This Beauty Tool Promises Perfect Skin—But Is It Safe?

Dermaroller Microneedling

Photo: Courtesy of Dermaroller/Design by Candace Napier

If semen facials and placenta-spiked skin care have shown us anything, it’s that there’s no treatment too nauseating in the quest for the perfect complexion. So when porcelain-faced celebs like Michelle Phan and Barely Famous’s Sara Foster rave about their own stomach-churning skin secret—rolling micro-needle tips across the skin—we saw two perfectly gorgeous reasons to get our at-home needle-rolling on.

Phan swears by these wands to puff up lips like Kylie Jenner’s and Foster credits the device for minimizing her crow’s feet. But can self-massaging the skin with a handheld roller surfaced like Hellraiser’s demon really bring these benefits and more—including helping skin serums penetrate better and reducing scars?

Though the practice sounds carnal, science has shown that poking minuscule holes in the face can trigger a rush of new collagen production and rejuvenate skin. In fact, many dermatology offices offer a similar form of the so-called “Collagen Induction Therapy” with micro-needling treatments. By using a wand stuffed with two-milliliter needles that mechanically punch microholes in the skin at a 90-degree angle, scarring and fine lines can diminish.

“This can help with small wrinkles, stretch marks, and acne scars through collagen production,” says Dr. Raja Sivamani, a dermatologist and assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of California, Davis, who conducts research on micro-needling. “It can also allow better penetration of topically applied substances, since it creates temporary micro-wounds that can bypass the stratum corneum and the epidermis.”

Of course, achieving similar results by self-needling at home becomes a more complicated ordeal. The FDA hasn’t cleared micro-needling devices for medical use, though “micro-needling products may be used by aestheticians for cosmetic purposes such as exfoliation,” says FDA spokesperson Eric Pahon. And just like self-suturing an open wound isn’t recommended for those of us at home, the dermatologists we talked to were cautious about signing off on self-administering collagen induction therapy, too. Though portable needle rollers employ more superficial needles than in-office micro-needling wands, the range of what’s available for purchase online means different rollers can pose different levels of risk if used by the average skin-care hobbyist.

The medical Dermaroller, a registered micro-needling device released in Germany in 2004, employs needles 1.5mm in length—just like the devices used in studies that are proven to smooth out skin sunken by acne or chickenpox and help trigger hair growth. But on its site, Dermaroller’s maker advises against using the device without the help of an expert practitioner, cautioning, “Don’t get fooled into thinking that skin-needling is a procedure you should do yourself at home, no matter what some of the non-medical device needle roller re-sellers and websites say. For an effective treatment, your practitioner will be looking to achieve pin-point bleeding, uniform redness and slight swelling across the treatment area.” Sivamani echos this sentiment, adding, “I do not recommend home use of devices with longer needles, like the Medical Dermaroller.”

Other micro-needling devices sold, like the the Environ Roll-Cit, are stocked with .02mm or shorter needles and are designed to affect the top layer of the skin (the epidermis) only, not the dermis below where collagen stimulation occurs. “Because of safety, these home devices are even more mild than in-office procedures,” notes Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Results are modest, but they definitely can help with continued use.”

These gentler rollers may not be able to directly trigger collagen production, but as Miami-based dermatologist Dr. S. Manjula Jegasothy notes, “They may help your retinoids and vitamin Cs get to the epidermis, and that in itself is an improvement. This can help with fine lines, overall hydration and newer, superficial sunspots.”

As for whether these shallow micro-needling devices should be used to plump lips, all three MDs we spoke to express reservations. “I do not advocate using these rollers on the lips, as this can be a very sensitive area,” explains Sivamani. “Micro-needles can help with fine lines and shallow scars, but it will not create lip volume.”

Not only is rolling over lips ineffective, it’s potentially dangerous due to the increased risk of infection: Those with a history of cold sores should not roll before, during, or after an outbreak. “This is particularly true of rolling on the lips because you can spread the infection all over your face,” warns Jegasothy.

“The main risk with needle rollers is that people at home don’t know how to use them,” says Jegasothy. And that can backfire. While the microscopic holes created by Fraxel require only one or two epidermal cells to cover and heal the wound, needle roller holes require longer healing time—even those created by superficial .02mm needles. “The longer your skin is open, the more it’s susceptible to infection,” she explains.

For early adopters like Phan and Foster, our derms suggest rolling with caution by taking a page from a dermatologist’s playbook. “Some needling devices do draw blood if used correctly,” says Sivamani. “Treat it as you would treat any other needles: Absolutely do not share micro-needles with your friends, as you can spread diseases. Rollers should ideally be formally sterilized like any other surgical instrument in between uses.” Jegasothy also suggests using one-use rollers to ensure each treatment is bacteria-free.

Further, test a micro-needling roller on a patch of skin before covering the whole face to ensure the roller’s metals don’t cause an allergic reaction. Before using, wash skin with soap and water as well as alcohol to reduce the risk of infection, Zeichner advises, and don’t roll over breakouts—that can spread infection.

After needling, apply a gentle occlusive balm to protect the fresh micro-wounds in the skin, Sivamani suggests. Use products only housed in pumps, since products in jars can house bacteria from previous finger dips. Finally, don’t overdo it. “Treatments should be spread out approximately six to eight weeks apart,” says Sivamani—even if a device’s instructions suggest otherwise.