Microcurrent (MC) is popular not only in medical offices, but also in medical spas and day spas. It can stand alone as a treatment or be easily added as an adjunct to other skin care services including facials, microdermabrasion, dermaplaning, microneedling and oxygen treatments. This article will take a look at the skin care benefits of MC, but first it will take a deeper dive into the human body’s own electricity and how outside electric current can interact with human cells.
Biology and Electromagnetism
The human body relies on the continuous flow of electromagnetic signals to function. Electric current flow is always accompanied by a magnetic field and vice versa—one cannot exist without the other. Therefore, the proper name for electrical current flow is electromagnetic current flow. For the sake of simplicity and ease of reading, electromagnetic current flow may be referred to as electrical current in parts of this article.
Electromagnetic energy is the foundation upon which chemistry is built—all atoms and ions have either a positive or a negative electric charge. Their charge allows them to bond to the opposite charge and form complex molecules. Amino acids and proteins are large structures of such chemical compounds, and cells are built from these structures. Therefore, biology depends on electromagnetism, and without electricity and magnetism, life cannot be sustained.
All cells in the human body communicate with each other through electrical signals. As the membrane potential (voltage across the lipid layer) varies due to ionic concentrations, the resulting change in the cellular electromagnetic field affects the neighboring cells.
The Nervous System
There is a special group of cells called neurons or nerve cells. These elongated cells can transmit electrical impulses over long distances. This phenomenon is called an action potential. Action potentials are created by rapid exchange between intracellular and extracellular ions (mostly sodium and potassium). All cell membranes, including neurons, have multiple channels or gates that allow the flow of ions into and out of the cell. As humans age, the ionic transport across the cell membrane diminishes, and this affects one’s health.
The nervous system can be likened to a complex electrical network with multitudes of inputs and outputs. Although there are differences between how the nerves transmit electricity versus copper wires used in electrical circuits, the basic premise is the same: a command is initiated from a central location (the brain); it is translated into an electrical signal traveling down the neural pathways (spinal cord and periphery nerves); and it arrives at a destination to perform the desired task (e.g. contract a muscle). Unlike man-made electrical circuits, the human body transmits signals utilizing both chemicals and electricity (and magnetic field). Each neural pathway has several synapses in which electrical current is translated into chemical exchange of neurotransmitters. These special messengers travel across the synaptic cleft and are received by receptor proteins, where they trigger subsequent action potentials. As humans age, neurotransmitters and their corresponding neuroreceptors deteriorate and do not perform as efficiently. The consequences are both internal and external; as organ functions are reduced, visible signs of aging become apparent, etc.
MC is a form of electrotherapy in which the device delivers between 10 to 500 micro-amps (millionth of one amp) of electric current to the body. Fun fact: The amount of electricity generated by these devices is so low, it would take 2,000 MC machines connected together to light up a single light bulb. The body perceives this low-level stimulus as natural and therapeutic. Therefore, MC can be regarded as an auxiliary electromagnetic energy source to replenish the body’s energy deficits.
Research shows proper MC application can promote homeostasis by increasing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a basic source of energy synthesized from nutrients through the process of cellular respiration. This increase in ATP facilitates ionic exchange across the cell membrane and improves nerve conduction. It is also shown that MC increases fibroblast production, affecting both collagen and elastin levels.
Skin Benefits of MC
Since all cells communicate through electrical signals, it makes sense that these signals will increase energy within skin cells allowing for a more youthful appearance.
Wrinkle reduction. MC increases the production of fibroblasts, which are cells responsible for building collagen and elastin. This action has shown its ability to not only reduce fine lines and wrinkles, but also firm sagging skin and improve skin integrity. For this reason, MC has been successfully used for wound healing by trauma clinics and in sports medicine.
Skin firming. MC is most commonly known as a workout for facial muscles, which it does achieve, but not in the way most people think. The low level electrotherapy can be used in specific sequences to help strengthen and lengthen specific muscles beneath the skin to allow for a firmer appearance. Many clients and technicians alike believe results are only achieved when the muscle contracts, but it is quite the contrary. When the muscle contracts, it is likely due to a stronger current being delivered and can be counter-productive. The purpose is to retrain the muscles by delivering low-levels of electrical current in varying ways with repeated movements. The treatment is frequently performed with probes, placed at the insertion and origin of the muscles. When the probes are moved toward each other, they work to strengthen the muscles. When the probes are moved away from each other, they work to elongate the muscles (see images below).
Reduced inflammation. In a medical setting, MC can be used pre- and post-operatively to promote natural healing and to reduce swelling by stimulating lymphatic drainage.
Improve tone. MC also increases circulation, making the skin look more vibrant and youthful as it is increasing the supply of nutrients to cells.
There are several devices on the market and varying ways of using these devices to obtain results. Results are dependent on the device used, the treatment technique by the technician and the condition of the client’s skin. Most clients see an immediate lifting following an in-office treatment; however, long-term results are seen after a series of treatments. A series of six-to-12 treatments are often needed and can be spaced anywhere from twice a week to once a month and eventually quarterly for maintenance.
There are several MC devices made specifically for home use. The home devices should be used at least five times a week and the results can take several weeks or months to be seen, as these cumulative treatments use lower levels of current.
As discussed above, technique is important during a microcurrent treatment.
To stimulate and lift using MC (see Lifting Technique diagram
to the left), one must learn the basic principle of probe movement on the surface of the skin. As probes move apart the contracted muscle lengthens and releases tension.
To build and strengthen the muscle (see Muscle Strengthening Technique diagram), the probes must come together or one stays stationary on the origin of the muscle and the other probe travels toward it from the insertion of the muscle.
MC can be delivered by the technician through specialized gloves that are infused with silver to assist with conducting the current. Benefits of the gloves include exfoliation and antimicrobial effects due to the silver. Using the gloves also allows the technician to feel any nodules in the muscles or other areas where the treatment should be concentrated. Therefore, the gloves are often used at the beginning of the treatment before the probes. There are also adhesive electrodes that can be placed methodically, and these assist in reducing inflammation as well as penetrating product into the skin. The different methods of applying MC can be used simultaneously.
Set Expectations, Deliver Results
It is important to give clients realistic expectations with any MC device. As always, under-promise and over-deliver. Like other treatments used for skin rejuvenation, results are dependent on the individual. It is important that the technician has a strong understanding of anatomy, especially the structure and function of the muscles in the face and the neck. Technicians must also be properly trained on the device to ensure consistent results. As always, the client is responsible for results as well by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and a preventative skin care regimen. When all is done correctly, clients tend to be happy with the results, making MC treatments a commonly sought out procedure by clients concerned with the signs of aging.