Does At-Home Radio Frequency Skin Tightening Really Work?



You may be familiar with the radio frequency energy that broadcasts on your favorite TV or radio channel. The radio station sends out radio waves, which are vibrations caused by electronic devices that travel through the air. They are created when an electric field makes contact with a magnetic field, resulting in a vibration that can be picked up by a receiver. Back in the early 2000s, scientists discovered how to harness the power of radio frequency energy and apply it to the skin, resulting in something known as a radio frequency skin tightening treatment. In this post, we’re explaining exactly what radio frequency is, how this treatment tightens the skin, and whether or not at-home RF skin tightening actually works.

What exactly is radio frequency?

Radio frequency (RF) is a type of energy that is measured in frequency, or wavelengths per second. All types of energy, from the sound waves a TV emits, to sunlight, to the heat coming off your body, are classified according to their frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum. Radiofrequency is one category on this spectrum. It includes many common energy types we use every day, such as WiFi signals, radio and TV waves, and microwave ovens.

What is radio frequency skin tightening?

Radio frequency skin tightening is a non-invasive cosmetic technique that utilizes radio frequency energy to smooth and tighten the skin. This procedure can be used for a variety of skin concerns, such as wrinkles and sagging skin on the face and neck. Radio frequency skin tightening can also be used on the body to smooth stretch marks, tighten loose skin, and reduce body fat.

The frequency range that is used during a radio frequency skin tightening treatment is between 0.3 MHz and 10 MHz. According to the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, the most common frequency used in skin tightening is about 0.45 Mhz, which is on the slow end of the radio frequency range. To put it in greater perspective, the wavelength used in RF skin tightening is about 100 million times slower than visible light, and over 1 billion times slower than an X ray. As you can see, the energy used for a radio frequency skin tightening treatment is quite gentle if you consider the whole electromagnetic spectrum.

How does radio frequency skin tightening work?

When radio frequency energy is applied to the skin, it produces a controlled rise in tissue temperature. The high energy delivered by the radiofrequency current induces thermal damage and denatures collagen in the targeted area. Collagen is a structural protein that is responsible for the resilience, strength, and durability of the skin. After the age of 20, a person produces about 1 percent less collagen in the skin each year. Moreover, environmental free radicals from things such as UV overexposure and cigarette smoking can degrade collagen. The loss of collagen in the skin is a major cause of skin aging, manifesting as lines, wrinkles, and sagging skin.

The final goal with a radio frequency skin tightening treatment is to destroy collagen. We know what you’re probably thinking: why would you want to destroy collagen? Don’t you need collagen to have firm, youthful skin? Well, here’s the fascinating part of a radio frequency skin tightening treatment: destroying existing collagen results in new collagen production! Specifically, new collagen production and collagen remodeling through a controlled wound healing response occurs over time as a result of the deep delivered energy into the skin. The new collagen will give your skin more support and firmness, thus resulting in a smoother, sleeker, and younger-looking version of yourself.

In regards to body contouring, radiofrequency is often performed at a higher temperature. At these temperatures, cells of the subcutaneous fat tissue undergo apoptosis (aka cell suicide), eliciting an inflammatory response that causes surrounding cells to slowly digest the targeted fat cells. Fat cells are preferentially heated without impacting other types of cells in the skin or other structures.

Professional radio frequency skin tightening treatments

A radio frequency skin tightening treatment is typically performed at a dermatologist’s office. There are several different FDA-approved radio frequency treatment machines for the face and body on the market, including Thermage, THERMI RF, Syneron RF, and Exilis. Thermage was the first non-invasive skin tightening treatment developed in the United States.

The average radio frequency treatment will only take about 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the location and size of the area to be treated. The procedure is painless and there is very minimal downtime; you’ll probably experience some redness and swelling for up to 24 hours after the procedure. The results will appear gradually over several months following treatment. A series of 2 to 6 treatments may be recommended for optimal results.

One of the most common treatments is a radio frequency facial. During a radio frequency facial, a machine is used to heat the skin to between 38 to 40 degrees C. You do feel the heat in the skin during the treatment, but it’s said to be comfortable. A radio frequency facial is recommended for those with signs of aging, such as loss of firmness, lines, and wrinkles. It’s also recommended for those with sagging jowls as the treatment can lift the cheeks and tighten the jawline. However, a radio frequency facial is not recommended for skin with broken capillaries or rosacea.

Radio frequency skin tightening at-home

If you don’t have the time or the budget to make a trip to the dermatologist’s office for a RF skin tightening treatment, you may consider a radio frequency skin tightening machine at-home. These devices range in cost from about $30 to more than $1,000, and are marketed for skin tightening and body contouring.

However, these devices are not as powerful as those found in the doctor’s office. The majority of at-home machines will require multiple uses, daily or weekly, to achieve desired results. In contrast, in-office RF skin tightening machines are typically used once, or not more than once every 6 months. There are currently no head-to-head studies comparing in-office versus at-home RF devices.

Radio frequency skin tightening dangers

If you’re new to the idea of using radio frequency energy to tighten and tone the skin, you may wonder, is RF skin tightening safe? In general, radio frequency skin tightening treatments are considered to be safe as long as you choose an experienced provider, such as a board certified cosmetic surgeon, who offers FDA cleared technologies. But what about at-home radio frequency machines?

Even though the frequency is not as powerful as an in-office RF skin tightening treatment, the home devices are still emitting powerful energy. Like any concentrated dose of energy, radio frequency carries a risk for burns if performed incorrectly. Dermatologists and other skin care specialists who use these machines during office treatments have received specific training, and are very knowledgeable in regards to both radio waves and human anatomy. So are at-home radio frequency skin tightening machines really worth the risk of seriously burning yourself? We’d say probably not.

There is also controversy over whether or not radio frequency causes cancer. According to the FDA, the World Health Organization has classified radio frequency radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. We are all exposed to low levels of human-made RF every day, such as cell phones, TV, WiFi, and more. Professional RF skin tightening treatments are done in a controlled area with a set amount of exposure. However, using an at-home radio frequency machine could be exposing your body to too much RF, and over-exposure could cause problems down the road. Once again, are these at-home radio frequency treatments really worth the risk?


References: “Radio Frequency Skin Tightening: Your Ultimate Guide”, ABCS Blog “So, Are Radiofrequency Treatments Really Safe?” Nov 2017, “At-home radiofrequency devices”, Wikipedia “Radio Frequency Skin Tightening” Dec 2014, An Bras Dermatol 2015 Sep-Oct; 90(5): 707–721




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