Here’s How Deep Products and In-Office Treatments Really Penetrate the Skin

Here’s How Deep Products and In-Office Treatments Really Penetrate the Skin featured image
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This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

Different actives, technologies and energies power our favorite skin-enhancing products and treatments, but how far does each travel into the skin to achieve transformative results?

Skin 101

The skin’s main layers are the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis. The epidermis is the outermost layer (surface) and serves as a protective barrier. Next comes the dermis, or the middle layer, which New York dermatologist Jody Levine, MD says is made up of connective tissue, hair follicles and sweat glands. The hypodermis is the deepest layer and is made up of fat and connective tissues.

Skin Care

According to Dr. Levine, the exact depth of penetration of skin-care products is unknown, but she says most basic topicals are absorbed from the surface of the skin and then travel to the deeper layers, into the skin cells.

At-Home Peels

Many at-home peels do not penetrate deeper than typical skin-care products—Dr. Levine notes that they usually remain on the epidermis—but the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel has been clinically tested and proven to work well. Every two-step use provides both surface-level exfoliation and improvement beneath to increase skin density through a blend of potent acids and anti-aging ingredients.

After using the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel for 12 weeks, this woman saw a significant improvement in the density of her crow’s-feet.

In-Office Peels

A peel’s strength is determined by the concentration of the main active ingredient and the amount of time the peel is left on the skin. In-office peels vary from light to deep, and generally affect the epidermis and dermis. Too high of a concentration or leaving a peel on for too long can penetrate too deep and cause harm.


“In most areas, neurotoxins are injected right into the muscle,” explains West Palm Beach, FL dermatologist Kenneth Beer, MD. By injecting the muscle, the neurotoxin—including Botox Cosmetic, DAXI*, Jeuveau, Dysport, or Xeomin—stops the signal between the nerve and the muscle, ultimately causing wrinkles to relax. For areas such as the crow’s-feet, neurotoxins are injected superficially.


Nonablative lasers such as HALO, Clear + Brilliant, and MOXI travel deep into the skin to heat up underlying tissue to promote collagen production without touching the surface. More invasive than their counterparts, ablative lasers remove the top layer of the skin entirely for transformative results, so visiting an experienced physician is imperative for a safe, effective outcome.

In-Office Microneedling

Administered via a handheld device, microneedling causes thousands of micro-injuries in the skin to invoke a wound-healing response, thus generating new collagen and elastin. According to Dover, OH facial plastic surgeon David Hartman, MD, professional “skin pens” penetrate up to 2.5 millimeters, reaching both the epidermis and dermis. (At-home rollers penetrate about 0.25 millimeters into the skin.) “Microneedling is a great treatment to improve acne scarring, large pores and fine lines,” adds Dr. Hartman.


Dr. Beer says the penetration of dermal fillers depends on three things: the goal, the product and the thickness of the skin. Depending on whether the patient is looking to lift, volumize or treat wrinkles, Dr. Levine says the depth of injection can vary in different layers of the skin. Dr. Beer adds, “For places where we want to lift or add volume, I inject deeply, on top of the bone. In other areas, I can inject just into the surface lines to soften them.”

Microneedling With Radio Frequency

Dr. Hartman says radio frequency (RF) “significantly turbo-charges” the efficacy of microneedling by delivering skin-tightening energy via needles, which can travel 0.5 to 4.5 millimeters into the dermis. Saddle Brook, NJ dermatologist Dr. Fredric Haberman adds, “With Morpheus8, for example, the heat from the RF waves penetrates into the dermal skin layer, tightening the skin and deeper layers below.” The result: “A more effective and enhanced tightening of the skin.”

Radio-Frequency Tightening

Radio-frequency based skin-tighteners such as Thermage work by heating up skin tissue, causing contraction and the generation of new collagen for a smoother look. “Thermage delivers diffused radio frequency at 3 millimeters in the dermis,” Dr. Haberman says. However, because it’s considered somewhat of a mature technology today, many experts prefer combining radio frequency with microneedling for superior firming results.

Ultrasound-Based Therapies

Dr. Haberman says Ultherapy is able to deliver focused and precise ultrasound energy to depths of 1.5, 3 and 4.55 millimeters, including the SMAS (superficial musculoaponeurotic system) layer of the skin, an area often reserved for facelift surgery. “It treats fine lines, areas of saggy skin and jowls,” he adds. Newcomer Sofwave is also powered by ultrasound energy, but New York facial plastic surgeon Lee Ann M. Klausner, MD says it does so in a more concentrated fashion, “offering the equivalent of seven pulses of other ultrasound options in one Sofwave pulse at a depth of 1.5 to 2 millimeters,” stimulating new collagen and tightening the skin.

*As of press time DAXI is pending FDA approval

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