microdermabrasion skin anatomy illustration
Medical Microdermabrasion

Click here to read what a real-life consumer had to say about her experience with microdermabrasion.

Microdermabrasion is one of the more recent skin-care techniques to have crossed over from Hollywood to the mainstream. It's being advanced as an "instant facelift" -- an effective alternative to costlier and more invasive procedures like plastic surgery, chemical peels and Botox® injections. Recently, more and more men are trying it, instead of pursuing cosmetic surgery.

So what exactly is microdermabrasion, what does it promise and what effect does it actually have on your face? Do you need a doctor, or is it something you can do yourself? In this article, we'll look at the science behind microdermabrasion, see what a treatment is like and find out what it does to your skin.

The Basics

Microdermabrasion is a general term for the application of tiny rough grains to buff away the surface layer of skin. Many different products and treatments use this method, including medical procedures, salon treatments and creams and scrubs that you apply yourself at home. It's usually done to the face, chest, neck, arms or hands. Before we can understand how microdermabrasion does what it does, it's important to understand how skin works.

Your skin is made up of two main layers, the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis is the layer closest to the outside world. It's a set of dead skin cells on top of another layer of cells that are in the process of maturing. The topmost layer is called the stratum corneum. The stratum corneum mostly acts as a barrier between the outside world and the lower skin layers. It keeps all but the smallest molecules from getting through.

What does it treat?

Microdermabrasion is effective at improving and reducing fine lines, age spots or brown spots, and other superficial skin blemishes. The treatment can also be helpful with oily and enlarged pores, blackheads, and some acne scarring.

In addition, microdermabrasion stimulates the creation of collagen and cell turnover. Immediately following a microdermabrasion session the skin will feel smoother and have improved texture.

Who can be treated?

The Microdermabrasion is a safe, common, non-surgical procedure however there are people who should not have it. People with active herpes lesions, active acne or rosacea, open sores or lesions, dermatitis, psoriasis, people using Accutane within the last 6 months, eczema, and lupus should not have microdermabrasion.

microdermabrasion clinical demonstration photograph
How long does it take?

The typical session for microdermabrasion takes between 15 and 30 minutes. Most patients find it a quite pleasant experience. The microdermabrasion hand piece will be passed over your skin and you will begin to feel a mild scratching as the procedure removes the superficial skin cells.

This scratching will soon pass and a vibrating sensation, akin to a massage, will set in. Following the session your skin will feel smoother and tighter and some redness is common for several hours afterwards.

Side effects and risks

Side effects for microdermabrasion are usually temporary and may include swelling and redness for several hours. The skin will become more sensitive to sun exposure so most physicians recommend using sunscreen following a microdermabrasion session.


Following any microdermabrasion treatment it is important to use sunscreen as the skin is usually very sensitive to sun exposure. Also, moisturizing the skin is helpful as the microdermabrasion session will dry the skin temporarily.

Glycolic Acid Treatments

Glycolic acid is another home treatment that may be prescribed for skin improvement. In a cream or facial-wash formulation, glycolic acid can smooth rough, sun-damaged skin. With the addition of bleaching agents, glycolic acid also works to correct or improve uneven pigmentation. The cream or wash is applied twice daily for as long as the patient desires. Transient redness, irritation, itching, stinging and/or dry skin will disappear as the skin adjusts to the treatment. There are no serious medical risks.

Skin care includes applying moisturizer once or twice daily and wearing sun block when outdoors. Results are permanent as long as treatment is continued, but treatment does not prevent deeper wrinkles from forming with aging.

Retin-A® Treatment

Patients with fine facial wrinkles and/or blotchy pigmented areas can achieve brighter, fresher-looking skin with at-home treatments of prescription Retin-A® gel or cream formulations. To achieve the desired effect, the product is applied topically every night before going to bed for a period of eight months to one year. After that, two to three applications per week are sufficient to maintain the desired result.

Until the skin adjusts to the treatment, the patient may experience temporary redness, itching, irritation, stinging and/or dry skin. Some patients may need to limit Retin-A® usage to once every two or three days until their skin adjusts to the formula. There are no serious medical risks, but the patient may have to discontinue use of some cosmetic products if they cause irritation. The patient should apply moisturizer twice daily and wear sunblock when outdoors. Results will be maintained as long as treatment is continued, but will be lost when Retin-A® treatment is discontinued. Deeper wrinkles may form with aging.

Chemical Peel

Indications for chemical peel include wrinkled, sun-damaged, blemished or unevenly pigmented skin. A chemical peel involves the application of a solution containing either alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), trichloroacetic acid (TCA) or phenol to remove the top layers of skin. The AHA peel is the mildest, removing the fewest layers of skin; phenol solutions achieve the deepest peel. The formulas for each type of peel can be adjusted for individual cases.

A chemical peel may be performed in conjunction with a face-lift, but it is not a substitute since it does not achieve the same effects. Chemical peels do not retard the effects of aging.

The AHA peel smooths rough, dry skin and improves the texture of sun-damaged skin. It may also help to improve mild acne. The AHA solution can be mixed with a bleaching agent to correct or improve pigmentation problems. Sometimes the AHA peel is used as a pretreatment to prepare the face for a TCA peel or for laser resurfacing.

