RF treatment : Everything you need to know about Radiofrequency treatment

RF treatment, many people talk about Radiofrequency treatment that allows face lift without surgery. Is this true?

There's some really sci-fi-esque anti-aging technology for the home available today. You can use oxygen or light in different colours and small electric currents to stimulate your skin cells. Or there's ultrasound to get more product deeper into the skin. But the most exciting? It is, according to many, radio frequency or also called RF.

But how can Radio Frequency RF treatment make you look younger?

It's not as crazy as it sounds. A radio frequency device sends an electric current into the skin. This heats your tissues and causes an immediate tightening effect. It also triggers collagen production. So over time, you build fresh collagen and elastin fibres to support your face. The result is firmer, tighter, more radiant skin. There are different versions of Radio Frequency RF devices for home use that promise results.

Now you probably have many questions. So did I. So I set out to learn all about skin tightening with radiofrequency RF and then share it with you. First we'll learn what radiofrequency is and what it does to our tissues, then how it's used for anti-aging and body contouring, then the clinical evidence, a comparison between home devices and professional treatments, and finally where you can get RF yourself.

What is radio frequency?

Radio frequency (RF) is two things.

  1. Firstly, it is a type of electromagnetic radiation in a certain frequency range, also known as radio waves.

We are surrounded by electromagnetic radiation. It comes from many sources, including the sun, stars, lightning and our bodies. Gamma rays, X-rays, microwaves, lasers and light are other types. They span a huge range of wavelengths and frequencies.

  • A wavelength is the distance between two peaks in the wave.
  • The frequency is the number of cycles formed in one second and is measured in hertz (Hz).

We categorise these different frequencies and wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum.

The electromagnetic spectrum: each type comes from a different source and has different effects on matter.

Radio frequencies are the lowest energy electromagnetic radiation. They have a longer wavelength and therefore a lower frequency because each wave cycle takes longer to complete. RF radiation ranges from about 20 kilohertz/kHz to about 300 gigahertz/GHz (30 billion hertz)2. But this is not exactly what we use in RF treatments for skin tightening against ageing skin.

  • Secondly, radio frequency also describes the oscillating electric currents used to generate radio waves. It works like this. Alternating currents of a certain voltage sent through a conducting antenna cause electrons to vibrate and generate radio waves. This is the transmitter. The radio waves travel at the speed of light from the transmitter to a receiver. Electrons in the receiver then vibrate, recreating the original signal.
RF also describes alternating electric currents sent through a transmitter. This creates electromagnetic radiation at radio frequencies.

We divide radio frequencies into bands, from very low to very high. Very low frequencies transmit over longer distances, between 10-33 km. So we use these radio waves mainly to communicate voice, data and entertainment media. High frequencies transmit only a short distance. And so it is this RF that generates electric current that we use to help the human body in medicine and aesthetics.

Radio frequency current and the body

Unlike other forms of electric current, RF currents flow through our tissues without giving us an electric shock. Here's why:

Our nerve membranes have their own electrical charge. All external sources of electricity affect them. An electric shock causes a sensation of pain and makes our muscles twitch. But an RF current is too fast to do this. It travels at the speed of light, so our nerves and muscles don't register it.

So what effect does the RF current have?

How radio frequency affects our tissues

Our cells conduct RF current in the range 0.3 - 10 megahertz (MHz) and use it as part of their own electrical circuitry. It flows freely through the tissues. But where there is any resistance, it generates heat. And the heat produced depends on the electrical properties of the specific tissue.

This means that we have found several uses for it. For example, doctors can use the heat to direct the RF current to destroy small tumours, varicose veins and even correct heart murmurs. Clinical studies confirm that the technology is safe and effective.

It's the same idea of heating tissue that we use in anti-aging RF facials and body contouring. To understand more, let's look at aging skin and how RF facials and body contouring help.

How the skin ages

Let's first see what happens in aging skin.

Under the skin surface there is a collagen- and elastin setting that holds the dermis and epidermis together. This keeps the skin firm and supple. From the age of 30 onwards, we lose about 1 to 2 % of our collagen each year. So gradually this framework weakens and breaks down. Wow. In addition, the amount of collagen and elastin that our fibroblasts produce decreases dramatically. And to make matters worse, the cells in our epidermis (skin surface) aren't renewing as quickly either.

