Are At-Home Beauty Treatments Safe? Derms Weigh in on Which Ones You Should—and Shouldn't—
DIY isn't always a good thing.
With the increased availability of DIY kits and the accessibility of online tutorials, it can be tempting to take beauty matters into your own hands. That's especially true given the current state of the world, when health guidelines and restrictions have, at times, dissuaded—and even prohibited—enjoying the services at your go-to spas and salons. But we can't forget that what makes those spas and salons so appealing is that they're run by technicians and medical professionals who, in most cases, had to go through extensive training in order to do the procedures safely and effectively.
So, which services should you feel confident conquering in your own bathroom, and which are best left to the pros? Here, experts weigh in on 10 common beauty services, according to skill and risk level, plus some additional tips and tricks along the way.
Expert take: Once among the most daunting of services (cue the image of one blistering and veiled Samantha Jones on Sex and the City), chemical peels have certainly made strides when it comes to mainstream skincare. But even when accompanied by numbered products and user-friendly guidelines, experts say to proceed with caution.
“Factors such as peel type, strength, skin prep, the amount of time the peel is left on the skin, and the method of application can all affect the outcome. Without proper training, one can very easily burn themselves and even create scars,” warns Peterson Pierre, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Pierre Skin Care Institute in Westlake Village, Calif.
If you must: If you can’t get to a professional and are set on playing scientist at home, Dr. Pierre suggests choosing milder acids—such as lactic, mandelic, or salicylic—and doing a test run. “Apply a small amount of the lowest concentration you can get and leave it on for two minutes before rinsing off. Assess the reaction over the next few days and, if everything is fine, gradually increase the time the peel is left on the skin for up to 10 minutes,” he instructs, noting it's important to stop retinol and glycolic acid products several days before a chemical peel.
Some experts also recommend exfoliating peel pads as a safer at-home alternative, as long as they’re backed by a reputable name. “You’ll want to consult your skincare professional to ensure they’re legitimate and effective (a low-quality pad can fall flat on results or be way too strong, causing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation),” advises Karen Fernandez, a lead aesthetician at the SkinSpirit Skincare Clinic and Spa.
Try: “Here at the spa, we love Skinbetter AlphaRet Peel Pads ($105; skinbetter.com) for its high-quality, medical-grade ingredients. Use them three times per week for best results,” says Fernandez.
Jacqueline Rochonchou, a medical aesthetician and co-owner of Skin Deep Naples, also likes Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel Pads ($88; sephora.com). “These are light enough to be used at home, and a few times a week!”
Expert take: During professional microdermabrasion, a technician typically utilizes a sandblasting technique with aluminum oxide crystals to effectively remove the outer layer of skin, revealing a smoother, more glowing complexion, explains Vanessa Coppola, MSN, FNP-BC, APN-C of Bare Aesthetic Medical Spa. “At-home procedures typically involve a less aggressive exfoliation technique, either with a mechanical tool or formula. Used correctly, at-home devices can help maintain active exfoliation of the skin and, as a result, your glow,” she adds.
Keep in mind: Coppola suggests choosing an at-home device with a vacuum apparatus to reduce the risk of any residue making it near the eye area, or, if looking to avoid tools, opting for a microdermabrasion scrub or paste. “Skin discoloration or uneven pigmentation can result from aggressive exfoliation, so a gentle touch and a patch test is advised. Also, always remember to conduct any at-home skin resurfacing procedures in a clean environment to reduce the risk of infection or a breakout, and never apply tools or products to skin that has any open lesions, such as active acne or cold sores,” she cautions.
Try: Recommended by our experts, PMD Personal Microderm Pro ($199; sephora.com) features a vacuum suction, and is designed for a range of skin types and concerns. You can also try Derma E’s five-star vegan Microdermabrasion Scrub ($30; ulta.com), which combines dead sea salt and a crystal blend for a fine texture that buffs away skin for a smooth surface.
