2019 UPDATE: State-of-the-Art Acne Scar Treatments
Acne scarring has significant debilitating effects on one’s overall self-worth and confidence. Millions in the US are affected. There have been improvements in techniques and energy devices in past few years which have led to better outcomes for acne scar treatments.
Subcision – This is process of breaking up deeply tethered scar bands associated mainly with atrophic/rolling scars. Subcision has be performed for acne scars for decades and just using this procedure alone has proven to lead to significant acne scar improvements. Recently there have been a couple publications suggesting that cannula subcision had better outcomes, less downtime, and less discomfort than the traditional method of using a Nokor needle. A cannula has a blunt tip so it is also safer – less chance for cutting a nerve or blood vessel than the knife-like edge of the Nokor needle. In the study, both patients and the performing doctor rated the results better when using the cannula. Subcision is particularly important, in Dr. Weiner’s opinion, to be performed prior to any energy device for tethered scars. This is based on the fact that RF and laser will preferentially travel through collagen – which is high is water content – than fat or most other tissue. Scars are predominantly collagen, so it makes sense to cut the connection of the scar to the deeper tissue. Through personal communication with Dr. Davin Lim, biopsies he performed have shown scar band that reach the deeper fat pads from tethered acne scars. Transmission of the energy through the scar can theoretical lead to collagen contraction and deepening of the tethered scar. Sometimes fillers are placed at the time of the subcision to improve the volume loss associated with the scarring. Some hypothesize that putting a “spacer of filler” might improve results as well. Dilute lidocaine during the initial passes allows for this procedure to be well tolerated.
TCA CROSS – TCA (Trichloroacetic Acid) is a chemical peel used to improved acne scarring by placing minute quantities in the scar using a toothpick. CROSS stands for Chemical Reconstruction of Skin Scars. The most common use of this procedure is for ice pick and small boxcar scars. The process of causing a controlled chemical burn, allows for the body to heal from the deepest part of the scar towards the skin surface. This makes the scar smaller in diameter and shallower. Usually a series of 3-6 treatments are needed, with 3-4 weeks between treatments. There will be some mild scabbing for a few days which needs to be kept moistened for best results. Risk include widening of the scar or post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).
Radiofrequency Microneedling – This technology (RFM) has been available in the US for about 6 years and has revolutionized acne scar treatment. Using needles which are insulated, energy is delivered into the scar tissue directly and bypassing the epidermis, for the most part. The insulation protects the skin surface from heating so darker skin type individuals are at much less risk of PIH (post inflammatory hyperpigmentation) vs a laser treatment. The needles allow for deeper penetration than lasers as well. Overall, downtime is less than ablative lasers in most individuals (when insulated needles, proper technique, and appropriate settings are used). With acne scarring affecting darker skin types disproportionately, this is an excellent alternative to lasers. The Genius has recently been FDA approved and is now the “best of bread” RF microneedling device. There is now impedance feedback from the needles which allows for improved and exact energy delivery. The resistance in the tissues being treated is measured and this is important because throughout one’s face, there are differences, as well as between different individuals. Also, as tissue are heated or subcised, the resistance changes. Prior to Genius, there was no idea of how much energy was being delivered. There is now an accurate total energy for each pulse and a cumulative total. Other improvements include needle design-sharper, stronger motor, and feedback regarding quality of each pulse fired.
There is a myth that needs to be busted. Deeper does not mean better for acne scars.
The needles must stay within the scar for best results. If the needles go beneath the dermis, there is a risk for heating the fat and fat loss. Let it be known that the actual depth of the needles in most RFM devices is less than the settings, and becomes less accurate, the deeper the settings are. There is inherent resistance of the skin to penetration and many needles aren’t sharp enough or motors aren’t strong enough to get to the desired levels in the time required. This has also been addressed with the Genius and it’s depths are very accurate after extensive testing.
In addition, higher energy levels on any device which doesn’t monitor impedance, can actually result in very little energy delivered. Once the tissue is heating beyond a critical level, the resistance becomes so high that energy output cuts off. However, when higher energy levels are desired when using the Genius, the energy is adjusted to the increasing impedance and it is successfully delivered.
Fillers – Fillers are a very integral part of improving acne scars. They are extremely useful for the atrophic scars and the lipoatrophy associated with these scars. The aging process leads to dermal thinning and fat atrophy, which makes the acne scars appear worse, even if active acne has long been controlled. Fillers need to be injected deeply for correcting large areas of volume loss and superficially in minute quantities for focal defects. A hyaluronic acid filler will give about 12 months of improvement vs Bellafill which can give near permanent improvements. Bellafill does require a skin test to see if one has a allergy to the bovine collagen (0.5% chance) which needs 3-4 weeks to determine. There is some who feel fillers in areas of subcision will prevent re-adhesion of the scars. Most failures from other treatments are related to not recognizing the need to fillers to improve the acne scars.
Lasers – Erbium/CO2 ablative lasers still are beneficial for acne scars but have more downtime and risks vs RFM. Deeper skin imperfections are not improved with lasers and require fillers. These devices are best reserved for more superficial scars, mainly boxcar scars. Non ablative lasers are less affective but safer and in the author’s opinion give very minor results.
Microneedling – Also know as “Collagen Induction Therapy” CIT, has become popular in recent years. There are rollers available for home use and then there are medical grade devices which go to depths of 2mm or deeper and create thousands of penetrations per second. Rollers should be not be used at home for 2 reasons – questionable sterility at home and they tear tissue more than the in-office devices. Often these treatments are combined with topicals and PRP. It is highly recommended to not use any products on the skin which would normal not be injected. There have been many cases of infection and granulomas from these practices. Even when done in the office with PRP or amniotic membrane products, the efficacy of this procedure is minimal, and should be reserved for only mild acne scarring.
PRP/Amniotic membrane products – There is some date to support that better results and faster recovery with less side effects if PRP or amniotic membrane products are used during acne scar treatments. There is a movement more towards amniotic/placental products and away from PRP because there are more growth factors/healing properties in these vs PRP.
LLLT – There is a plethora of studies to suggest that using low level laser light (LLLT) is beneficial to results and healing times. The most researched device is Healite, and this should be performed immediately following all acne scar procedures which use energy devices. It calms the skin and improves circulation.
Acne scarring procedures are continuing to improve as technology and techniques evolve. One must understand that results require months to fully appreciate and multiple treatments (3-5 or more) are often needed to optimize results. Expectations need to discussed with providers/patients so that all are on the same page as to what one can achieve with treatments.
Dr. Weiner is an Acne Scar Center of Excellence designated by Bellafill and is a specialist on acne scars. He is a lecturer and trainer for Bellafill. He has become one of the leading authorities on Radiofrequency Microneedling and travels the globe lecturing on this technology. He performed the FDA trails for the Genius. He recently authored a chapter on RF Microneedling which soon will be published in the Facial Plastic Clinics of North America. He also wrote a recent chapter on Radiofrequency Safety and Complications which will be part of a book titled “Complications in Minimally Invasive Facial Rejuvenation: Avoidance and Management” by Paul Carniol, MD