The result is sagging, texture problems, dullness and wrinkles.

Now there are different variants of RF treatment to help fight these signs of aging.

Fractional RF is like a fractional non-ablative laser that heats small segments of the skin surface and dermis, causing microdamage. The skin's healing process starts and rebuilds the damaged tissue. This "resurfacing" helps with fine lines, wrinkles and improves texture and color.

But there is a deeper type of RF treatment that we are interested in. It concentrates on the lower layers of the skin as well. The results are skin tightening, dermal remodelling and increased cell metabolism. Therefore, this is another beauty technique that, like microcurrent treatments, can lift and shape facial contours.

RF treatment, dermal remodelling and increased metabolism

In these treatments, RF heats and stimulates the underlying structures of the skin down to the dermis, causing controlled damage. Heating deeper skin tissues to 67°C gives the best results.

The heat denatures the proteins collagen and elastin. This causes them to loosen. Although this sounds bad, the immediate effect is that the collagen matrix contracts and shrinks, creating a lifting effect on the face and tightening sagging skin on the body. And this skin tightening is good because it gives a more youthful appearance.

Your body will start to heal, just like it does after a cut or injury. It triggers your fibroblast cells in the deeper layers of your skin to produce new collagen and elastin. Over time, they usually create more of these proteins than before. This increase in these fresh, skin-supporting proteins is dermal remodeling. It increases skin elasticity, reduces wrinkles and lines, tightens and firms, and improves skin texture and plumpness.

Heat also has a detoxifying effect and increases cell metabolism. This is because when RF energy heats tissues between 40°C and 45°C, blood flow increases through vasodilatation. Vasodilation is the dilation of blood vessels. The increased circulation brings more oxygen and nutrients to the cells. It also removes waste products, such as carbon dioxide. This speeds up the metabolism of cells, resulting in more energy, so they work harder. This promotes skin health and provides an energy boost for dermal remodelling.

"TIP: RF current does not affect the melanin in the skin, so it is suitable for all skin types without the risk of discoloration."

These effects of RF provide anti-aging results on the face. And it works just as well on the body too. It's especially useful for firming up loose skin after weight loss, pregnancy or from the natural aging process. We call this body contouring.

 Body Contouring with RF treatment

Non-surgical RF body contouring is a professional treatment that helps solve common problems such as sagging skin on the stomach, breasts and knees, cellulite and reduction of localised fat. It helps to improve the appearance of saddlebags, inner thighs, love handles, abdominal fat, sagging skin after childbirth and bingo wings.

You can choose to both reduce fat and then tighten the remaining sagging skin, or simply tighten and reshape the ageing skin on your body.

For fat reduction, RF reaches down to the deepest layers of the skin to the adipose tissue. It only heats the fat cells and causes apoptosis or "self-damage" of the fat adipocyte cells. Therefore, the fat deposits decrease in size and provide a slimming effect. Alternatively, the machines can use ultrasound cavitation to target fat, causing the fat cells to be excited and destroyed. The fat waste is then excreted through the lymphatic system.

To tighten loose skin around the body, the tissues in the skin are heated with RF energy. As with RF facials, this causes a breakdown of collagen fibres to tighten the skin, stimulating fibroblast production of collagen and elastin to remodel the skin and increase cell metabolism. 

The result is an improved body contour with smooth, firm and radiant skin.

Surgical RF skin tightening is a more extensive procedure that is performed in the operating room under general anesthesia. The surgeon inserts an RF probe under the skin for an intense application of RF heat in the subdermal layers, while infrared cameras monitor the skin temperature. This procedure is aimed at tightening loose skin on the arms, legs, abdomen, back and buttocks.16

There are also two ways to deliver RF energy; monopolar and bipolar.

Monopolar and bipolar RF treatment

There are two ways to direct RF into the skin: monopolar or bipolar.

RF treatment

Monopolar is most common in professional body shaping. It is also called unipolar because the instrument has one electrode/pole in the handpiece. This RF RF treatment delivery treats deep tissue structures because the positive and negative poles are separated from each other. It works like this:

The device generates the current and the hand unit applies the positive RF current to the skin. The greatest resistance occurs where the handset touches the skin.

On the client, usually on the lower part of the back, sits a negative earth cushion. The pad creates a low-resistance path for the current to return to the generator and complete the electrical circuit.

