As women begin to notice changes to the face — fine wrinkles across the forehead, laugh lines, thinner lips and darker circles underneath the eyes — they often look for help to combat these first signs of aging. Over-the-counter creams are limited in their effectiveness, and plastic surgery may be too extreme a response, but dermal fillers offer an attractive solution: immediate, subtle results that can last from several months to a year or more.
"A very animated, expressive individual will develop lines much sooner," says Beverly Hills dermatologist, Dr. Nathan Newman. "Botox and fillers are a good way to prevent the lines caused by these expressions from becoming deep creases."
Dermal fillers are often confused with Botox, and though both are delivered by injection, they serve very different purposes. As the name implies, fillers are designed to plump wrinkles, fill in hollowness and enhance lips, while Botox targets and relaxes muscles to prevent new lines from developing.
The advantages of fillers outweigh the risks, according to experts such as Dr. Neal Schultz of DermTV.com. Fillers are generally cost-effective (starting at a few hundred dollars), easy to administer and natural looking. Schultz says. The effects generally last four to 12 months. The risks? Fillers can cause occasional bruising, mild pain or discomfort when injected and, in rare circumstances, allergic reactions.
Increasingly popular, brand-named fillers can be classified into several categories: collagen, hyaluronic acid (Juvaderm and Restylane), calcium-based (Radiesse) and poly-L-lactic acid (Sculptra). However, new kinds of fillers — including synthetic and permanent options, stem cell and blood-based fillers — have recently debuted on the market, making it even harder to evaluate the growing list of brands.
Hyaluronic acid-based fillers act as humectants to increase volume and are best used for lips and wrinkles. "It's like putting a sponge under your face and filling it up with water," says Dr. Stuart Kaplan, a dermatologist based in Beverly Hills.
New hyaluronic acid-based fillers on the market include Juvéderm XC and Hydrelle by Anika Therapeutics, both containing the anesthetic lidocaine to help reduce pain during the injection procedure. Sculptra, a poly-L-lactic acid, is best used for loss of volume in large areas of the face, such as in cheeks and at the temples. Calcium-based Radiesse works to combat deeper creases around the nose and mouth. Most of these products last up to 12 months.
The new wave of fillers, however, aims to improve the longevity of the treatments. The most controversial may be permanent options such as silicone (not FDA-approved) or Artefill, formulated from bovine collagen and synthetic PMMA microspheres, which stimulate collagen growth and are not reabsorbed in the body. Although these fillers sound appealing, experts question whether permanence is truly a benefit. "As we age our skin drapes differently," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Debra Luftman. "What previously was a fill might become a ridge."
Also, since these materials are often foreign to the body, they can lead to allergic reactions. Side effects from silicone can be manifested, in worst cases, as infected boils and scarring cysts, Schultz says. "I only inject fillers that are native to the body such as collagens, hyaluronic and lactic acid," he adds.
Stem cell injections could become one of the most promising developments in the area of dermal fillers, doctors say, since stem cells integrate completely into the face and can truly claim to give a natural appearance. "Stem cell technology is revolutionizing medicine as lasers did in the past," says Newman, who offers a patented procedure called Stem Cell Lift at his clinic.
"Fatty tissue has the highest percentage of adult stem cells of any tissue in the body, with about 5,000 adipose stem cells per gram of fat," says Luftman. "Adipose stem cells have the capacity [of] cell memory, especially in the use of re-volumizing the face."
In the procedure, fat is removed from unwanted areas, stems cells are extracted, processed and re-injected into the face to fill wrinkles, sculpt and lift. "These living cells are genetically programmed [to be] incorporated into the surrounding tissues and take on the characteristics of their new surroundings," Newman says. It takes about three months for the cells to fully integrate and for the changes to become "permanent," meaning that they are not reabsorbed into the body but remain in place indefinitely, although they are subject to the natural aging process.
Although stem cell treatments are promising, many experts believe further development and safety studies are still needed before stem cell fillers can be adopted more universally. "There is not enough known about the reproducibility of results and side effects," Schultz says.