What You Need to Know About Regenerative Dermatology
A new wave of treatments and products improves your complexion today—and how it behaves in the future.
When your skin is at its prime—cells turning over like clockwork, fibroblasts churning out collagen—your complexion is smooth, bright, and youthful. As you know, that beautiful operation slows down with age. But there’s a way to hack the machine, spurring it to regain its peak performance.
Coined regenerative dermatology, these antiaging strategies help boost or reignite some of the skin’s own natural processes, like collagen production, so your skin acts as it used to—and looks more like it too.
“For years, the goal of cosmetic dermatology was to fix signs of aging, like Botox to smooth fine lines or fillers to lift sagging skin,” says Marnie Nussbaum, M.D., a New York City dermatologist. “As we did those treatments, we discovered a positive side effect: long-term skin improvement.”
Injecting filler into the skin was found to stimulate the skin’s own collagen production, making youthful results last longer. Certain nonablative laser treatments (like Fraxel), which were used to improve texture and tone, also increased collagen. (Related: Why Laser and Light Treatments Are Really Good for Your Skin)
If your desire is to look good for your age, this movement is great news. “We’ve always known the body has the power to heal itself, and these new treatments harness that power,” says Gary Goldenberg, M.D., a dermatologist in New York.
Topical skin care can also encourage your skin to work better. Keep reading for more on these promising treatments and products, with one caveat: Some of these newer treatments don’t have the data to prove their claims. “In theory, these regenerative strategies make sense, but the evidence of their efficacy is still primarily anecdotal,” says Neal Schultz, M.D., a dermatologist in New York.
How: Once the skin is numbed to minimize discomfort, a doctor creates tiny punctures in the skin using a handheld pen, roller, or stamp.
What: “All those punctures cause your skin to create its own growth factors and to stimulate certain cells to increase collagen production,” Dr. Nussbaum says. After three to five sessions ($1,100 each) spaced about a month apart, your skin should look plumper, which minimizes irregular texture and fine lines. Expect skin to be pink for two to three days after each treatment. (Here's more facts about microneedling. Read up before trying it, especially if you have acne or cold sores.)
Platelet-rich plasma (PRP)
How: After a numbing cream takes effect, the doctor draws a sample of your blood, places it in a centrifuge to separate the platelets from the rest of your blood, then injects those platelets into your face.
What: “Platelets are cell fragments in the blood whose main role in the body is to go to the site of an injury and stop the bleeding there. But since they are first responders at any wound, platelets also contain growth factors, which they release at the wound site, stimulating the tissue in that area to heal itself,” says Kenneth Howe, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist in New York City. “Those growth factors are what make PRP so valuable.”
PRP may be used on its own to rejuvenate aging skin (if you do that, expect mild facial redness for two days; cost starts at $1,250 ), but it’s also commonly combined with other treatments—like microneedling, fillers, or lasers—to accelerate healing time and boost their benefits. For instance, “While a Fraxel laser treatment on its own is a highly effective treatment for skin aging, add PRP and the result is greatly amplified,” Dr. Howe says. (Here's what you need to know about PRP injections for hair loss.)
Stem cell injections
How: Similar to the way PRP is done, donor stem cells (typically human stem cells from an infant’s umbilical cord) are injected into the designated treatment area.
What: “I think of stem cell therapy as PRP on steroids,” says Dr. Goldenberg. “Stem cells from an umbilical cord are the youngest source you can find. And at that point of infancy, the stem cells have not become specialized, as they are in an adult. So wherever you inject them, in theory, they take on the job that needs to be done there, like growing hair on the scalp or producing more collagen in the face,” he says. (Cost starts at $2,500.)
Dr. Howe does not offer stem cell therapy, but he supports this hypothesis. These stem cells are pluripotent, he says, which means they’re capable of developing into a variety of cell types, including cells that produce collagen and perform other structural functions in the skin. “It’s exciting, but these stem cell treatments come from a donor, which means that even if the cells are extensively tested for infection, there are still unknowns,” Dr. Howe says. (Related: It's Never Too Early to Start Protecting the Collagen In Your Skin)
At-home skin care
The products you put on your face can also help skin cells work better. OMI Skin Nutrition was developed to prompt your skin cells to be more efficient (that is, act like younger skin cells). The products contain active ingredients (like resveratrol and green tea) that support a process called autophagy (self-eating), in which cells clean out and recycle their waste to maximize productivity. OMI founder Naomi Whittel describes this process as akin to “cleaning your kitchen after a meal so that the next time you cook, everything is ready to go.” Aging, pollution, poor diet, and skin-care habits can all compromise this natural cleaning process. And if a cell isn’t properly cleaned out, it slows down or quits altogether. (Try These Skin-Care Products to Help Protect Against Pollution.)
Peptides and retinoids, both long known to help support skin cells’ collagen production, are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the regenerative trend.
“We’ve known for more than 25 years that retinoids can do this,” Dr. Schultz says. What’s new, however, is that now some retinoid formulas have been deliberately designed to work without irritation (sensitivity from a retinoid is the most common complaint)—formulas are laced with skin-comforting ingredients like apricot, marula, jojoba, and passion fruit oils.