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Dermabrasion vs. microdermabrasion

If you’re on the hunt for perfect skin, you might have heard of microdermabrasion in your skincare sleuthing. But, you may be less familiar with its skin treatment cousin, dermabrasion. At least, this was the case with me. This helpful little guide will teach you all you need to know about both treatments and, who knows, maybe you’ll even be inspired to try one out!

Dermabrasion and microdermabrasion: A basic breakdown

Dermabrasion and microdermabrasion are popular treatments for removing signs of ageing from the skin and getting rid of acne scars, among other things. Both skin treatments similarly exfoliate and resurface the skin by using handheld devices to shed layers of the skin for a radiant complexion that’s far from dull. But, they work in different ways, involve different tools, and are suited to different skin issues. That’s it, in a nutshell. Now, let’s take a proper look, starting with dermabrasion.

What is dermabrasion and how does it work?

Dermabrasion is a pretty invasive skin treatment which provides deep exfoliation (it actually removes the whole epidermis!). Using an abrasive device, the skin is essentially sanded down to reveal new skin - sounds quite intense, right?

Before the practitioner gets to work, the skin is numbed using an anaesthetic because the treatment can be quite painful - it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted! The area to be treated is then sometimes cooled or frozen with a cryogenic spray to make the skin firm, ready for the procedure. Then, the handheld device - called a dermabrader - is moved over the area that needs treating, whilst the skin is pulled taut. The dermabrader has a motorised, rotating diamond or wire brush head which exfoliates the skin as it spins, causing controlled damage. The skin’s response? It’s kickstarted into forming fresh, new skin that’s clearer, smoother, and revived.

The treatment might sound a bit off-putting, what with the pain and having actual layers of skin removed! But, for particularly troublesome parts of the skin, a powerful treatment like dermabrasion can really get your skin glowing.

Dermabrasion is good for: deep acne scars and other deep scarring; deep wrinkles; rhinophyma (a red, bumpy nose associated with rosacea); and uneven skin tone.

What is microdermabrasion and how does it work?

Microdermabrasion is a gentle, painless version of dermabrasion, so it makes sense that it’s called microdermabrasion. It’s a non-invasive, less abrasive form of skin shedding which combines exfoliation and suction in one device to polish the skin. There are two different types of microdermabrasion: crystal and non-crystal.

During a crystal microdermabrasion treatment, a handheld device shoots a fine stream of tiny crystals at the skin (far less aggressively than it sounds!) and then instantly sucks them, as well as dead skin cells, back up to achieve exfoliation. These crystals can be made of salt, aluminum oxide, baking powder or other finely ground ingredients such as walnut shells. The device renews the skin by removing the superficial outer layer of skin. It’s a bit like a more thorough way of exfoliating with a facial scrub.

Non-crystal microdermabrasion - sometimes called diamond-tip microdermabrasion - is the second method of microdermabrasion and uses a similar method to dermabrasion. A diamond-tipped tool sands the upper, dead layer of skin off.

Unlike dermabrasion, only the outermost layer of skin (the stratum corneum) is affected by microdermabrasion and only dead skin cells, as opposed to live skin, are removed - so it causes much less damage. This treatment is better for targeting surface skin issues, rather than anything too deep. It’s also a pain-free procedure (a big plus if you can’t deal with pain!) and people often describe it as a gentle vacuuming sensation that’s even quite relaxing.

As with lots of treatments, however, it’s usually not a one-time fix. A course of microdermabrasion might be recommended by your practitioner to fully improve the condition of your skin.

Microdermabrasion is good for: post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (red and brown marks left after a blemish); shallow acne scars and other light scarring; age spots; fine lines and wrinkles; comedonal acne (whiteheads and blackheads) and breakouts; and lacklustre skin that needs brightening.

Dermabrasion and microdermabrasion side effects

Because one treatment is harsher than the other, the side effects of dermabrasion and microdermabrasion also differ in severity.

After dermabrasion, the skin will typically be red, swollen and will begin to scab, taking a full two weeks (and sometimes more) to settle down and heal - so you’ll need to clear your calendar of important events!

Following a session of microdermabrasion, you can expect your skin to be a bit pink and slightly sore. But, because the treatment is more delicate on the skin, this will usually disappear within a few hours. Your skin might also start to get flaky, but this should go after a few days.

Dermabrasion and microdermabrasion: The take home message

Just in case things aren’t super clear, I’ll break it down further:

Dermabrasion: removes deeper layers of skin; good for deep skin damage; painful with moderate side effects.

Microdermabrasion: removes only dead skin cells; good for surface skin damage and breakouts; painless with mild side effects.

So, if exfoliation is what you’re after, you might want to consider one of these options!

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