If I had a dollar for every time I was asked whether or not dermarolling/micro-needling was beneficial to skin, I would have enough money to buy that Hitachi transmission electron microscope I have had my eye on.
If you’re in a hurry, the answer is: no. Dermarolling is dangerous and has no skin benefit.
If you have time to read on, lets explore how derma rolling breaks down collagen, causes scar tissue formation, accelerates the aging process and puts you at risk for cancer.
Introduction: What is Dermarolling?
Dermarolling (or microneedling) is a practice where a tool that has mini needles affixed to a roller is rolled across the face. The reason why people use derma-rollers is because they believe that this practice will increase collagen production, reduce acne scars, and otherwise improve the appearance of their skin.
The claims of dermarolling’s benefits have no basis in biology, and dermarolling is another skin care gimmick that does more harm than good.
How Dermarolling Depletes Collagen
Collagen is a delicate structural extracellular matrix protein that exists outside the cell in the extracellular space. Collagen breaks down over the natural course of aging, which is why wrinkle formation begins around middle age. Collagen degradation can also occur from chemical damage such as cigarette smoking and from mechanical damage.
Mechanical damage is any damage done to collagen as a result of a physical stressor. Examples of physical stressors include the degradation of knee collagen as a result of long distance running, skin scraping that results in a wound, and the puncturing of skin from needles.
How does collagen degradation from mechanical damage occur? To understand, we first need to define aging.
Aging is the accumulation of damage within a body or system. Aging occurs to things that are both living and inanimate, and anything made up of matter will age because matter contains moving parts. Damage occurs as a consequence of moving parts, and those moving parts exist all the way down to the atomic and subatomic levels.
Aging will not occur at absolute 0 (0K) because atomic movement ceases, but anything warmer and you will have damage, which over time manifests in the form of age.
The example I like to give to highlight the concept of aging is this:
The year is 1986. You found a T-shirt that you loved. In fact, you loved it so much that you bought two. Your rationale for buying two is, this shirt may be worth something 32 years, and if I wear the shirt often, it will inevitably show its age and it'll lose its value. You solve this dilemma by buying two shirts, one you wear, and one you don't.
So you wear one shirt, and keep the other in a safety deposit box at your local bank.
The year is now 2018, and both shirts have aged 32 years. One will look markedly different than the other. The one you wore every week is softer and faded from the breakdown of the cotton fibers and clothing dye, while the other looks just like the day you bought it. One underwent aging at a faster rate due to the accumulation of mechanical damage from the result of abrasion, washing, UV-breakdown, etc.
Mechanical damage occurs when you puncture your skin with a needle. The needle tears down the collagen fibers, causing degradation. Collagen, when broken down in a destructive manner such as with dermarolling can be replaced in youth, but as one ages, the ability of the body to make more collagen slows down and eventually stops.
If you are young and still making collagen (usually up to menopause in women and mid 40s for men), this is not a free pass to destroy the collagen you have because your body will make more. If your body has to make collagen because collagen was broken down and destroyed, you are going to deplete your body's ability to make collagen sooner, hence accelerating the aging process. The reason why collagen synthesis will cease sooner in those who dermaroll is because you are going to desensitize the receptors responsible for the signaling of collagen synthesis.
Collagen Made in Haste is a Waste
It is also paramount to understand that any collagen made from dermarolling is a stress response by the body, and collagen made as a result of a stress response is not healthy. When you dermaroll, you expose your body to a stressor which destroys collagen, and the body quickly tries to replace the collagen lost from dermarolling by making more collagen. Collagen made from exposure to a stressor may give the appearance of plumper skin, but this is an insidious illusion. Similar to how losing weight via disordered eating and over-exercise may give the appearance of health and beauty while hiding the underlying organ damage done to the body from taking harsh and extreme measures to control ones weight. Such underlying damage can take years to manifest, and by the time the damage is done, it is too late.
Dermarolling Creates Microscopic Scar Tissue
The other reason why collagen synthesis will cease prematurely is because dermarolling causes damage to the extracellular matrix in the form of scarring. Scarring occurs because dermarolling destroys the scaffolding in which collagen adheres, which means that even if collagen is being made, it will not be able to maintain its place in the extracellular matrix, and instead of being held in the skin, will be metabolized and destroyed by the body. The more you dermaroll, the more scar tissue you will make, and the more scar tissue present in your skin means less space for collagen, elastin and other proteins associated with healthy skin to adhere. The result is premature skin sagging and wrinkling.
Scarring from dermarolling will happen at the microscopic level and will not be visible like a major skin scar is visible. The visibility of scarring from dermarolling is seen after years in the form of thin, sagging skin due to collagen loss and the breakdown of the extracellular matrix and the killing of live skin.
