The internet runs on hyperbole, so when the tweet “J.Lo SLAYS” flashed before my eyes this past July, I took it with a grain of salt. When I inevitably clicked through to Jennifer Lopez’s birthday Instagram post, her caption—“52…what it do”—sat below selfies of the world’s most radiant middle-aged megastar posing in a string bikini on a yacht in St. Tropez. The online mob was fixated on the shot of Lopez smooching her once-and-current boyfriend, Ben Affleck. But for me, the story was her skin. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my own birthday was two weeks away, but as I zoomed in on Lopez’s creaseless, perfectly contoured face, I became consumed by the idea that whatever J.Lo had done to fend off the ravages of age, I needed to do, too. Some of this was unattainable: I couldn’t go back in time and un-smoke cigarettes or apply more sunscreen in my youth. Nor do I share her superhuman genes, or—frankly—her commitment to sano, short for the Spanish phrase vivir sano, to live healthily, which is a key ethos of the eight-piece skin-care line J.Lo debuted earlier this year, by popular demand. What I could do was acquire a microcurrent device like the one Lopez reportedly purchased back in 2013—in her case, a $25,000 Caci Ultimate, a machine usually found at a spa, and in my case, the handheld Ziip, a $495 gadget developed by facialist-to-the-stars Melanie Simon.
Sleek as an iPhone and controlled by an app with 10 different facial-toning settings, the Ziip is just one of a fast-expanding range of high-tech skin-care tools made for at-home use. Microcurrent’s not your thing? Fend off acne and inflammation with an LED mask by Dr. Dennis Gross, which purports to calm, clear, and de-wrinkle skin while making you look like a demon in a horror flick (according to my boyfriend). Maybe you’re not into light therapy. In that case, try the Magic Glow Wand, a massager created by bicoastal facialist Joanna Vargas, which features hot and cold settings meant to approximate the steam and cryotherapy included in her signature treatments. There are also collagen-boosting microneedlers (more prickly than painful, and not to be overused); buffing/polishing microdermabraders (ditto); and skin-tightening at-home multipolar radio frequency devices (what?!).
“I think people are a little overwhelmed,” acknowledges New York dermatologist Ellen Marmur, M.D., who created her light-emitting MMSphere 2.0—which offers four different colors of glow, each with its own alleged benefit—to help her patients maintain their in-office results between appointments. “There’s such a variety of devices coming to market now—you can wind up choosing blindly if you don’t understand the technology,” says Marmur, alluding to the spiking interest in these skin-care gadgets, which locked-down consumers have flocked to with gusto. (Sales at the multi-brand skin-tech e-tailer CurrentBody were up more than 180 percent in the past year alone.) Marmur goes on to give me a much-needed primer in LED light therapy, which operates at a cellular level, and elicits different reactions depending on color: The antibacterial blue light in the MMSphere is used for treating acne, for example, while red light may help build collagen for a smoother, plumper appearance. Microcurrent, meanwhile, trains your facial muscles “the same way you work out the muscles in your body at the gym,” adds Tera Peterson, who launched NuFace—the first at-home microcurrent apparatus—with her mother, former Golden Door esthetician Carol Cole, in 2005. “If you’re starting to see sagging around the jawline, that’s when you want to use it.”
My first exposure to these technologies was a decade ago, when I capped off a Joanna Vargas facial with a trip to her newly installed Revitalight bed. Vargas informed me at the time that repetition is the key to LED light therapy’s effectiveness, whether the aim is shrinking pores or promoting collagen production; back then, I couldn’t afford the recommended 12-session package, and even now, I find the $150-per-session expense hard to justify. “That’s the real promise of these at-home tools—they’re a convenient, cost-effective way to create consistency,” Vargas told me when I returned to her Fifth Avenue salon for a tune-up this summer via the Triple Crown Facial. Vargas administered several modalities with a loving hand as huge radio frequency and microcurrent machines whirred in the background, and mechanical compression stockings sucked on my legs to stimulate lymphatic drainage. There was no way I could reproduce this experience in my living room, but after a 20-minute rest in the LED bed—meditative, if a bit claustrophobic—and another five minutes analyzing my noticeably toned and all-around radiant face in the bathroom mirror, I was determined to try: I’d make a religion of using Vargas’s Magic Glow Wand and any other devices I could get my hands on, I swore, if it meant I could look this good every day.
The easiest treatment to fit into my skin-care-slacker lifestyle, I reasoned, was LED: I liked the idea that I could possibly improve circulation and reduce inflammation by passively bathing in the MMSphere’s glow, or by popping on CurrentBody’s flexible mask (less “horror-y” than Dr. Gross’s, per my boyfriend). Other devices were more labor-intensive. Although I was assured by Simon that, once I got the hang of my favorite Ziip treatments, I could do them while I watched TV, I never progressed past needing the online video tutorials as a guide. New York facialist Georgia Louise’s celeb-approved microneedling device, the Hollywood EGF, required a similar choreography of circumnavigating my face and neck with gadget in hand, but rather than forcing muscles to contract, as microcurrent does, the needles cause minor trauma to the skin—allegedly boosting collagen production as a healing response. I was relieved to find that the EGF needles were shorter and much less painful than those once jabbed into my face by an esthetician (getting professionally microneedled was one of the most agonizing experiences of my life). But the fact that they merely tingled my skin made me wonder if the practice was actually doing any good.
“A true microneedling device has to penetrate at a 90-degree angle, and go in deep enough to penetrate the collagen,” notes Evan Rieder, M.D., a dermatologist and psychiatrist practicing in New York City. “It has to draw blood.” Rieder is suspicious of the science behind the new wave of at-home devices—indeed, he doesn’t believe it’s science at all, because there’s not yet data to back up most of the claims. “The evidence is all anecdotal,” he says. “There’s a huge difference between the devices being sold for personal use and what you’d find at a doctor’s office. If they’re safe to use at home, that probably means they’re not that powerful.” The best you can hope for, Rieder continues, is maintenance of the skin between professional treatments—and that’s if you’re diligent and consistent over a long period of time. A product like the $149 SolaWave Wand, which fits both microcurrent and LED technology into a gizmo the scale and shape of a disposable razor, claims to do just that. “Maybe you go a little longer between sessions,” says Miami- and
New York City–based esthetician Shamara Bondaroff, a fan of the device and a microcurrent true believer. “Post-lockdown, I’ve got a lot of clients coming in with these at-home tools and asking me to show them what to do. And you can learn my method,” says Bondaroff, “although, you know, it’s nice to lie down and have somebody do it for you.”