Dan Childs chats with Singapore cosmetic surgeon Dr. Woffles Wu about radiofrequency treatment – and where it’s headed
Once upon a time, the choice between opting for a younger face and simply “aging gracefully” was a simple one.
Of the two available options, one involved a scalpel. The other one inevitably led to wrinkles and a sagging face. And yes, it’s pretty easy to guess which one is which.
Fast-forward to the present, and anyone can see that the wrinkle-busting repertoires offered by most dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons have grown dramatically in just the past few decades alone. Nowadays, patients and doctors alike benefit from an ever-expanding toolbox of options, from skin-friendly lasers to improved chemical peels.
Of course, this situation begs the questions: who’s the newest kid in the facial rejuvenation neighbourhood? The answer is radiofrequency treatment – a technique that utilises an old type of wave in a very new way. We caught up with Singaporean cosmetic surgeon Dr. Woffles Wu to learn more about this treatment, as well as the promise it holds for facial rejuvenation.
Most people, upon hearing mention of the phrase “radiofrequency,” will automatically think of the top 40 offerings of their favourite FM station. So when doctors talk about using radiofrequency treatment to give their patients’ faces a rejuvenated look, there is an understandable level of confusion.
Will turning up your car stereo get rid of your wrinkles? Don’t count on it. But by delivering energy at the same frequency as these waves, albeit at a much more intense level, to the underlying tissues of the face, doctors have found that they can heat up these tissues to elicit both immediate and long-lasting tightening effects – in essence, a younger, firmer look.
Of course, radiofrequency treatment isn’t the first procedure that has been devised around this particular principle.
“Before radiofrequency technology came about, we had lasers,” Dr. Wu notes. “Cooltouch makes use of the same principle, but it uses a laser. IPL (intense pulsed light) uses a light to deliver heat. Ultrasound uses ultrasound waves to deliver heat. There are also infrared devices that are designed to deliver heat.”
The delivery of heat to underlying tissues, it turns out, is one very effective way to elicit changes in the skin that make it appear firmer, healthier and younger. The reason this happens lies in the inherent properties of a substance beneath the skin of our faces that we’ve all heard about – collagen. Heat it to a high enough temperature, and collagen will tighten. Not only that, if you heat the collagen-producing layer of the skin repeatedly over a certain period of time, it will produce even more of the stretchy stuff, granting the face a tighter, younger appearance.
“As the skin regenerates collagen, it becomes firmer and tighter,” Dr. Wu explains. “This, in turn, decreases pore size and the depth of acne scars. That is the theory behind it.”
But, he adds, there’s a catch; while it might be good to deliver heat to the lower layers of the skin, too much heat in the upper layers of the skin can lead to burns, blemishes and other problems.
“So, the trick is to deliver heat in such a way that the underlying tissues are stimulated without having the upper layers of skin heat up,” Dr. Woffles says. “This is where radiofrequency is quite effective, as this technology spares the surface of the skin but heats up the deeper layers. So in this way, radiofrequency treatment is just another way of heating the skin of the layers of tissue beneath the skin.”
In a way, the way radiofrequency technology delivers heat can be compared to how a microwave oven bakes a frozen lasagne. The energy penetrates the surface and heats the underlying pasta, while sparing the upper levels of the dish. So while maximum heat is delivered in the deeper parts of the lasagne (or in this case, your underlying facial tissues), the surface remains unburnt.
“It’s an interesting analogy, especially because in medical terms, we do refer to it sometimes as ‘cooking’ the skin,” Dr. Wu notes.
So what are the leading tools out there that allow doctors to “cook” years off of your face? Dr. Wu says that two machines in particular stand out from the pack. One of these machines is known as INDIBA, while the other is called Thermage. Though these two machines offer patients very different options when it comes to rejuvenation, they both exploit radiofrequency radiation in a way that gives patients a significantly rejuvenated look.
Though radiofrequency may have just recently entered the cosmetic arena, Dr. Wu says that this type of radiofrequency treatment has been employed in the past for other therapeutic purposes.
“This is not new technology,” he says. “It has actually been around for about 30 years, mainly to treat arthritic joints and pain, and it can be used for breast capsules, to soften them.”