Broken capillaries are tiny veins that can appear through the skin on your face, legs, and chest. Although these spidery, reddish blemishes don’t pose a serious health risk, you may want to get rid of them for cosmetic reasons.
What are broken capillaries?
“Broken capillaries — commonly known as spider veins or by the medical terminology telangiectasias — are tiny blood vessels that we see on the surface of the skin,” says New York City plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Schwartz. “Most of these blood vessels are capillaries which connect arteries and veins. Aside from the face, broken capillaries are also commonly found on the legs, especially at the ankles and knees.”
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What causes broken capillaries?
Burst blood vessels can be the result of a number of different issues, the most common being damage to the skin from irritation, inflammation, and repeated exposure to the sun. While some of the common causes are preventable, others are beyond control.
“This is one of the prime factors responsible for the development of dilated capillaries,” says facial plastic surgeon Dr. Vartan Mardirossian from Jupiter, FL. “If parents or immediate relatives of a patient have a history of varicose veins, then a genetic cause is very likely. This can also be a predisposition that can combine with other factors.”
Thanks to the action of estrogen and progesterone, during pregnancy women have more blood running through their bodies. This results in the enlargement of capillaries, which leads to the development of broken vessels, or spider veins, that typically appear on the abdomen.
In addition to pregnant women, women passing through the menopausal stages and children going through puberty may also develop spider veins as their bodies try to adjust to changes in hormone levels.
If the ability of the liver to break down estrogen and progesterone is impaired, then the levels of those hormones may rise, causing dilation in the capillaries.
Broken capillaries appear on people who suffer from elevated or reduced blood flow due to leg injuries. Those who spend a long time standing, followed by prolonged periods of sitting or lying down, are also more susceptible.
The skin region surrounding the face is more likely to suffer damages than other parts of the body, which is why it’s more common to find broken capillaries on the face. Spider veins may form due to facial skin damage caused by wind, changes in temperature and even glasses pressing on certain areas of the face.
Repeated exposure to the sun is also a key cause of broken capillaries. “The constant damage to the skin caused by chronic sunburn forces it to try to recover and repair itself by making new vessels,” says Beverly Hills dermatologist Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse. “The UV also breaks down collagen, making the vessels more apparent.”
Inflammatory triggers can contribute to facial redness in some people. Common triggers include hot weather, hot showers, spicy foods, hot foods and drinks, coffee, and alcohol.
A skin condition known as rosacea can also be associated with facial redness and flushing, which can lead to new red vessels and even pimples.
As we age, there are changes in the collagen of both the skin and the small capillaries, which may cause them to weaken and become more visible.
People that are on their feet all day may be more prone to spider veins on their legs. People that are exposed to environmental irritants such as smoking and pollution often have more free radical formation, making them more prone to spider veins, especially on the face.
» Concerned about how your lifestyle or environment affect your condition? Ask a doctor on our forum for their professional opinion.
Treatments for broken capillaries
As you can see by the long list above, there are many possible explanations for broken capillaries, which is why it is advised that you consult with a qualified professional who can recommend the best treatment suited to your individual situation.
“PDL and KTP lasers are very effective — these laser treatments target vessels and ‘destroy’ them,” says Shainhouse. Lasers produce intense beams of light, that are different colors and wavelengths, that vary in their intensity and pulse duration. When undergoing treatment, a handpiece is held near your skin where it transmits the laser frequency.
There is a little discomfort and irritation to be expected from laser therapy, as it can feel like someone is constantly flicking a rubber band into your face. A topical anesthetic is often used to decrease sensitivity and discomfort. Additionally, “lasers can leave a purple, bruise-like discoloration,” says Shainhouse. “Though this does fade within a week or so.”
Intense pulsed light (IPL)
“In my opinion, the most effective treatment for broken capillaries of the face and legs is Sciton’s BBL device,” says Schwartz. “This device delivers intense pulsed light directly into the capillaries and the heat causes the vessels to shrink and fade.”
Like laser, a topical anesthetic is often applied prior to treatment to avoid any pain and discomfort. “The procedure itself takes anywhere from two to three minutes for the spider veins around the nose to approximately 15 minutes for a cluster of spider veins on the legs,” adds Schwartz. “Treatments may need to be repeated two or three times to get the best aesthetic result.”
According to Schwartz, sclerotherapy is an option for treating the legs. This treatment, used since the 1930s, entails a salt solution being injected into the affected veins, which subsequently cause them to collapse and stick together, clearing them from the legs.
Shainhouse says that two particular topical treatments may be useful. Mirvaso (brimonidine) is a topical gel that temporarily shrinks the red vessels and makes the skin appear less red. It’s applied directly to the skin and takes approximately 30 minutes to take effect. The treatment can last up to 12 hours, with a peak efficacy six to eight hours following application.
Rhofade (oxymetazoline hydrochloride) is a new topical agent recently approved by the FDA. It temporarily shrinks the vessels and reduces facial redness. It’s best applied daily and has been demonstrated to last for 12 hours.
Chemical peels and retinoids
Dermatologist Dr. Jessie Cheung from Willowbrook, IL suggests that “chemical peels and retinoids will indirectly help with the broken blood vessels by building collagen to strengthen their support structure.”
“Chemical peels stimulate skin regeneration by controlled trauma. Deeper chemical peels will deliver more results, but you will have more downtime. A series of superficial chemical peels, spaced a few weeks apart, will strengthen your skin over time,” adds Cheung.
Retinoids such as Retin-A (tretinoin), a prescription facial cream, has a direct effect on skin cells. By keeping them healthy and stimulating collagen production — with the added benefit of reducing wrinkles — retinoids manage broken capillaries.
How can you prevent broken capillaries?
“Wear sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun and to limit spider veins on the face,” says Mardirossian. “Exercise regularly to improve your leg strength, circulation, and vein strength. Focus on exercises that work your legs, such as walking or running. Control your weight to avoid placing too much pressure on your legs, and alternate the pressure on your legs when standing up for a long time.”
Additionally, Cheung says that horse chestnut extract has been shown to aid with poor circulation by strengthening blood vessels. Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is a plant extract available as supplements or topical gel.
When it comes to preventing broken capillaries, simple lifestyle advice offers the best protection.
» Not every treatment option may be appropriate for your case. If you’re considering correcting the appearance of spider veins on your body or face, you can use our virtual consultation tool to discuss your best options with a cosmetic doctor near you.