A Deep Dive Into This Year's Cult Skincare Treatments

A Deep Dive Into This Year's Cult Skincare Treatments

Story by Arden Fanning Andrews / Illustrations by Mat Maitland

One of 2018's defining trends was undoubtedly the natural skincare movement. Products stamped with wild-harvested botanicals and vegan formulations were top of mind for consumers, jade rollers chilled in countless freezers, and suddenly the shelves at Target started to look less like CVS and more like Shen, the Brooklyn beauty haven that first put cool-girl organic lines on fashion editors' radars. And though clean ingredients are clearly a step in the right direction, many industry experts argue that in 2019, we need to remember that high-science treatments have serious benefits. Why? Because we aren't plants, labels often deceive and people want results.

Dr. Barbara Sturm, the German aesthetics doctor whose eponymous line and sought-after treatments are coveted by supermodels and designers like Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, Alexander Wang and Jason Wu, steers clear of buzz words. "Mark me down as someone who believes in scientifically driven efficacy over marketing. 'Organic,' like 'natural' and 'vegan,' tells you nothing about efficacy for your skin," she says as we discuss the topic over the holiday break. Sturm's warm banter and quick wit regarding the industry that she's spent 18 years mastering are part of the reason she's living out of hotel rooms and traveling to high-profile appointments rather than kicking back in her native Düsseldorf. That, and the fact that her culty products aren't banking on hype alone. Her line features careful molecular blends combining lab-created and natural ingredients. Why? Sturm offers a handful of reasons she marries the two categories. "Sometimes lab-made ingredients are needed to increase potency; however, sometimes they are needed to make the consistency stable. Sometimes synthetical ingredients are the better choice over natural, quality-wise, and because some ingredients tend to cause unwanted reactions in their natural form, thus the synthetic ingredient can be the better choice." In her constant quest for interesting active recipes and "fascinating new ways to deploy them," Sturm says that "the idea of science and the realm of possible new innovations it can offer inspires me." Plus, thanks to widespread exhaustion over paid influencer testimonials about products with dubious proven benefits, Sturm believes "we are entering an era where no one will buy any skincare that doesn't provide results."

"We are entering an era where no one will buy any skincare that doesn't provide results."

Dermatologists are making a similar case. "There are unwarranted assumptions that botanical preparations are inherently safer, less toxic and healthier for the skin than scientifically formulated cosmeceuticals. We know this is not true," says Dr. Patricia Wexler, whose New York dermatology clinic touts thousands of patients and a highly discreet celebrity roster — though the Olsen twins did famously name a skirt after her. "Science is responsible for retinoids, the reversal of photo-damage, peptides which stimulate collagen production, many of the antioxidants that protect us from the free radical damage of the environment, and the list goes on," Wexler notes, adding that her own skincare line combines both botanical and scientific technology to repair and rejuvenate the skin. Aside from topicals, Wexler's office offers some of the most cutting-edge treatments on the market, like Aerolase, a short-pulse laser that painlessly (and seemingly magically) addresses complexion concerns like acne and hyperpigmentation while simultaneously stimulating collagen and tightening skin. And that's exactly where the market is pivoting as the demand for effectiveness peaks — the lasers, the facials, the PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections that are delivering real-time results faster than ever. "As people start rejuvenating and maintaining their skin with technology, they're going to have a lot of options," says Wexler of the in-office treatments that are generating helpful wound-healing responses and quicker cell turnover. "I think stimulating skin is a way of preventing a face lift in the future."

Below, a guide to the cult treatments on the rise for the year ahead, and the science behind them:

The Pain-Free Healing Laser: Aerolase

"It's amazing," Dr. Wexler tells me as we lounge in her office discussing Aerolase Neo, a 1064 YAG (which stands for yttrium-aluminum-garnet) laser that's healing skin with a grab bag of complexion-perfecting benefits at a rapid pace. With over two decades of research in its development, Aerolase combines a 1064-nanometer wavelength (uniquely capable of reaching both the epidermis surface level that you can see and the thick dermis layer that it protects) with patented 650 Microsecond Technology. For tissue, 650 microseconds falls below the Thermal Relaxation Time, so skin can cool itself between pulses, making it safer and more comfortable than past iterations. An appointment only takes about 20 minutes, and it's so painless that patients often don't even know the session has begun (including Wexler when her husband and fellow dermatologist, Eugene, first performed the treatment on her). "There's no other 1064 with a short pulse, and the short pulse means that it goes through the epidermis and doesn't allow the skin to get hot, so there's no burning, and there's no redness." There's also no downtime after an appointment, which means clients can apply makeup in an hour or less and go straight to the office or cocktails without the need to don a black veil similar to Samantha's famous treatment recovery look on Sex and the City.

