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November 22, 2011

Beauty's Machine Age

Can the new tech-happy beauty gadgets really zap zits and shrink pores with the proficiency of a cosmetic doc?

beauty machines

Photo Credit: Christopher Griffith

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A few years ago, after a decade spent tithing embarrassing portions of my meager salary to the French face cream gods in an attempt to soothe symptoms ranging from dark circles to boyfriendlessness, I quit products cold turkey. I'd like to credit this to some new sense of perspective or at least a hobby, but what really happened is that I read several articles about parabens in breast tumors, and my fear of cancer trumped my fear of wrinkles. I threw out my ultrarich night creams and serums and replaced them with jars of pure almond oil from the health-food store. To my surprise, my cheeks didn't immediately sag in protest. But I did notice a creeping psychological lightness. I was no longer desperately fighting aging; I was just aging. It felt liberating, and a little dangerous. My newfound beauty asceticism really took the edge off my birthdays.

But eventually, as I fell upon my 30s and the crinkles around my eyes started taking up permanent residence, I began to reconsider: Had I equated righteous abstention with laziness? Surely it was possible to not buy $300 eye cream and not have chin hair.

It was my wedding that finally tipped the scales. A few months of concentrated vanity before the big event enlightened me to the cosmetic world's technophilia: a class of paraben-free beauty gadgets, LED systems, electronic masks, and zappers whose promises would make La Mer blush. Could they possibly work? I was skeptical. But fresh off my honeymoon and eager to retain at least the appearance of well-restedness, I decided to find out.

I start simple, with the Olay Professional Pro-X Advanced Cleansing System, a less-expensive version of Clarisonic, the popular motorized exfoliating brush. But first I call Dr. Debra Jaliman, author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist, to find out what benefits, if any, to realistically expect. Surprisingly, she proclaims herself a "big believer" in some at-home devices. "Is the Olay as good as what I can do with the diamond-tip microdermabrator in my office?" she says. "No. But it still helps." What about as good as my own washcloth? I ask. "I'm not a fan of washcloths," she says. "People don't wash them enough. They put bacteria back on your skin."

I proceed with my trial, applying cleanser to my wet face and pressing the little white gadget's On button. It purrs softly to life, its bristles rotating slowly in a circular direction. My electric toothbrush could eat this thing for lunch. But it produces a pleasant tickling sensation that eventually lulls me into a deep relaxation, not unlike a face massage. Mmmmmm-hmm. When I finally set the device down, my face does feel exceedingly clean.

Next, I try a sleek, compact gadget that borrows its shape and design from the iPhone: the Claro IPL Acne Clearing Device, a handheld zit-zapper that promises, through a combination of heat and light, to shrivel pimples within a matter of days. When I press the gadget to a blemish on my chin, it starts beeping loudly and unleashes a series of flashing red lights. Convinced something scientific must be happening here, I'm soon loudly zapping my entire body — ingrown hairs, back zits, a bug bite on my forearm. How this gadget might have transformed my adolescence! While I don't see any instantaneous results, I'm interested enough to give this device another go-around.

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