An AHA peel may cause mild stinging, but no anesthetic is required. Several treatments may be needed to achieve the desired effects, but once this point is reached, the patient can maintain improved skin texture by using a low-concentration of an AHA, such as a glycolic or fruit acid, mixed with a facial cream or wash as part of a daily at-home skin care program.

The TCA peel (e.g. the commonly performed Obagi Blue Peel) is a medium peel that can be administered in various strengths to adjust the depth of the peel. The TCA peel is appropriate to smooth fine surface wrinkles, remove superficial blemishes and correct pigmentation problems. Unlike the other peels, the TCA peel may be used on the neck as well as the face, and this is the preferred peel for darker-skinned individuals.

To achieve the best effects, the skin is sometimes pretreated with Retin-A or AHA. A full-face TCA peel may take from 30 to 60 minutes. The peel does not require anesthesia, but the patient may be sedated to make him/her more comfortable. Repeat treatment may be necessary to maintain the desired effects.

The phenol peel is the deepest peel, achieving the most dramatic effects. A phenol peel can correct blotches caused by sun exposure, birth control pills and aging. It smooths coarse wrinkles, and is sometimes used to remove precancerous growths. The phenol peel is appropriate for use on the face only, as scarring can result on other parts of the body. Because of the depth of the phenol peel, it is not suitable for dark-skinned individuals. The best candidates for phenol peel are people with fair, thin skin and superficial wrinkles.

The duration of a phenol-peel procedure varies with the extent of the peel. A full-face peel may take up to two hours to perform. The phenol peel does not require anesthesia, but the patient usually receives sedation for greater comfort. He or she will probably also undergo precautionary cardiac (EKG) monitoring during the procedure. Although an outpatient facility is the usual setting for a phenol peel, selected patients may require a one or two day inpatient stay. A single treatment with phenol usually achieves the desired results.

Temporary side-effects and recovery time vary with the type and depth of chemical peel. After an AHA peel, the patient is likely to experience flaking, scaling, redness, dry skin and possibly minor crusting, but these conditions are transient and should not interfere with prompt resumption of normal activities. The patient should use a sunblock every day to protect the skin, however.

After a TCA peel, the patient may experience tingling or throbbing sufficient to require a mild pain medication, and there may be significant swelling, especially if a strong formula has been used. Swelling generally subsides within a week. Crusts or scabs that form on the treated areas begin to slough off in a week to 10 days. At this time, the patient can return to normal activities except for sun exposure, which should be avoided until complete healing has occurred. Then the patient should apply sunblock daily for protection.

The after-effects are most severe with a phenol peel. The patient's face may be quite swollen, even to the extent that the eyes are swollen shut for a day or two. The patient may be limited to a liquid diet for several days, and talking will be difficult. New, very red skin will begin to form in seven to ten days; the color will gradually fade to normal over a period of weeks to months. The skin may be acutely sensitive to the sun during this period, so it is important that the patient use a sunblock to prevent permanently blotchy skin. Going to work and other normal activities-including the wearing of makeup-can be resumed about two weeks after the peel.

Risks vary with the type and depth of the peel, but all peels carry a small risk of infection and/or scarring. Patients with allergies could experience a flare-up of skin allergies. Fever blisters and/or cold sores may also develop. The phenol peel also carries a risk of permanent abnormal skin-color changes, and while very rare, a patient may develop heart irregularities while undergoing treatment.

Results of an AHA peel are neither dramatic nor long-lasting. Improvements must be maintained by periodic treatments. The effects of a TCA peel are more noticeable and slightly more enduring, but they are not permanent. The results of a phenol peel are both dramatic and permanent, but new wrinkles will still develop with age. Patients considering a phenol peel should be aware that their facial skin will be permanently lightened and that this skin will never tan. Also, people who have had phenol peels must always wear sunblock.

Due to all the problems mentioned above which are associated with phenol peels, they are no longer performed routinely.  Newer, safer laser resurfacing procedures have largely replaced phenol peels.  Er:YAG laser resurfacing and lately fractionated CO2-laser resurfacing have largely replaced the use of phenol peels.


Skin Rejuvenation Guide

The following section provides information about medical microdermabrasion, chemical peels, Retin A®, glycolic acid treatment, laser resurfacing and Sciton’s MicroLaserPeel®.  There are also three videos about sunscreen, Retin A®/Renova and the demonstration of an Obagi Blue Peel on this page.

Below, Dr. Zein Obagi talks about sunscreen.

Visia® Comlexion Analysis
skin care

In the quest for a more radiant complexion, knowledge is an invaluable tool. Canfield Scientific has created the VISIA® Complexion Analysis system which provides the deepest possible understanding of your skin and the ability to show you just how it will respond to a full range of treatments.

VISIA® Complexion Analysis evaluates the six critical variables that contribute to the total condition of your complexion. These factors are wrinkle, spots, pore size, skin tone variations, bacterial content, and UV spots that indicate sun damage.

VISIA® starts with a digital photograph of your face which we use to document the condition of your skin and evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment options available to you. The system generates comprehensive reports to add to your record and with which to track your progress to a healthier, more youthful looking complexion.