If I could suck a tear back into its duct, I would—but it’s a mutiny. One drop pools in the outer corner of my eye before breaking free. And then there’s a river streaming down my face. Because microneedling hurts like crazy, and I’m smack in the middle of a treatment from Gwyneth Paltrow’s facialist Mashell Tabe (who also talked to another Allure editor about the at-home version) and, to be blunt, I’m past the point of no return.
By now, you’ve probably heard of microneedling (also known as derma-rolling or collagen-induction therapy), an old-school skin treatment that’s found a second life as the hot new thing and a youth-rediscovering alternative to laser and injectable treatments. The thought process behind it is fairly simple: create a series of very small injuries in the skin to help promote collagen. Devotees swear by it, and the cult-like following has in turn spawned at-home dermarollers and electronic treatments alike in an attempt to mimic the in-office microneedling treatment.
I’ve always prided myself for my high pain threshold. When I broke my ankle last year, I hopped on one leg to a sofa, insisting I was fine. When the anesthetist’s assistant jabbed me in the spine five times to find the right spot to insert my epidural while giving birth to my son, I white-knuckled it silently. So, to be honest, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that microneedling hurts like crazy, but whatever, right?
(That’s me above, still smiling, pre-microneedling of course.)
Anyway, I was introduced to Tabe a fellow editor friend, who knew about my affection for all things Environ, a respected, yet under-the-radar skin care company based in South Africa that’s viewed as a pioneer in derma-rolling. Tabe, naturally, is also an Environ devotee.
I arrive at her Soho office in the late afternoon, with a tired, dull, hormonally-broken-out complexion and an open mind. The door opens and I’m immediately calmed by her warm presence. The office, a candlelit one-room space that’s one-part high-tech, one-part new age, is also quite serene. Next to the table is a little shrine and collection of crystals. In addition to being a respected facialist, Tabe is also an energy healer. I’m a natural skeptic. But I’ve decided to submit myself fully to this experience.
More anti-aging innovations to keep on your radar:
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We talk for about ten minutes about the science of microneedling, which she explains helps aging skin behave more youthfully again. Using a microneedling pen—a handheld device with small needles on the head—it creates tiny injuries in the skin. And it’s the healing process of those exact injuries that helps promote the production of collagen, which helps to thicken the skin and can help minimize lines, tone, and diminish pigmentation much in the same way as many newfangled laser treatments. “It’s a wonderful way to encourage the skin’s own natural ability to produce what we want most,” says Tabe. “By piercing the epidermis and dermis, the skin’s natural response is to go into a phase called wound healing. This process encourages the production of collagen.” The problem with some laser treatments is that certain types of skin don’t respond well to the heat (those prone to, say, hyperpigmentation like many women of color tend to be). Microneedling, on the other hand, can be tolerated by a wider range of skin tones (and perhaps those with a bit of pain tolerance, too).
In addition to collagen production, Tabe explains, microneedling also makes it easier for products to be absorbed deeply into skin. The micro channels that are created theoretically aid in maximum absorption of topical nutrients and jump-start your body’s own collagen and elastin production. (Side note: When I was a kid, my mom made a Jell-O cake that involved poking holes in a sheet cake then pouring Jell-O over the top to infuse the whole cake. I instantly understood that my skin was the cake and the serum was the Jell-O.)
Tabe cleans and preps my skin. I explain that I had tried some extremely light microneedling about six months earlier, which I likened to a more intense version of microdermabrasion, which is essentially what the at-home version of derma-rolling (or dermaplaning, TBH) accomplishes.
From there, we get into it rather quickly. She runs the InnoPen over my forehead first, warning me, “You remember how the forehead feels, right?”
And I did recall that the bony parts of the face stung a little. I brace myself. She runs the pen over my head, dragging it slowly from my left temple to right above my brow—imagine a lot of little needles pulsing into your skin and hitting bone. Eek. This is real pain. I grit my teeth and drive a fingernail into my palm to distract myself. “Oh my god, owwwww.”
My mind flashes to just an hour earlier, when I had been interviewing the singer Ciara, who told me that she enjoyed the pain of tweezing her eyebrows. I would welcome a pair of tweezers right now. This is searing, eye-watering pain.
“Are you doing okay?” Tabe asks. “Yup,” I squeak. Here come the tears.
Tabe continues moving around my face then starts the energy healing portion of the treatment, speaking of chakras, female energy, and the goddess Quan Yin. She tells me she feels the presence of my maternal grandmother, who had died before I was born. “She wants you to tell your mother that she’s proud of her. Can you tell her next time you talk to her?” Already feeling vulnerable, the added emotional layer flips me over the edge. At this point, I’m choking down a full sob, imagining telling my mom that I’d been in contact with her mother in the afterlife.
Thankfully, Tabe finishes working on my forehead and moves on to my cheeks, nose, and neck, which feel like a light, sand-paper-like vibration…some compare it to a cat licking your face, which is pretty accurate. I brace myself when she reaches less fatty spots like my chin but there are no more twinges of pain. “Woo, the forehead is really the worst,” I sigh. Tabe explains that other clients have asked why she starts with the forehead when it’s the most painful. She does it, she says, to get the worst part out of the way.
‘Oh god,’ I think. ‘I feel raw, naked, and vulnerable.’
But my pain isn’t quite over yet. Tabe uses a technique called stamping to criss-cross over areas of the face like the laugh lines that could use an extra dose. If the rest of the treatment feels like dragging the needles at surface level, then stamping feels like a more concentrated, deeper pressing motion.
The treatment ends with a high frequency current Environ DF Machine, red light therapy, Advanced Peptide Growth Factor serum, and a soothing, slimy Peptide Aqua Gel Mask—all a walk in the park compared to the veritable forehead jack-hammering.
I lay on the table, trying to zone out to a mix of nature sounds and spa music while soaking in the red light therapy. Tabe’s next client arrives, gently knocking on the door. ‘Oh god,’ I think, ‘I pray she doesn’t open the door. I feel raw, naked and vulnerable…a trail of half-dried tears on my cheeks.
But like a really intense session of hot yoga or a taxing run, I feel strangely high when it’s all over. And Tabe can see it. I get dressed, hug her, and head out the door, with a slightly manic look on my face. As I get a few steps down the hallway, she calls to me, “Do you want some water?” She hands me a Pellegrino and a word of advice, “Drink this. It’ll help ground you. You’re still a bit ‘up,’ right now, you know? Be careful.”
Tabe tells me that microneedling is gentle enough to perform every 30 days in-office, but she instructs me to get Environ’s at-home CIT roller (pictured below) to use daily between our visits, which will help preserve some of these micro-channels for nutrients.
I’m four days into it and my skin is glowing, my pores look smaller, and fine lines seem to have smoothed out. It may be wishful thinking, but it even looks like some of the hyperpigmentation on my cheeks has lightened.
More skin-care stories our editor-in-chief is loving right now:
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That being said, the pain is definitely not a distant memory. In fact, I can remember it and still feel it clearly if I put myself into the mindset. But, the way I look at it, it’s all a balancing act. The three or four minutes that she spent on my forehead were pretty awful. But I’m admittedly impressed with the results. I feel strangely drawn to the pain now, like eating that slightly too large of a glob of wasabi and enjoying the burn. And honestly, I’m counting down the days until my next session.
Now watch Salma Hayek share her DIY scrub for hyperpigmentation: