposed to allow ingredients to penetrate better and improve the look and feel of skin over time. It’s tricky to weigh the pros and cons of such devices because when something sounds possible for one thing, we assume it must be good for everything. Another obstacle to obtaining the facts about micro-needling is the skewed information from those who sell the device or use it in a spa versus having it done as a medical treatment by a physician—which can be worth it!

In This Article:

What is Micro-needling?

Micro-needling is a general term for a process that involves moving a special device over your skin that has a roller with many tiny (usually metal) needles embedded in it. There are different kinds of micro-needling devices with different product names. One is the manual version of micro-needling called a Dermaroller. There are also motorized devices such as the Dermapen or Dermastamp. For the most part, these micro-needling devices have reasonable science behind them indicating they may help in reducing the appearance of scars, but there’s far less support for their ability to address wrinkles or for their ability to help anti-aging ingredients absorb better into skin. Here are the various options:

Dermarollers resemble small paint rollers you would use to get into tight spots. They act as miniature aerators, like something you’d use on your lawn. They have a round, rotating cylinder with at least 200 tiny needles protruding from it, and a handle for moving it around your face. And that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do with it: You roll this quasi-aerator over your skin with some amount of pressure, puncturing hundreds of tiny holes along the way.

Dermapens look exactly like a pen, with a circular head studded with tiny needles. The head and needles are motorized. The motor-driven needles move in and out of the skin in a stamping motion, piercing it with thousands of tiny punctures.

Dermastamps resemble Dermapens but have a larger head with more needles protruding from the device. Dermastamps may be motorized or manual, and work exactly as the name implies: Rather than rolling needles over the skin or being moved over skin by a motor, you stamp the needles into skin. It’s a bit like a tattooing machine, but with many needles puncturing skin all at once rather than a single needle (and obviously minus the ink deposit).

Benefits of Micro-needling and Derma Rollers

There are three primary uses for micro-needling devices, but not all of them are beneficial. The first, which has some good research behind it, is to break down the thick collagen that causes some types of scarring. [1, 2, 3]

The other two uses are more questionable, especially in terms of wrinkles. They include stimulating collagen production by wounding skin, thereby improving the appearance of wrinkles, and enhancing delivery of skincare ingredients.

It seems clear from research that medical treatments using either the Dermastamp or the Dermapen to reduce scarring have the potential to produce good results. Whether or not the Dermaroller produces the same results is unclear because there’s almost no published research available. Theoretically, it should have the same results but it might not.

You may have seen claims that these needling procedures can also reduce cellulite. However, whether or not micro-needling of any kind can work on cellulite is at best dubious. That’s because cellulite involves fat deposits in connective tissue on the legs and buttocks, and needling skin cannot change any of this, not even a little. If you see results on your cellulite from needling, it’s most likely due to the inflammation from the needles, not because cellulite was reduced. Once the inflammation subsides, the cellulite looks just like it did before needling. So the needling can help, but just a little and the results will be temporary

In terms of building collagen, the Dermapen and Dermastamp have emerging research about their benefits for wrinkles as an easy procedure that’s far less expensive than other devices or treatments. In contrast, the Dermaroller has no such research, though again, theoretically there’s logic to the concept.

Dermarollers vs. Chemical Peels and Lasers

The Dermaroller is often touted as being better than chemical peels or resurfacing lasers for wrinkles. The boast is that because it doesn’t remove the epidermis, yet still works to promote collagen production to repair the wounds it causes. The truth is that removing the surface layer of skin is a primary benefit of chemical peels and resurfacing lasers. Resurfacing the skin creates a notably smoother outer layer of skin because it removes layers of sun damaged skin—something micro-needling doesn’t do.

Besides, building collagen is only one way to improve wrinkles. Keep in mind that there many other types of lasers, light-emitting, radiofrequency, and ultrasound machines that don’t resurface skin and whose benefits go beyond what a Dermaroller can do.

Why Daily Use of Derma Rollers Can Be a Problem

It’s vitally important to keep in mind that if you constantly wound skin on a regular basis, eventually you will experience negative consequences. That’s one of the major concerns about using any repeated treatment that constantly wounds skin. And it’s why we’re not enthusiasts of micro-needling devices for at home use: The risk of abuse (not to mention skin infections) is just too great. Don’t believe us? Keep reading to understand how skin repairs itself when wounded. We think you’ll agree that Dermarollers are an iffy device to use regularly.

In wound healing and the formation of scar tissue, there’s a change in the relative amounts of type I and type III collagen (for quick reference, there are at least 16 types of collagen in the body; types I and III are most prevalent in skin). [4]

When skin is wounded, the amount of type I collagen increases and the amount of type III collagen decreases. When type I and type III are in balance, skin is healthier and looks younger; when they are out of balance, because of injury or aging, especially if the skin is repeatedly being reinjured, then type I is more prevalent. The result? Skin becomes stiffer and looks unhealthy. Essentially, it’s in hyper-repair mode due to constant injury—resulting in too much of a good thing!