Dermarolling Kills Live Skin Cells
When you puncture your skin with needles, you are not just harming collagen and other extracellular matrix components such as elastin (which keeps your skin firm) or hyaluronic acid (which keeps your skin strong and hydrated), you are doing something far worse: you are killing live skin cells.
It doesn't take much to kill a live skin cell, and when you destroy their outer protection, the extracellular matrix, they become even more vulnerable to degradation. So you dermarolled, and you ruined the collagen, elastin, and other components involved in maintaining the structural integrity of the cell. The skin cell is weakened and then you drag needles on the weakened cell. That skin cell is now on the path to cell death.
When you kill a live skin cell, you accelerate the aging process because a live skin cell must be replaced by another live skin cell via cellular division. When you replace a live cell via cellular division, you cut a bit of the ends of the chromosome within the nucleus, called the telomere. After around 50 divisions, the telomere gets cut off completely and aging sets in. When you dermaroll, you accelerate the rate in which cellular division must occur, and therefore you accelerate the rate in which telomere depletion and, ipso facto, aging occurs at a faster rate.
Additional consequences to destroying your skin cells include: inflammation, acne, skin sensitivity, and worsened rosacea.
So while acne scars may be reduced because of dermarolling, it is done so in a dangerous, destructive and age-accelerating way. You made new skin by killing skin, and in the long run this means that you are accelerating the aging process.
When age-acceleration occurs from dermarolling, you will see wrinkling, sagging skin and other hallmarks of aged skin occur at a younger age than if you were to not dermaroll at all. However, something far worse than pre-mature wrinkles may occur as a result of dermarolling.
Dermarolling May Trigger Tumor Formation
Skin wounds are not as benign as once thought, and research has found that skin wounds may promote basal cell carcinoma. The link between skin wounds and cancer is even more alarming if you make a wound every day due to dermarolling.
Basal cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer whose origins are often from the cells of hair follicles, which contain stem cells that differentiate and divide to replace hair after shedding. Tumor formation occurs when the DNA within the follicular cells accumulates errors, causing unregulated cellular division. Follicular stem cells primary function is hair growth, however their functionality also extends to healing skin wounds.
It is understood that wound-type injuries, from surgical incisions to stomach ulcers, have been linked to cancer. Reiter & Wong (2011) hypothesized that skin wounds may promote basal cell carcinoma. To investigate, Reiter and Wong induced topical injuries to mice and biopsied the tissue. It was determined that the stem cells from the hair follicles migrated to the wound site to promote wound healing, and these cells expressed elevated levels of the oncogenes associated with basal cell carcinomas. After 10 weeks, they found basal cell carcinoma-like tumors in the injured mice, which indicated skin cancer triggered by an injury and ensuing migration of follicular stem cells. "It's been well-known that the skin mobilizes cells from the hair follicles" to heal injuries... if you mobilize these cells into the epidermis, they can produce tumors." Reiter commented that in the past decade, scientists are now starting to think that "cancers are wounds gone awry." Normally, the hair follicle represses the tumor-generating potential of the stem cells, he said, "but when these cells leave their niche, the reins that are supplied by the [follicle] come off. "
The reason why the above-mentioned findings are relevant here is because the researchers found that the development of basal cell carcinomas wasn't exclusive to large wounds such as from a skin biopsy. Even small incisions could induce carcinomas. Perhaps even those incisions caused by dermarolling are enough to induce a carcinoma as well.
In conclusion it is my understanding that at the very least, dermarolling is a gimmick that has no benefit to the skin, and at the very worst may induce basal cell carcinoma. If you want to increase collagen and skin cell turnover safely and effectively without accelerating the aging process or putting yourself at risk for cancer, just use a daily chemical exfoliant.
Antonio, N., Bønnelykke‐Behrndtz, M. L., Ward, L. C., Collin, J., Christensen, I. J., Steiniche, T., ... & Martin, P. (2015). The wound inflammatory response exacerbates growth of pre‐neoplastic cells and progression to cancer. The EMBO journal, 34(17), 2219-2236.
Dvorak, H. F. (2015). Tumors: wounds that do not heal—redux. Cancer immunology research, 3(1), 1-11. Chicago
Oxlund, H., & Andreassen, T. T. (1980). The roles of hyaluronic acid, collagen and elastin in the mechanical properties of connective tissues. Journal of anatomy, 131(Pt 4), 611.
Wong, S. Y., & Reiter, J. F. (2011). Wounding mobilizes hair follicle stem cells to form tumors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(10), 4093-4098.