The RF current goes from the hand unit to the pad and passes through all skin layers. It even reaches the subcutaneous fat layer 20 mm below the skin.

Bipolar means that the hand unit has two poles, negative and positive. It is used both in professional RF RF treatments and in home appliances.

The RF current flows only through the small tissue area between these two poles and reaches 2-4 mm under the skin. The current does not flow through the deep tissues.

Tripolar machines can provide both types of RF treatment.

Results of RF treatment

The advertised effects of an RF treatment to tighten the skin on the body or face are:

  • Short-term collagen shrinkage of the skin.
  • Long-term stimulation of fibroblasts to create revitalised collagen and elastin.
  • Stronger skin in the deeper layers of the skin.
  • Improved cell metabolism
  • Refreshed epidermis/outer skin cells.

You need sessions of about 6 RF treatments. You may see some immediate tightening after each treatment. But the results are seen gradually over several months, with the best results 6 months after the end of the treatment.

You will need several sessions over 8 to 10 weeks. The results are also gradual and best at the end of the treatment period. You need regular treatments 2 to 4 times a month to maintain your results.

Harley Medical Group says the effects of skin tightening vary and are different from person to person, so they can't guarantee specific results. Therefore, they can range from subtle to significant and last for months to years. The results are:

  • Tightening of loose skin, e.g. on the cheeks, eyebrows and neck.
  • Reduces pore size, fine lines and wrinkles.
  • A smoother skin texture.
  • Healthier and more radiant skin

Results for home RF devices are similar, but several sessions over a more intensive treatment schedule are required to see results. Maintenance sessions then prolong the results.

Reassuringly, there are clinical studies showing that radiofrequency skin tightening also works.

Clinical evidence for radiofrequency skin tightening

Many clinical studies show that RF is effective in tightening the skin.

In 2011, researchers in the US studied six participants and found that RF produced noticeable clinical results. The subjects were also very satisfied with their skin improvement and collagen increase.

Researchers in Korea mirrored these findings. RF treatment is safe and effective in treating signs of aging and reducing scarring.

However, such studies examining the effects of aesthetic rather than medical treatments are difficult to compare. This is because they use small groups of people and the methods and quality of the research vary considerably. Brazilian researchers discovered these problems in their 2015 literature review. They looked at 30 different studies that examined RF facial treatments. They conclude that although RF treatment is successful in stimulating collagen synthesis, we need further studies to clarify treatment parameters and effectiveness.

Bipolar appliances for home use are not as powerful as professional monopolar appliances. However, researchers have shown them to be effective in some clinical trials.

Professional radio frequency compared to radio frequency home appliances

Like most comparisons made at home and professionally, you can expect faster results with professional sessions. But you'll also pay a lot more overall.

Here is a comparison table showing the main similarities and differences.

Professional RFHome RF
Who is it for?For men and women, safe for all skin tones and skin types.For men and women, safe for all skin tones and skin types.
Which skin types?For jowls and sagging skin on the jawline and neck, fine to medium lines around the eyes. Your clinic will recommend the number of treatments that is best for your skin condition and the likely outcome.People with sagging facial skin, lines and wrinkles. Follow the recommended treatment schedule.
SchemeApproximately 6 sessions, 1-2 weeks apart.2 to 3 sessions per week for 6 to 8 weeks.
MaintenanceRefresh every 1 to 3 months, depending on results and skin type.2 to 4 sessions per month
PreparationClean and remove make-up. Drink plenty of water before and after treatment. No anaesthetic required. Read more below.Clean and remove make-up. Drink plenty of water before and after treatment. No anaesthetic required. Read more below.
SessionOperative applies conductivity gel and massages the applicator is slow continuous movements gradually heating your face and neck.Apply conductive gel to your treatment area, and working in small zones, move the electrodes over your skin gradually heating it until the time is up. Move onto the next area until all desired zones are complete.
How long is a session?Usually 30 to 60 minutes.10 minutes to 1 hour per full facial.
FeelingRelaxing and painless, warm massage sensation. There may be some swelling and redness of the skin afterwards, which normally only lasts for a few hours.Relaxing and painless, warm massage sensation. Some redness on the skin afterwards, but it usually disappears within an hour or two.
Side effects?Very rare side effects. Read more below.Very rare side effects. Read more below.
ContraindicationsRF treatments are generally safe with no downtime. However, there are some reasons why you may not be suitable. For contraindications see below.RF treatments are generally safe with no downtime. However, there are some reasons why you may not be suitable. For contraindications see below.
CostSingle session 1000 SEK to 2000 SEKFrom 1200 SEK to 5000 SEK for a RF equipment for home use. Some combine with other anti-aging techniques.
ResultTighter, firmer and younger-looking skin with improved tone, texture and elasticity. Fine lines on the face disappear and deeper wrinkles are softened.Tighter, firmer and younger-looking skin with improved tone, texture and elasticity. Fine lines on the face disappear and deeper wrinkles are softened.
Advantages and disadvantagesThe results are more than for appliances used in the home. The results are not eternal and you need regular maintenance sessions. User reviews suggest that results vary and are not guaranteed.Much cheaper than professional treatments You can maintain results in your home with a reduced treatment schedule Results vary and you may not get the lift you want They require initial and ongoing commitment and work.

