Non-invasive procedures work, but results vary.
The pounds have melted away and the stretch marks have faded, but that doesn’t mean I exited pregnancy unscathed. Fully clothed, I may look like my former slim pre-pregnancy self, but what you don’t see is the thin, crepey skin and sagging belly hidden underneath my mom uniform of t-shirt and jeans. And it’s this stretched skin that is a nagging reminder of this lopsided bargain I struck to become a mother.
Having a baby may cost me freedom, money, and time, but did it have to take my bikini body, too?
“Just look at it,” I’ve often whined to my husband while pinching the skin over the top of my waistband. “Then don’t do that,” is one of his automatic responses, which I hate more than the more trepidatious, “it’s not that bad.”
Loose skin is the scourge of pregnancy that they don’t tell you about in baby books; a byproduct of that rotund belly and milk-engorged breasts. Even if you’re lucky enough to lose those 30+ lbs. (45 in my case) of life-sustaining fat after giving birth, the skin covering it likely has stretched beyond its ability to snap back. The result of this sad fact of biology is a wrinkly midriff and fallen breasts.
I used to pity other women for these flaws. Now, it’s my own reflection in the mirror that makes me cringe. If there is a way to recapture my once-firm skin, I’m going to find it, or at least try.
Avoiding the knife
The most effective way to get rid of this extra skin is a tummy tuck, according to plastic surgeons. However, expensive surgery was never an option for me, and even if I could afford it, the damage I’m trying to correct is too slight to justify going under the knife. I’m looking for non-invasive procedures that don’t come with high risks and long recovery times.
Non-invasive beauty treatments generally rely on the body’s own healing power to build new collagen and elastin – the proteins that give skin its tight and smooth appearance. There are several ways to create new “trauma” to your skin and kick your body’s healing process into overdrive. These intentional wounds work in your favor by attracting the body’s natural healing growth factors to the injured site, producing new collagen and elastin in return.
The question is, what is the best way to achieve results?
Lasers, radiofrequency, and ultrasound are popular technologies that doctors use to induce new collagen. These treatments are often marketed under the brand name of the device, such as Titan, Ultherapy, Infini RF, and Thermage. It’s daunting to methodically sift through all the machines, pictures, and opinions on the Internet about these therapies. And it’s not just the tool that matters – technique also counts.
“Women shouldn’t get caught up on a particular device or treatment,” says Dr. Robert Brueck, a board certified plastic surgeon in Fort Meyers, Florida. “The outcome should matter more than the procedure.” He sees approximately four women each month who want to tighten loose tummy skin, and says that it’s the experience of the surgeon that matters most: one doctor may not have a good track record with a particular device, but another may develop a different protocol to achieve better results.
Dr. Mark Epstein, board certified plastic surgeon and clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery at the State University of New York Health Sciences Center, is of the same opinion. “Why does Thermage fail and ThermiTite succeed?” he asks. Both medical devices use radiofrequency to tighten the skin, but ThermiTite has significantly higher patient satisfaction ratings.
“How you deliver energy matters,” says Dr. Epstein. “If you don’t deliver enough energy, you don’t get the right result. Deliver too much and you can damage the skin.”
Both doctors suggest that patients consult with a plastic surgeon that can offer a wide array of options, since those that can only prescribe injectables or radiofrequency may not recommend a tummy tuck when surgery is the only option to achieve desired results.
“When you have a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail,” says Dr. Epstein.
Tight tummy vs. tight budget
Money is another factor women need to consider. Non-invasive skin-tightening procedures often take several treatments to realize maximum results, and many doctors use more than one modality to tackle loose skin. The price for all these treatments can add up and eventually rival the cost of a tummy tuck.
Last year I found myself in the clinic of my friend, Dr. Tacita Robertson, a naturopathic physician. Like Dr. Brueck, she offers Collagen Induction Therapy (CIT) – also known as microneedling – supplemented with Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) as a way to tighten loose skin.
Microneedling + PRP is typically performed on the face and neck, but it can be done anywhere on the body. A single treatment usually costs between $900 to $1200, and most doctors prescribe a series of three spread several months apart. I normally wouldn’t be able to afford this cosmetic service, but I offered my stomach in the name of science so Dr. Robertson could test a new microneedling pen.
CIT uses a device equipped with several ultra-fine needles that pierce the skin thousands of times to generate new collagen and elastin as these invisible wounds heal. A serum containing platelets extracted from a vial of the patient’s blood is then smoothed over the wounds to boost the concentration of growth factors and provide better results.
As I lay on the treatment table in her clinic, each sweep of the microneedling device on my stomach made invisible funny bones vibrate, unleashing peals of laughter. Although neither of us knew what to expect, giggling wasn’t the anticipated reaction. Did I neglect to mention that I’m ticklish?
My stomach was red after the 20-minute treatment, and looked like I laid in the sun for too long. The color and sensitivity subsided after a few days, but a question remained unanswered: would it work?
“It tickles”: the author undergoes microneedling
That’s the thing with non-invasive skin tightening options. These treatments work, but the degree to which they do will vary. Unlike surgery, there are no standard metrics for results, which makes it hard for doctors to say how much improvement patients will see. Furthermore, every patient responds differently to treatment. According to Dr. Epstein, the more important question to ask is whether or not you will be happy with less than surgical results.
He has a point. A year after my microneedling treatment, the texture of my belly skin has improved. It’s not the same taught tummy that I had before I was pregnant, but the crepyness is less obvious, and my navel more open in appearance. Is it worth $1000? Hard to say. I didn’t continue with microneedling treatments as Dr. Robertson recommended, and instead added exfoliation, glycolic peels, and retinol lotions to my beauty regimen – all performed at home.
If money were no object, I would continue with the microneedling treatments, even as the tally surpassed the $8,000 it would cost to have a tummy tuck. But that’s because I’m relatively lucky. Unlike the 98 percent of women that Dr. Epstein says he sees, I don’t need a tummy tuck to tighten skin, and I’m not expecting a really taught abdomen.
I may be able to buy a product called “Hope in a Jar,” but I’m not banking on it to perform any miracles.