"The laser targets hemoglobin, melanin and water, which means this one laser treats inflammatory diseases like rosacea, blood vessels, bruises and melasma."

A recent clinical study by the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology introduced the "novel" machine to its list of treatments for acne, which is now considered a "chronic rather than an adolescent condition." Another study, focused on skin rejuvenation and published in The Journal of Laser Surgery & Medicine, noted improvements not only in acne but in pore size, fine lines, tightening, pigmentation, spider veins and sun damage that would usually require multiple laser- and light-based therapies. Additionally, it confirmed that Aerolase is beneficial "even on tanned or darker skin tones" that could rarely be addressed by previous laser technology. "It's stimulating your body to heal itself. The laser targets hemoglobin, melanin and water, which means this one laser treats inflammatory diseases like rosacea, blood vessels, bruises and melasma, and targeting water enables the stimulation of new collagen and elastic tissue with improvement of acne scars, tightening of the face and neck, and lip plumping," Wexler explains. In other words, it can safely address a myriad of issues without the risk of scarring and hyperpigmentation that can be associated with old-school lasers. To put it simply, she says, "There's no numbing, there's no pain, there's no mess." Three treatments about three weeks apart are recommended for full benefits.

The "Fountain of  Youth" Enzyme: Dr. Barbara Sturm Molecular Cosmetics

The pervasive complexion issue that Dr. Sturm constantly wants to avoid? Inflammation. "There is too much aggression towards the skin. The ingredients used are too aggressive, and the treatments are too aggressive. This leads to inflammation, the greatest challenge our skin faces," she says of her philosophy to "heal the skin with nurturing." It's a concept on which she's built her career since she practiced at the Centre for Molecular Orthopedics in Düsseldorf, where her team specialized in cutting-edge anti-inflammatory treatments for back pain and osteoarthritis like the "Kobe Procedure," which gained its name when NBA basketball star Kobe Bryant flew to Germany to have it performed on his injured knee. Inspired by the process, which utilizes a patient's own blood cells to produce proteins that reduce inflammation and stimulate healing, Sturm created her infamous MC1 cream (aka "The Blood Cream"), which requires a custom blend for every client. Launching her full Molecular Cosmetics skincare range meant bringing product performance and innovation — minus bespoke biology — to a larger audience.

Sturm created her infamous MC1 cream (aka "The Blood Cream"), which requires a custom blend for every client.

The ingredients and scientific formulations deployed in her line have been studied for three fundamental pillars: 1. hydration and nutrition; 2. anti-inflammation; and 3. keeping healthy skin cells alive "so they can do their jobs." And her reputation for intensive product development is exceptional (her recent lip balm launch took four years!). She also doesn't believe in hero products, since all should serve a purpose. "I do use a hero ingredient," she admits. "One of my favorites to formulate around, purslane, has been studied in dozens of clinical trials for its remarkably potent anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, wound-healing and nutritional properties." Considered a "fountain of youth" enzyme, this signature ingredient is found throughout the entire product line. Proven to slow the shortening of telomeres that contribute to the aging process, purslane serves as an at-home DNA repair elixir. And for the year ahead, Sturm looks forward to rolling out new formulas with "ingredients that promote the mitochondria, cell health and overall rejuvenation at the cellular level, and a new delivery vehicle for unstable but valuable compounds," not to mention bringing treatments restricted to doctors' offices directly to consumers. "I am also working on getting certain medical compounds approved for cosmetic use. I am excited and think these will be game-changers."

The Touch-Meets-Tech Facial: Facegym

Offering a menu with options like "Party Face" and "Signature Electrical," FaceGym's first U.S. location on Saks Fifth Avenue's new 2nd floor beauty space brings its UK-born reputation as "the original non-invasive facial workout" (beloved by It-Brit fans like Lily Allen and Lottie Moss) stateside. "We have amalgamated massage, muscle manipulation and technology to create a unique service that really works," says founder Inge Theron of the treatments, which utilize facial "warm up" and "cardio" routines that exercise skin and muscles with above-the-neck techniques like knuckling, high-speed hand whipping, flicking and pinching to release tension and stimulate circulation.