Expert take: Professional microneedling consists of penetrating (or slightly wounding) the skin, stimulating the production of healthy collagen in the healing process. This should be left to a reputable professional to help minimize any risk of pain, infection, or scarring, says Melanie D. Palm, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and medical director at the Art of Skin MD in San Diego, Calif. “When performed in our dermatology clinic, we also require a strong topical anesthetic agent that is only available by prescription to help with pain management,” she adds.
If you must: If you’re curious to try microneedling at home, Dr. Palm says to stick to superficial tips that do not penetrate more than 0.1-0.3 mm. “Piercing the skin by any means creates an open channel, thereby increasing one’s chances of getting an infection, so, like with all procedures, you’ll also want to make sure to use sterile tools,” adds Dendy Engelman, MD, FACSM, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
Expert take: While the results may not be as effective as in-office procedures, our experts consider toning and sculpting tools, which typically combine a microcurrent with LED lights to help stimulate circulation and collagen production, to be a generally safe bet. “These tools allow for self-care and enable relaxation, which could ultimately reduce or slow the growth of wrinkles as your muscles are relaxed," says Orit Markowitz, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. "When looking at tools like this, my recommendation is that if something isn’t damaging your skin, there’s no reason to stop using it,”
Keep in mind: As with any LED tool, Jessie Cheung, a board-certified dermatologist in Chicago Ill., stresses the importance of keeping devices away from the eyes. “You’ll also want to look for tools with a large treatment surface area to avoid treatment fatigue. Otherwise, you'll get tired holding it still for several minutes, one small spot at a time, when working throughout the face,” she advises.
Try: Coppola looks to NuFace ($429; sephora.com) for FDA-approved tools that deliver relatively impressive, albeit temporary, results from home. “It is a great companion to an in-office electric current facial and/or fillers to help improve the youthful contours of the face,” she says.
“My personal go-to is Conture Kinetic Toning Device ($109; qvc.com), which lifts the skin and improves circulation," says Dr. Engelman. "You can see long-term results because you are thickening the skin over time with an increase in collagen production,”
Expert take: While the idea of smooth, fuzz-free skin is certainly appealing, experts say dermaplaning is another area where the at-home risks can overshadow the rewards. “A professional treatment removes dead surface skin cells and vellus hair using a surgical blade," explains Scott Paviol, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Paviol Dermatology in Charlotte, N.C. "At-home dermaplaning razors don’t typically provide a close enough ‘shave’ to evenly remove dead skin cells and can cause unnecessary cuts and scrapes, leading to a potential infection risk,”
“The face is very vascular and can bleed heavily when nicked,” adds Ashley Anderson, an aesthetician and co-owner of Skin Deep Naples. “A more accurate treatment can be administered under a magnifying light. Professionals know that dermaplaning is more for dead skin than it is for the hair and will therefore take measures to treat skin accordingly.”
If you must: If you insist on dermaplaning (or, in an at-home sense, really ‘shaving’ skin), experts suggest first applying a light cleansing oil to serve as a barrier and allow for some give. “Apply a few drops to the face, being careful to not oversaturate as it shouldn’t be too slick. When it comes to razors, Tinkle Eyebrow Razor ($5; amazon.com) is an affordable cult-favorite,” says Chloe Savvides, a licensed medical aesthetician at Paviol Dermatology.
Expert take: The primary risk associated with waxing is the potential irritation to follow, which Dr. Markowitz considers about the same whether done by yourself or in a salon. “If you’re going to wax at home, my advice would be to make sure you don’t overheat or burn your wax, which could therefore burn your skin. You can also use Vaseline afterward to help soothe the area,” she says.
Keep in mind: In addition, Coppola stresses the importance of making sure your skin is clean and dry before you begin, and avoiding formulas with perfumes and dyes to help reduce the risk of infection. Your hair also needs to be long enough for the wax to latch on to. “Try to have about a quarter of an inch, and make sure you apply the wax and the strips in the direction of the hair growth and remove the strips in the opposite direction for the most effective results,” she advises.
Lastly, avoid areas with open cuts or existing irritation. “Waxing will only worsen the condition. Remember it’s always best to do a test area first,” says Diane Madfes, MD, FAAD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
Try: Dr. Madfes suggests honey-based waxes, like this kit from Gigi ($50; ulta.com), as a gentler option for sensitive skin and beginners. For fuss- and heat-free application, try these ready-to-use strips from Veet ($10; target.com)—especially great for targeting larger areas on the go.
