This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Stab your face with tiny needles and then rub your own blood all over your skin in the name of beauty and youth? It’s 2019, so why not? In the last few years, the trend of “vampire facials” has taken off (at least in part because of Kim Kardashian West, who got one in 2013). The main feature of these facials, platelet-rich plasma (PRP), has been used for decades for a variety of purposes in medical settings. Until recently, there hasn’t been any proof that the skin on your face will look younger and more taut after this macabre-sounding treatment.
First things first: The vampire facial is actually a specific trademarked brand of a type of procedure that's more generally known as platelet-rich plasma microneedling. This is how the facial works: Blood is drawn from your arm and then a yellowish-clear substance, PRP, is obtained from it by using a centrifuge to separate the plasma from the red blood cells, skimming off the portion of the plasma that is platelet-rich.
Tiny needles are then used to poke tiny holes in the skin on your face. “These needles go up and down very quickly...your skin gets penetrated, but the needles are thin enough that the holes do not take a long time to heal,” says to Jonathan Drysdale, internist and owner of Hela Medical Spa in Washington, DC. When you get this procedure done at a medical spa, your face is numbed with topical anesthetic while your blood is drawn so your PRP can be separated and collected. Then the microneedling begins. Once your skin has been poked, your own PRP is slathered on so it can soak into the skin through the tiny holes. As our good ol’ beauty guinea pig Kim showed us, there’s actual blood on your face from the small holes in your skin the microneedling creates—hence the vampire vibes.
A little background: Human blood is made up of a few major components, platelets and plasma being two of them. Platelets are a natural source of proteins called growth factors that can help heal injury, so in the field of regenerative and sports medicine, platelet-rich plasma injections are sometimes used to promote healing in joints and soft tissue. Dermatologists picked up on this and decided to use PRP to try to smooth and rejuvenate the appearance of the face by stimulating new collagen formation with the growth factors in PRP.
One of the most alluring thing about PRP, Drysdale says, is that each person has their own supply—kind of like a wrinkle-combatting product you’ve got on reserve in your blood. This treatment, however, tends to be most effective for people under 50 and those with minimal wrinkles and as a preventative measure. It won’t do much for someone with a lot of wrinkles or weathered skin, says Raman Madan, director of cosmetic dermatology at Northwell Health and professor of clinical dermatology at Hofstra University.
The release of the first, albeit tiny, randomised clinical trial of PRP facial injections only came last month and was led by Murad Alam, professor and vice chair of dermatology at Northwestern University, and a team of researchers. Their goal was to see if dermatologists and patients actually noticed a difference when they were injected with PRP versus regular saline. The 19 participants were given multiple PRP injections in one cheek and saline injections in the other.Neither the dermatologists evaluating the results nor the patients in the study were told which cheek was injected with which substance.
Two dermatologists examined patient photographs from multiple intervals after the injections, and they could not tell the difference between saline and PRP-injected cheeks. But the subjects in the study could: They reported an improvement in the texture and wrinkles on their face on the PRP-injected side of their face when compared to the saline side. Alam tells me that patients generally know their own faces very well, “much better than a doctor or anyone else,” and so they would be able to detect a small change that a doctor could not notice.
It’s important to keep in mind that the method used in the study is different than the PRP microneedling facials that are done in most doctors’ offices and medical spas, Drysdale says. In the study, they’re injecting PRP under the skin and when a regular person gets the facial treatment, it means getting your face lightly stabbed thousands of times with teeny needles and then applying PRP on top. Still, the fact that the participants could see results while dermatologists couldn't indicates that we probably need more research on this treatment.
Skincare enthusiasts on Instagram are going back again and again to get repeat PRP microneedling treatments in search of a wrinkle-free glow. Beauty blogger Beth Vaccaro documented her experience with the treatment on her blog and Instagram. “I decided on PRP with microneedling as an alternative to more aggressive anti-aging treatments, like lasers,” Vaccaro, who has gotten five of these treatments so far, tells me. “I also had it injected in the area beneath my eyes to possibly help boost collagen production.” She says her skin tone is more even and that the fine lines around my eyes have lessened. When I ask Madan if the collagen thing is real, he confirms and tells me that collagen helps tighten the face. Still, “have realistic expectations,” he says. “It’s not going to give you magical results. It’s subtle and anyone who promises anything other than that is lying.”
“We don't know the optimal amount to inject, the most effective way to deliver it, how many treatments are best, what types of people may get the greatest improvement, or how long the benefits may last," Alam says. And of course, there are risks. “The biggest risk factor is infection,” Madan says. “Everything needs to be done in a sterile manner. When you create those little holes in your skin, you’re leaving yourself open to infection.” In September 2018, a spa doing PRP microneedling facials in Albuquerque, New Mexico, may have exposed clients to bloodborne infections, which serves as a reminder that those looking for the fountain of youth need to make sure to choose reputable providers.
In Alam's experience, it's a tiny portion of people who’ve had adverse effects, but, he maintains, you’re better off doing it with a physician than at a spa. You also don’t want to mess with this treatment if you have acne, eczema or any other skin issues, since it causes inflammation which will just beget more inflammation. Both doctors I talked to agree that if you’re excited about it, and down to spend around $800 a treatment, there isn’t much risk to trying it out.