Preparing for professional RF treatment

Harley Medical Group suggests some useful tips for preparing for skin tightening treatments on the face and body.

Remember:

  • Avoid the sun for 2-3 days before so that your skin is not dry or red.
  • Remove make-up before facials
  • Drink 1 litre of water a few hours before treatment. Stay well hydrated
  • Eat light food before treatment.
  • Wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothing for skin stretching of the body.

Avoid:

  • Sun tanning or sun creams within 10 days before the treatment or during the entire course of the treatment.
  • Do not apply creams or oils to the skin before treatment.
  • Avoid heavy meals that are high in carbohydrates or fat less than two hours before treatment.

Who should avoid RF treatments?

RF is safe, but if you have certain diseases you must avoid it. You must check the instructions for use of any home equipment you plan to use.

Here are the contraindications that apply to both professional and RF equipment at home.

Do not use a home appliance in the following areas:

  • Over eyelids, thyroid area, lips, ears, breasts or genital areas.

Do not use it if you:

  • Are under 18 years old
  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Have a pacemaker or defibrillator
  • Have metal implants in the treatment area, such as gold wires or metal plates and screws. Dental fillings or implants are okay.
  • Currently using medications, herbal preparations, vitamins or supplements that can cause fragile or dry skin.

Do not use if you have any of the following medical conditions:

  • If you have cancer or have a history of cancer, especially skin cancer.
  • Have serious concurrent conditions, such as heart disease.
  • Have a compromised immune system due to immunosuppressive diseases such as HIV, or use immunosuppressive medications.
  • Have a history of heat stimulated illnesses such as recurrent Herpes Simplex (within the treatment area).
  • Have an active skin condition in the treatment area, such as ulcers, psoriasis, eczema or rashes.
  • Have a history of keloid scarring, abnormal wound healing or fragile skin.
  • Have suspicious lesions in the treatment area.

Do not use if you have recently undergone cosmetic or surgical procedures as follows:

  • If you have had any surgical procedure, laser resurfacing or deep chemical peel in the treatment area in the last three months or if you are still undergoing a healing process.
  • Permanent fillers in the treatment area.
  • If you have temporary dermal fillers in the treatment area, consult your doctor.
  • Collagen or Botox has been used in the treatment area for the past three months.

These additional contraindications apply to professional RF treatments.

Do not use:

  • If you have a history of coagulopathies or use of anticoagulants.
  • Have used isotretinoin for the past 6 months.
  • Taken non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. with ibuprofen) one week before and after each treatment.
  • On a tattoo or permanent makeup
  • On excessively tanned skin, sunburn from tanning salons or sun creams in the last two weeks.

Possible side effects of radiofrequency

RF treatments are very safe. Common skin reactions to the heat are red and swollen skin. Use Aloe Vera to cool and soothe if needed.

There are a few rare and occasional side effects with professional and home RF equipment. If you experience any and they last for more than 24 hours, seek medical attention.

  • Pain
  • Damage to the natural structure of the skin (crusting, blisters, burns, bruises).
  • Mild headache

You should also avoid sun exposure after a treatment and always use a good sunscreen!

Where can I buy radio frequency (RF) equipment for home use?

Here are suggestions for proven, safe and effective radio frequency devices for home use.