Expert take: It’s crucial to protect, and ideally close, your eyes whenever chemicals are in proximity, making eyelash tinting a tricky—and potentially risky—task to take on solo. “It is impossible to safely apply chemicals to the lashes while the eyes are closed and not get it in your eye or on your skin,” cautions Dr. Engelman. “The same goes for eyebrows, where chemicals can easily migrate downward to the eye area. A petroleum-based protective barrier is not sufficient to prevent this from occurring,” adds Coppola.
Aside from the more obvious chemical dangers, it can also be more challenging to select and monitor color at home. “If you leave the tint on for too long, it could not only alter the desired shade, but could irritate the hairs and underlying skin,” says brow expert Azi Sacks.
Instead, try: In a pinch? Sacks suggests filling in brows with a colored powder, then tweezing strays for a clean shape. “I swear by Chantecaille Full Brow Perfecting Gel ($40; nordstrom.com) and MILK Makeup Kush Triple Brow Pen ($11; sephora.com), which I personally recommend and use on my clients to help fill their brows in between appointments,” she says.
Expert take: Reaching for a box of dye might save you time and money now, but celebrity colorist and Matrix brand ambassador George Papanikolas warns it could end up costing you more—both when it comes to finances and hassle—in the long run.
“Choosing the right shade is like hitting a bullseye on your first try. It requires a skilled and experienced colorist,” he explains. “If you go too light, it will be brassy/orange and leave you with ‘hot roots.’ Too dark and it will leave a dark band and look inky, requiring an expensive and unpredictable color correction to strip out the dark color and reapply the correct shade.”
Instead, try: To help extend your color in between appointments, Papanikolas suggests using an at-home toning kit, such as those from Matrix Total Results. “They are heavily pigmented, and as close to a salon toning you can get at home, while conditioning at the same time. Use the line designed for your tone to help keep the color fresh and ward off any unwanted brassiness,” he advises. If you’re in need of a touch-up, you can also reach for a temporary root powder or dry shampoo.
If you must: If dying at home is the only option, “try to stay within two shades of your natural hair color from an established brand with a proven track record, following timing and other directions, and testing a small area first to monitor for potential allergic reactions,” advises Coppola. To eliminate some of the guesswork surrounding color, you can also look into professional services (see: Madison Reed) that offer at-home hair color kits formulated with your go-to salon shade.
Expert take: Maintaining your nails is deemed one of the safest, and depending on the technique, most straightforward services on our list. “Traditional nail polish is the simplest to apply and remove. Gel or powder manicures require additional skill, time and tools, but can offer longer-lasting results,” says Coppola.
Some at-home gel manicure kits require the use of UVA or LED lamps. “Conversely, dipping powder manicures require a bonding solution to be applied to the nail before dipping it in a powder acrylic that dries to a hardened glossy shine,” explains Coppola.
Keep in mind: If using a UVA or LED lamp, make sure it’s well-researched and from a reputable brand. “You’ll also want to apply sunscreen to your hands before placing them in the lamp tool to protect your skin from potentially harmful rays,” advises Coppola. “As both gel and powder manicures require the use of acetone, a spot test is necessary to determine any possible allergic reactivity.”
When removing gel or a powder-dipped manicure, Coppola suggests using an acetone-soaked cotton ball or a specially-formulated gel polish remover and wrapping your fingers with plastic wrap. “After about 10 to 15 minutes, the polish should easily brush off. Your nails should then be rehydrated and moisturized with an emollient or simple petroleum jelly to help them maintain their natural luster,” she says.
As Coppola points out, you’ll want to make sure that your nail clipper, cuticle pusher, and nail file are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before and after each use. “And don’t use others’ tools, or a contaminated soaking tub without proper cleaning to prevent infection,” adds Dr. Palm.
Try: Sally Hansen Salon Gel Polish Gel Nail Color Starter Kit ($60; amazon.com)