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Call me squeamish, sceptical or just downright lazy, but I’ve never been tempted to try any of the considerable number of beauty treatments out there involving blood. And yet, when the 35-year-old friend sitting opposite me with perfect, plump skin starts extolling the virtues of microneedling, and in the same week a clinic writes urging me to try a new version of the vampire facial (also known as the platelet-rich plasma or PRP facial), I wonder if my inherent cynicism has been doing me and readers of this column a disservice.
Thanks to a new wave of Instagrammers, our attitude towards needles, whether for Botox, fillers or facials, has gone from gruesome to awesome! Kim Kardashian kicked things off when she posted images of her face smeared in blood after a vampire facial in 2013. Although KK has since denounced the treatment as “painful” — blood is first drawn from the patient and spun in a centrifuge, separating off platelet- and protein-rich plasma, which is then injected back into the face — our fascination abides. London’s Medicetics clinic offers a new Platelet Rich Growth Factor facial from £500, which claims to produce a higher concentration of proteins in the centrifuge, making it even more effective. Then there’s the aforementioned microneedling, which uses small needles to trigger cell growth by creating little injuries to the skin’s surface, promising a tighter, more youthful complexion.
“Blood has an almost mystical and healing notion about it and has been used for centuries in various ways to prolong life or beauty,” says Dr Barbara Sturm, one of the chief proponents of the vampire facial. Sturm has always been ahead of the curve in the blood department. She helped to develop Orthokine injections, a procedure in which blood is taken from a patient and maintained at body temperature so that the blood cells stay alive and continue to produce healing factors. When these are injected back into arthritic cartilage, wounds heal more quickly.
Sturm was one of the first to see how the Orthokine process — which was used on basketball star Kobe Bryant after a knee injury — could be developed as a facial, believing that using the patient’s own blood could counteract ageing-associated inflammation and help to strengthen tissue. She claims that her version of the vampire facial, which costs from about €950, is 140 times more potent than “merely re-injecting blood plasma”.
But if the science for PRP holds up in principle, not everyone agrees with the practice. “The first thing you need to know is that when you extract blood and put it through a centrifuge you can’t reproduce the juice consistently,” says Dr Phillip Levy, a Switzerland-based dermatologist with a background in wound healing. “For something to be scientifically proven, you need to be able to do that. And secondly, while PRP is helpful in sports trauma, because you have a wound, getting older in itself is not a wound. Everything is essentially normal in your skin, so the mere fact of putting in platelets and thinking you’re going to activate the wound-healing process is illogical. If you do see benefits, it’s likely to do with the fact you have been ‘needled’ — you’ve created a wound in your skin which causes the body to create more collagen, giving a certain plumpness.”
Microneedling, Levy argues, also comes with its own potential problems. The needles enter the skin to the same depth all over the face, which doesn’t account for the different thicknesses of the skin — thinner by your eyes than above your lips, for example. Also of concern is what happens when you go over the same area too often, or too frequently (the monthly treatments my friend was advised to undergo, for example). “You can create a tendency to scar,” says Levy.
While Sturm’s experience and reputation is notable, most PRP offerings remain controversial. “I’ve interviewed many doctors, and I’d say the cosmetics community is on the fence about it,” says Olivia Falcon, a former beauty director who runs The Editor’s List, a concierge service for cosmetic treatments. “Some claim they can get much plumper cheeks in their clients by stimulating the collagen and producing more volume, but other doctors I rate think it’s rubbish. I’ve tried microneedling three times and PRP twice and I saw no difference whatsoever.”
Recommendations by word of mouth can be tempting. But when Levy says: “Most doctors in this business are motivated by income. Money is behind this, don’t forget it,” I’m relieved I can put off the needle for a little while longer.
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