Vampire Facials

[Este artículo está disponible en español. La traducción al español apareció por primera vez en la revista Pensar.]

Kim Kardashian’s vampire facial

There is a new celebrity fad: vampire facials. Have you seen the pictures of Kim Kardashian West after her vampire facial, showing her face spattered with blood and covered with tiny puncture wounds? If not, click on the link and look now. Pretty horrific.And she now says she regrets doing it, and it was quite painful. But she said that only after many others had been impressed by her original account and had been persuaded to try it for themselves.

Human ingenuity is endless. People are always looking for the next secret that will improve their health and appearance. Fad follows fad, often involving something disgusting and painful. Apparently fad-addicts subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” theory. Most of us think drinking your own urine or eating the placenta after childbirth is disgusting. “Detoxing” with days of a maple syrup, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper diet sounds pretty obnoxious. Everyone says blue-green algae tastes vile; I haven’t tried it, and I’m not planning to.

Disgust is bad enough, but physical injury is worse. What amazes me is how often these fads deliberately cause actual damage to the patient. Remember those ugly bruises on the Olympic swimmers who had been treated with cupping? Vampire facials are one of several treatments that claim to stimulate healing by first causing injury. Frankly, that doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me. What happened to “First, do no harm”? It seems to have been replaced by “To heal an injury, first cause more injuries.”

What Is a Vampire Facial?

Vampire facials don’t involve any vampires. The name comes from the bloody appearance. The procedure has two components: the preparation of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and the puncturing of the skin to allow penetration of PRP into the tissue. The patient’s blood is drawn and centrifuged to separate out the PRP. Then a pen-like instrument called a micropen is used; it has twelve automated acupuncture-sized needles that move up and down while the device is moved in improvised patterns over the face, and the PRP solution is dripped onto the areas being treated. It is painful, so usually the skin is pre-treated with a numbing agent. Microneedling or microdermabrasion perforates the skin and creates tiny microinjuries that bleed. Hence the bloody appearance of the face after treatment.

The cost varies but may be as much as $1,000. Multiple treatments are often needed at intervals of a month. Sometimes it is combined with other treatments such as Botox and hyaluronic fillers. Providers claim that patients recover in a day or two, but there are reports from patients whose recovery took a week or more, with scabbing and other problems. Sometimes benefits may not be perceived until months later.

Some patients have tried to save money by do-it-yourself treatments at home. One young man reported using numbing cream and a microneedling device to treat his acne (without a blood draw or PRP). One woman tried using blood from a fingerstick. That didn’t supply enough blood to do the job. She got no results except that her finger hurt.

The Claimed Benefits of Vampire Facials

PRP contains growth factors that supposedly act as energy boosts for our skin and help our skin function optimally, increasing collagen and elastin, providing antioxidant and hydrating properties. It has “advanced anti-aging properties,” makes skin smoother, provides a clearer complexion and more even skin tone, aids in the overall firming and toning of the skin, and increases blood flow and oxygenation, all leading to a more youthful and rejuvenated appearance.

One provider says “Your skin will thicken to reduce the look of broken capillaries. Your skin tone will be evened out and hyperpigmentation will be diminished. Fine lines and wrinkles and any crepey texture will also be smoothed. Firmness of your skin will increase and the appearance of scars will be reduced.”

But a critic says“Claimed benefits of the platelet-rich plasma (PRP) Facial Injections include reducing the prominence of scars, wrinkles, sun damage, and dark circles. … Yet, rigorous scientific studies on this popular “Vampire Facial” procedure find that it is no more effective than injecting saltwater into your face.

And a published review concluded: “Based on in vitro and in vivo research, PRP may play a role in promoting tissue regeneration, oxidative stress and revascularization, which form the theoretical basis for the use of PRP in the clinical treatment of facial rejuvenation” (emphasis added).

So there is a theoretical basis but no good clinical studies supporting vampire facials. Speculation but no real evidence.

Evidence for PRP 

Providers claim that PRP has been proven effective in studies. PRP was originally marketed as a treatment for sports injuries. It is rich in platelets and growth factors that theoretically might improve healing, but (1) there’s no evidence that increased platelets speed healing, and (2) doctors are still not sure if PRP helps with chronic or acute injuries. The only good news is coming from isolated or scientifically flawed studies. The first rigorous study asking whether PRP injections actually work found they were no more effective than saltwater. They claim that after a series of three injections (one a month) most sports injuries are cured, but most sports injuries heal themselves in three months anyway.

Val Jones reviewed the evidence for PRP in an article on the Science-Based Medicine website titled “A Case Study in Aggressive Quackery Marketing.” Here’s what she found:

  1. One abstract discussing PRP’s use in degenerative knee arthritis. The study is not available for review in its entirety—but the abstract suggests that an improvement was noted at 6 months (in pain scores) with a significant worsening at month 12. No control group.
  2.  One small study that did not find a benefit to ACL healing in the presence of PRP.
  3. Quite a number of studies related to the treatment of bone defects (mostly periodontal) with PRP. Most of those showed no improvement or a fleeting, temporary improvement with PRP.

Overall it seems that the dental and oral and maxillofacial surgery literature has found no use for PRP, and the orthopods simply haven’t paid too much attention to it. There is almost no published research related to tendon injuries—the major indication for PRP.

According to some reports, investigations by The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons have found that only 40 percent of people will see any temporary benefits at all.

Evidence for Microneedling

Microneedling causes microinjuries. These microinjuries are said to stimulate wound healing and new collagen production.

According to a systematic review, studies demonstrate microneedling efficacy and safety for the treatment of scars, acne, melasma, photodamage, skin rejuvenation, hyperhidrosis and alopecia and for facilitation of transdermal drug delivery. While permanent adverse events are uncommon, redness and hyperpigmentation are common. They concluded that microneedling appears to be an overall effective and safe therapeutic option for numerous dermatologic conditions, but that more trials are needed.

Conclusion: Not Supported by Science

Vampire facials may offer hypothetical benefits, but they are not supported by scientific evidence from clinical studies. They are not a part of mainstream medicine and are not covered by insurance. They are attractive to consumers because they are “natural”— using your own blood rather than drugs—the procedures are high-tech and impressive, and they have been popularized by testimonials from celebrities.

One of the organizations that offers vampire facials is DripDoctors. They claim there are no adverse reactions since this procedure uses your own blood. Of course, there are side effects of redness, swelling, bruising, tenderness, tingling, numbness, lumpiness, and/or a feeling of pressure or fullness at the injection sites—but no adverse reactions! They also offer a number of other very questionable therapies including IV vitamins, O-shot sexual wellness for women and P-shot sexual wellness for men at $1,500 a pop, anti-aging, stem cell treatments, and micronutrient testing. No thank you.

I am not impressed. I wouldn’t want to look like those bloody pictures. I prefer to think of vampire facials as something to laugh about, not something to try. I’ll follow the evidence, not the fads.

This article was originally published as a SkepDoc’s Corner column on the CSI website

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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