What's the buzz? Do home use vibrating or galvanic devices really work?

Dr Christine Reader

There’s a buzz about home use devices at the moment, but can those that use electrotherapy or micro-vibration really make a difference to your skin? Dr Christine Reader finds out.

On the occasion that I do visit a spa, I must confess that I do not pay a minute’s thought to the science behind the treatments. I have no desire to investigate the reasons why a seaweed body wrap rids the body of toxins as is claimed or the exact effect by which a mud treatment is supposed to rejuvenate one’s complexion. Seeing as I always leave feeling refreshed, younger, relaxed and significantly friendlier, I don’t really mind why. Whether it is due to the treatment itself, the pampering, the time out, the gorgeous surroundings or quite possibly a combination of all the above, the desired effect is achieved. Tick.

The universal trend has become that of bringing more and more experiences into the home. Think take-aways, online shopping, mobile hairdressers. One can live a pretty full life without ever leaving the front door. I quite cherish the fact that I never ever need to try on any item of clothing in a changing room with fluorescent lighting ever again. So, it should be no different as far as spa experiences and cosmetic treatments go.

Enter the home use hand-held facial transforming devices that claim to firm and tighten your skin leaving you looking younger and more beautiful. These are little tools that usually vibrate or use electric therapy or a combination of both. These treatments are quite common in the spa setting (think galvanic facials making use of electrotherapy), but the difference is that when I plan to introduce a treatment into the harsh reality of my everyday life, I’m going to be doing my homework. I will be needing results to make this happen.

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As with many cosmetic treatments, hard facts in the form of openly available unbiased double-blind studies are hard to come by, to say the least. This, however, in no way implies that these treatments are inferior or ineffective. It just makes it a little bit harder to tell the winners from the duds – after all, we’ve all purchased that wonder cream/primer/serum that is collecting dust somewhere on a shelf.

So, what is micro-vibration and cosmetic electrotherapy?

Micro-vibration treatment:

Vibration treatment has been used for various purposes over many decades. A vibration simply refers to a movement, like a tremor. On the bigger scale, it has been used for many years on bone and muscles and NASA is known to utilise vibration treatment to help prevent bone loss in astronauts. The idea is that the vibrations cause muscles to contract and relax and increase the amounts of bone-producing cells, stimulating the formation of new bone.

Micro-vibration is when you shrink this movement down to a much smaller scale. Now you can apply this treatment to the face. On the face, this claims to improve blood flow and lymphatic drainage (the lymphatic system carries that fluid that can make us look quite puffy). It also claims to stimulate facial muscles and increase elastin and collagen production. Elastin and collagen are those proteins in our skin that make our skin look plump and youthful.

Sounds a little too good to be true? Unfortunately, I can’t find any evidence to make these statements facts. Perhaps though, it’s because the mechanism hasn’t been discovered or not enough research has been done.



The usual spa version is the galvanic facial, although there is quite a range of beauty treatments that can use electricity. The galvanic facial is actually incredibly interesting and a fairly complicated process. First a little bit of science. The skin is naturally acidic (anything with a pH less than 7 is acid). The opposite of an acid (pH greater than 7) is an alkali. We will get back to this bit.


The first step of the galvanic facial is called ‘desincrustation’. This is the cleansing step. A gel is applied to the skin that has a negative charge (negative ions). A negative gel is alkali (so the opposite of the skin). When the negatively charged wand is applied to the skin, it pushes the gel into the pores (remember from school: likes repel each other and opposites attract. Often quite true in general life actually!). Here is the interesting part: the alkali reacts with the sebum (oil that helps to make dreaded blackheads) and makes it much softer. This promises to help remove even the most stubborn blackhead (hooray!). So, the science is worth it.

The next step has an even more daunting name: Iontophoresis. Here a positively charged gel (which will then be acidic, like the skin) is applied with some nourishing products. When the positively charged wand is applied, the positive gel and all the goodies inside are effectively fed into the skin as the two positive charges repel (so the wand pushes the gel into your pores).

A lot of the handheld use-at-home little devices make use of microcurrent treatment. No wonder as it’s commonly known as the non-surgical facelift. Yes please! Here the first thing you need to know is that we as humans are a little bit electric. We have so-called natural bio-electric currents. The microcurrent treatment mimics these bio-electric currents and literally gives you a bit of a boost. It energises and tightens the face muscles, supposedly creating a more toned appearance. This sounds promising, but whether the effect would be noticeable is probably one of those situations where you only know if you give it a go.

The crux of all these treatments at home is that commitment is needed. You need to do it regularly to evaluate the effect properly. There are certain contra-indications and the sellers should make these clear on the packaging. Some examples may be pregnancy, pacemakers, certain heart conditions, recent Botox and so forth. Be sure to check.

Whenever I evaluate something, I am always reminded of one of my University professors that used to say: “If it has a proper effect, it will always have side effects”. Basically, this means that anything potent enough to bring about drastic change, be it medication, procedures etc, will naturally also have risks and side effects. There are very few exceptions to this rule.

For example iontophoresis has been shown to be quite effective in keeping excessive sweating under control when done in a clinic.

I would imagine that these use-at-home handheld devices would have to pass certain safety measures to ensure they are safe to use at home (one would hope?) This may mean that they may not be strong enough to produce substantial changes.  This does not mean there’s no result, but whether the result you will get will be worth the effort and money may end up being a personal judgement call. It’s not all despair, as I have seen some positive reviews online. And, as usual, I have been a little tempted!


Dr Reader is a medical practitioner but is currently taking time out to raise her family and focus on writing.

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