With quick, comfortable treatment, zero downtime, and no scars, non-surgical skin tightening has become a popular way for patients to enhance their appearance and self-confidence without taking time for surgery and recovery.
Radiofrequency, the technology used by Thermi, Exilis, Profound RF, Thermage, etc., has been used for non-surgical skin tightening since 2001; however, it has only recently gained widespread recognition, thanks to high-profile celebrities who rave about the benefits of their RF treatments. If you’re new to the idea of non-surgical RF treatments as a way to improve your appearance, you may wonder, are they safe?
In short, yes—as long as you choose an experienced provider, such as a board certified cosmetic surgeon, who offers FDA cleared technologies. However, the more you know, the better choices you can make about your treatment options, so we’ve explored this question in greater detail below.
What exactly is radiofrequency?
Radiofrequency is a type of energy, which is measured in “frequency,” or wavelengths per second. All types of energy, from the sound waves your iPod emits, to sunlight, to the heat coming off your body, to gamma rays, are classified according to their frequency on the “electromagnetic spectrum.”
Radiofrequency (RF) is one category on this spectrum, and includes a lot of common energy types we use every day: WiFi signals, radio and TV waves, and microwave ovens. The RF energy used in skin tightening is in the ballpark of 450 kilohertz, which is on the slow end of the radiofrequency 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. Physics lesson aside, RF energy is quite calm when one considers the whole electromagnetic spectrum.
How does radiofrequency tighten skin?
Like any form of energy, RF has the capacity to produce heat—and while each brand-name application uses a slightly different technology, all work by heating the skin’s deeper layers to induce new collagen and elastin production and encourage cell turnover, helping skin become firmer, thicker and more youthful-looking.
An advantage of using RF to heat tissues, as opposed to lasers (which use higher-frequency light waves), is that the lower frequency of RF can safely penetrate to a deeper level, helping to improve skin tone and structure, even lifting tissues. Lasers for the most part work to improve the skin’s surface. Moreover, RF can safely treat more patients with different skin tones without risking permanent discoloration.
Of course, the safety and efficacy of non-surgical RF or any treatment depends on the experience and skill of the person providing that treatment (more on that later).
Is radiofrequency safe? Here’s what studies show.
We’re all exposed to low levels of human-made RF every day, from cell phones, TV, WiFi, etc. Because it’s used for so many things, radiofrequency has been extensively studied for its impact on human health. According to the FDA, the World Health Organization has classified RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”—right along with coffee, power lines, and body powder. However, there is no conclusive evidence that RF exposure increases cancer risk in humans, even in people regularly exposed to higher amounts of RF for their jobs.
Both the American Cancer Society and Federal Communications Commission have issued extensive reports on possible impact of radiofrequency exposure. According to the FCC: “While some experimental data have suggested a possible link between exposure and tumor formation in animals [male rats] exposed under certain specific conditions [9 hours of daily exposure], the results have not been independently replicated. Many other studies have failed to find evidence for a link to cancer or any related condition.”
The main known risk associated with RF is the potential for burns from the thermal heating effect for people exposed to high doses—for instance, those who work around radar equipment without proper protection.
Radiofrequency in FDA-cleared non-surgical tissue tightening is highly controlled for your safety
With the above information, you may ask, if exposure of high doses of radiofrequency can cause burns, will non-surgical RF treatments hurt me? If you are a good candidate for the procedure and it is performed correctly, no.
The radiofrequency used in non-surgical treatments is different from that emitted by your microwave or cell phone, or radar equipment—the radiofrequency in skin tightening treatments is highly controlled. FDA cleared technologies use equipment that allows the practitioner to monitor and control the device during treatment to ensure that targeted tissues reach the optimal temperature to induce new collagen production and cell regeneration without overheating.
What are the side effects of radiofrequency treatments?
Along with effectively lifting and tightening tissues without surgery or downtime, one of the greatest benefits of RF treatments, when performed correctly, is that post-procedure recovery is very quick and easy. Side effects are typically minimal and short-lived, limited to mild and temporary swelling, redness, and tingling, depending on the treatment. RF treatments can also be performed safely in tandem with injectables, microneedling, or other minimally-invasive treatments.
Always choose an experienced, qualified provider for non-surgical skin tightening
As low-risk, convenient, and effective as they are, apply the same level of scrutiny in choosing a provider for non-surgical RF treatments as you would for cosmetic surgery. Like any concentrated dose of energy, RF carries a risk for burns if performed incorrectly. You can almost completely mitigate this risk by choosing a provider who has in-depth knowledge and extensive experience in cosmetic laser and energy treatments, and specific training and experience in the treatment application you are considering.
A board certified cosmetic surgeon will be most likely to have the skill and experience to perform RF treatments safely and effectively and will offer FDA cleared technologies that have been thoroughly tested for safe administration of radiofrequency. A highly experienced physician’s assistant or registered nurse who meets the above qualifications and is operating under supervision of a board certified cosmetic surgeon may also be qualified to provide treatment. Be sure to ask a provider how many times they have performed the treatment you are considering for your specific issue and skin type. They should also be able to show you before and after photos of their own patients during your consultation.
Learn more from a board certified cosmetic surgeon
If you are interested in learning more about radiofrequency skin tightening treatments or have questions about any cosmetic procedure, consider contacting a cosmetic surgeon in your area who is certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery. Our diplomates are fellowship-trained in all aspects of cosmetic surgery, as well as non-surgical options including laser and energy treatments, and are known for their dedication to helping patients make informed decisions about their options. Find a cosmetic surgeon near you now.