Instagram loves it — but do dermatologists feel the same way?
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Ultrasonic Skin Scrubber Spatula
Credit: Nora Carol Photography/Getty

When you hear the words "skin spatula" you probably... gasp? Run? Book it, Danno? Yeah, not me.

Now, I wouldn't say I'm titillated (yes, mom, I used "titillated") by them, but I'm also not sprinting the hell away from them. I'm, well, intrigued — which is probably why I found myself falling deeper and deeper into the pimple-popping, skincare-sermonizing Instagram rabbit hole this past summer. And after enough nights spent glassy-eyed and glued to the screen, I was convinced: I needed to try one of these ultrasonic skin spatulas touted as one of the (if not the) best blackhead remover on the market.

Fast forward a month and here I am today to share my experiences. But, first, let's cover the basics — i.e. what it is, how it works, whether it's really effective — just as I did before taking the high-tech tool to my face.

What Is an Ultrasonic Skin Spatula, Exactly? 

"It's a device that exfoliates the skin by using ultrasonic waves, basically vibrations, to loosen and draw out excess dead skin cells and debris; it then slides over the skin to collect what has been extracted," says Sejal Shah, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

Also known as an ultrasonic skin scrubber, the tool is less reminiscent of a pancake-flipping kitchen utensil (read: spatula) and more of a wand. While there's a variety of different scrubbers on the market, they're all generally the same in that they have a metal head and a sleek handle. Many skin spatulas also boast a variety of features, such as lifting and moisturizing modes. But what really draws folks to these devices is their ability to unclog your pores and collect the gunk that comes out along the way, providing a Dr. Pimple Popper–level of satisfaction. (Related: How to Safely Use a Comedone Extractor on Blackheads and Whiteheads)

"People are [also] fascinated with it because you are physically seeing the oils coming out when you push on the face," says Katina Byrd Miles, M.D., F.A.A.D, founder and medical director of Skin Oasis Dermatology in Gambrills, Maryland.

TBH, I am one of those people. And, from my experience using one of these bad boys myself, I can totally vouch for their knack at delivering a gratifying de-gunking experience with ease.

How Does an Ultrasonic Skin Spatula Work?

At its most basic, the tool emits ultrasonic soundwaves — essentially high-frequency vibrations — that loosen up sebum (aka oil), dead skin, and dirt from your pores. Similar to other sonic skin case devices (i.e. celeb-fave Foreo face brush), not all skin spatulas deliver the same number of vibrations. For example, the tool that I tried — Vanity Planet Essia Ultrasonic Lifting and Exfoliating Wand (Buy It, $90, amazon.com) — offers 30,000 vibrations per second. More vibrations, presumably, means more force to wiggle out the gunk.

Seflie Using Skin Spatula
Credit: Elizabeth Bacharach

And while they also vary in terms of specific instructions, the consensus is that a skin spatula should only be used 1-3 times a week (remember: it's a type of exfoliation) and on damp skin. Why? It's all about the lubrication (wink wink, nudge nudge). But seriously — damp skin allows the device to glide more easily, thereby preventing irritation, says Dr. Shah. That being said, irritation is still very much a possibility and, in my case, a reality. And on that note...

Who, If Anyone, Should Use a Skin Spatula?

After each skin spatula session, my face would be left slightly red and swollen as well as marked with little lines from the head or blade. Because these side effects subsided by the following a.m., I reasoned that they were just the result of applying the blade (likely too hard) against my skin. But this type irritation is actually one of the reasons why Dr. Miles thinks that the tool's "best used by someone who's certified in skincare, such as an aesthetician." (Related: How to Safely Use a Comedone Extractor on Blackheads and Whiteheads)

"What I commonly see with at-home use is that the devices are used too much or with too much vigor," she says. "People equate more with better and subsequently, overuse can lead to skin irritation and skin thickening, which can cause it to feel rough and contribute to acne formation."

Think of this way: the more friction against your skin, the more likely your skin will try to protect itself and, in turn, thicken, explains Dr. Miles, who adds that it's like getting a callus when lifting weights or walking. As such, she recommends that those with sensitive, dry skin, and/or rosacea should avoid using an ultrasonic skin spatula. "The best candidate for this type of tool would be someone with hardy [not sensitive] and oily skin because, most times, they're able to tolerate more aggressive regimen and treatments."

As someone who's fairly stubborn and with combination (often oily) skin, though, I was set on giving an ultrasonic skin spatula the ol' college try. So I used the Essia Ultrasonic Lifting and Exfoliation Wand once a week for a month. And my thoughts? It's definitely a fun addition to my skincare routine. I'm a sucker for a good skincare gadget (which the Essia definitely is!), and, as I've made embarrassingly clear, for a satisfying de-gunking treatment. What's more, after each treatment my felt seriously squeaky clean (in addition to the aforementioned redness and swelling). And there's something about actually seeing gunk physically come out of your pores that makes you feel like Monica Geller after a weekly apartment cleaning: successful, satisfied, and confident that I wouldn't find a crumb (or, in this case, a clogged pore) for days going forward.

Sure, most sessions left me feeling — and looking — less clogged around typical problem areas (i.e. on and around the nose). But there were a few times that weren't as effective. I'd look in the mirror the following morning and see plenty of clogged pores still camping out on my T-zone and chin. What's more, one or two times I woke up to something even worse: a newfound nodule on my chin that pulsated in pain. Not. Cool.

"It's possible that any treatment can cause skin to purge, meaning acne below the skin that was thinking about forming will come to the surface," says Dr. Miles. "If the treatment causes inflammation of acne then cysts can form."

As someone who suffers from (often hormonal) cystic acne, an unexpected under-the-skin situation was enough to make me call it quits — at least for the time being. But, as I've said, I'm a sucker for satisfying skincare treatments. So, until I overcome my fear of aggravating new acne — something that'll likely happen with time — my skin spatula will remain in its new home: under my sink.

Vanity Planet Essia Skin Spatula
Credit: Vanity Planet