During a session, "trainers" perform sculpting movements with their fingers that range from gentle, fluttering butterfly wings to the kind of rapid, rhythmic tapping that signals boredom when made on a desk, each designed to define jawlines, lift cheekbones and "excite the muscles." For deeper shaping, the "micro-contouring" portion of the workout depends on PureLift, an electromagnetic device used to contract muscles (powerfully contorting them into facial expressions previously undiscovered, in my experience), which has become a star feature. The EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) that the device applies to the face can activate thousands of muscle fibers that, over time, weaken without consistent activity. "We realize how important the use of machines is for optimal results," Theron notes of the tool, which, according to clinical trials, increases skin elasticity significantly, resulting in a more tightened, defined face. And that's not the only tech toy.

"Radio waves penetrate into the dermis... kick-starting the healing process."

"'Game Face' uses radio frequency, where radio waves penetrate into the dermis and rotate water molecules," she adds. "This friction and heat build-up kick-start the healing process within the dermis, creating a temporary plumped effect within the skin tissues," while it simultaneously enhances lymphatic drainage and definition because, "as it reduces water, it reduces double chins and contours facial features." Though clients often notice immediate results, half a dozen scheduled treatments can have lasting benefits, and according to Theron the best is yet to come: "The strongest effects will be felt up to 12 weeks after the final course workout, as it takes 12 weeks to rebuild collagen." Before booking, clients should study the laundry list of items to avoid ahead of a session, from Botox (within two weeks) and fillers (within a month) to simply sporting a full beard of facial hair, since clean-shaven skin is a must for many of their tech-focused offerings.

The New Generation of Microneedling: Aquagold

Perhaps the notorious "Vampire Facial" put PRP (platelet-rich plasma) on the map, but a techy update has created a whole new movement. "The 'vampire' component consists of drawing a person's blood, spinning it in a centrifuge and isolating the clear plasma from the red blood cells. One small portion of the clear part (PRP) contains a concentration of growth factors, which are able to cause healthy growth of cells into any area where they're injected," explains Dr. Arash Akhavan of Manhattan's Dermatology and Laser Group. "If total face rejuvenation is desired, we use AquaGold, a manual stamping device that has tiny hollow bore needles smaller in diameter than a human hair that can inject any material (including PRP) under the surface of the skin." The first-of-its-kind microchanneling technology and 24k pure gold-plated needles offer painless results with no downtime.

The first-of-its-kind microchanneling technology and 24k pure gold-plated needles offer painless results with no downtime.

For both Akhavan and Tribeca MedSpa's AquaGold appointments, PRP can be mixed with a cocktail of ingredients for clients hoping to level up immediate results. "I use Botox, a hyaluronic dermal filler, Vitamin C and growth factors from PRP," says Tribeca MedSpa physician associate Lauren Lee, of her go-to blend. "Botox shrinks pore size and reduces sweating; therefore, it may also help with acne, but it is not injected deep enough to affect any muscle contraction." So no added bonus of line freezing, but dramatic plumping often still ensues. "Hyaluronic acid binds water and holds onto it tightly, giving the skin a hydrated plump look. I use the 20% vitamin C for brightening, and PRP growth factors to stimulate collagen and encourage cell turnover," Lee shares, adding that results typically last several months and can be paired with laser treatments for even stronger effects.

The Next-Level Ingredient Delivery System: Revitapen Pro Osmosis Facial

Needle-shy customers have a new option for product penetration. A device that looks a bit like a tattoo pen but swaps a small circle of 100 pyramid-shaped stainless steel bumps for sharp pricks and high-dose skincare ingredients for ink is the answer. "The RevitaPen Pro creates lasting changes in the skin as a holistic alternative to microneedling," says Osmosis MD founder Dr. Ben Johnson, who invented the device. "You do not need to harm the skin to reverse aging, you simply need to feed it." And this concept of feeding skin is something that set the Osmosis line apart in the first place. The secret? A complex ingredient delivery system that utilizes the same material used in transdermal patch medications (similar to the acne stickers that keep selling out at Sephora). "By coating ingredients with a liposome called phosphatidylcholine, product penetration is increased by 600%," a huge increase from the mere 5% that skin usually allows to penetrate the dermis and deep epidermis from surface application, Johnson explains.

"You do not need to harm the skin to reverse aging, you simply need to feed it."

Spas like Chicago's lofty Mario Tricoci location have brought the system in-house for clients seeking non-invasive solutions for skin remodeling, cutting the risk of inflammation or post-treatment infection. "The RevitaPen creates temporary pathways in the skin that are only deep enough to get past the surface barrier so that no harm is done, and it is safe for even sensitive skin," Johnson shares of the process for the pen's facials like Micro Infusion, which uses Vitamin A and a custom mix of active boosters to deliver radiance that continues to improve over the course of a month. The immediate result for skin? A pinky color boost and luminous, mirror-like finish.

Illustrations: Mat Maitland