It’s the balance between type I and type III collagen that comprises young skin. When skin is “wounded” during laser procedures or chemical peels, type I collagen increases as a response to skin’s healing process, but then during the healing process skin starts producing lots of type III collagen to bring it back into a healthy state (skin loves being repaired if we don’t get in its way).

Because it’s the balance between type I and type III collagen that makes skin healthy, look younger, and radiant, continually wounding skin makes it almost impossible to regain or maintain a healthy balance between these two types of collagen. Peels and lasers are performed intermittently, while most needling devices come with instructions to use them daily. It’s just too easy to think if a little is good, a lot must be better. [5]

Does Micro-needling Enhance Ingredient Penetration?

Another claim about the benefit of micro-needling is that it enhances the penetration into skin of prescription or cosmetic ingredients. Although there’s research showing the potential benefit of micro-needling as a means for delivering prescription drugs into skin, it’s developing research, not a standard practice by any means. The cosmetics industry doesn’t have the lead here! [6, 7, 8, 9]

In terms of skincare ingredients penetrating “deeper” by using the Dermaroller or similar tools, the benefit is at best dubious and minimally studied. Much of this research uses a small number of people and is often done by people (even doctors) representing the companies selling these tools. The major issue, as we mentioned, is the risk of constantly re-wounding skin, which eventually damages it.

The second issue is in regard to what skincare ingredients are going to be absorbed further into skin—and is that even a good thing? The claims are usually around improved penetration of everything from hyaluronic acid to retinol, and vitamin C. There are even claims that human or plant stem cells and growth factors can be used at home with these devices to absorb better into the skin. [10]

By the way, even if skincare products claiming to contain stem cells or growth factors could work, they would have serious risks to the health of your skin. Since they can’t work, it’s really more a waste of your time and money than a real risk.

More to the point, gaining the benefit of toners, moisturizers, or serums with anti-aging ingredients isn’t just about maximum penetration. Ingredients like antioxidants, sunscreen actives, and skin-identical ingredients must stay in the top layers of skin to have benefit, including defense against environmental free-radical damage (which hit skin’s surface first).

There’s also the risk of getting unwanted ingredients (like preservatives or problematic plant extracts) deeper into skin, where their negative effects may be worse. Even beneficial ingredients like hyaluronic acid, vitamin C or retinol can be more sensitizing if they penetrate through a wound (yes, like when applied over broken or “punctured” skin), rather than being able to do their work in the uppermost layers of skin or penetrating deeper naturally through intact skin all on their own. By using a needling device every day, you could inadvertently be creating sensitive, highly reactive skin!

The Bottom Line

The fine point (sorry, we couldn’t resist) on micro-needling is that in some situations it can have benefit, especially for scarring and remotely, but possibly, cellulite. Although that’s exciting, there’s not enough research to support a recommendation to use such tools as part of an anti-aging routine or to gain better or faster results from deeper penetration of the cosmetic ingredients in your skincare products.

From what science has shown to be true about the types of collagen in the body and how they work in balance, there’s a real risk to frequent use of micro-needling devices, powered or manual, in terms of throwing off the balance of healthy, youthful collagen production.

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! Learn more at Shop Paula’s Choice.

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References Cited:

  1. Dogra S, Yadav S, Sarangal R. Microneedling for acne scars in Asian skin type: an effective low cost treatment modality. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2014;13(3):180-7.
  2. Liebl H, Kloth L. Skin cell proliferation stimulated by microneedles. J Am Coll Clin Wound Spec. 2012;4(1):2-6.
  3. Chawla S. Split Face Comparative Study of Microneedling with PRP Versus Microneedling with Vitamin C in Treating Atrophic Post Acne Scars. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2014;7(4):209-212.
  4. Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky SMP, Baltimore D, Darnell J. Molecular Cell Biology. New York: W. H. Freeman; 2000. p. Section 22.3.
  5. Robins, SP et. al., J Invest Dermatol. 2003 Aug;121(2):267-72.
  6. Cahill E, O’Cearbhaill E. Toward Biofunctional Microneedles for Stimulus Responsive Drug Delivery. Bioconjug Chem. [Internet]. 2015 Jun [cited 2015 Jul]. Available from:
  7. Al-Qallaf B, Das D. Optimizing microneedle arrays to increase skin permeability for transdermal drug delivery. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009;1161:83-94.
  8. Narayan R. Transdermal delivery of insulin via microneedles. J Biomed Nanotechnol. 2014;10(9):2244-60.
  9. Zhang H, Zhai Y, Yang X, Zhai G. Breaking the skin barrier: achievements and future directions. Curr Pharm Des. 2015;21(20):2713-24.
  10. Seo K, Kim D, Lee S, Yoon M, Lee H. Skin rejuvenation by microneedle fractional radiofrequency and a human stem cell conditioned medium in Asian skin: a randomized controlled investigator blinded split-face study. J Cosmet Laser Ther. 2013;15(1):25-33.
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