I stick my face into a machine, place my chin on the chin rest and close my eyes. Three flashes of light and mere seconds later, I can see every flaw on my face highlighted on a set of close-up photos.
Few of us want to get up close and personal with our face's every spot, bump, wrinkle and pore, but I enthusiastically volunteered to get a Visia scan. This tabletop machine is a skin analysis tool that identifies and quantifies various skin conditions.
Visia is part of a bigger trend of tech making its way into skincare. At CES 2019, we saw more devices than ever before that claim they can fix or cover whatever you don't like about your skin. The most notable is Opte -- a handheld device that scans your face for dark marks and applies the perfect amount of concealer and serum to treat and camouflage them.
We're past the point of asking if technology belongs in skincare (it does) and on to exploring every way it can help us. Here's what I learned from having my face scanned that no dermatologist has told me before.
What is Visia and how does it work?
The Visia machine takes three photos of your face -- one with daylight lighting conditions, one with cross polarization (which reduces glare) and one with UV light -- to evaluate and quantify various conditions both on the surface of your skin and hidden in your skin's layers.
Specifically, Visia looks at seven different features on your skin: wrinkles, UV damage, texture, pores, general spots, brown spots, red areas and porphyrins (secretions from bacteria that can clog pores and cause pimples). Looking at all of those factors, a dermatologist can recommend treatments and products that can improve the look of your face and protect against future sun damage.
Visia scans are available only at a dermatologist's or doctor's office, and most offices that have a Visia include a scan as part of a doctor's visit or new patient exam. For my exam, I visited the offices of board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jerome Potozkin in Danville, California.
Visia machines have been around for at least 15 years, but the latest model and software have a few added features. One is the "TruSkin age," which basically tells you if the amount of wrinkles, UV damage and discoloration is typical for your age. It does that by comparing your skin conditions to a large database of other patients. My TrueSkin age is 33, which is only slightly higher than my actual age, 31.
The other new feature is the age simulation. Based on the condition of your skin when you get the scan, and assuming you don't make any changes to your current skincare regime, it shows you what you'll look like by the time you're 80 (and all of the years in between).
Why I wanted a scan
My skin's been through a lot: teenage acne, several bad sunburns, adult acne and the scars it left behind. It now has a few visible cosmetic flaws that I don't know what to do about. Are the spots on my right cheek acne scars or hyperpigmentation? Are the wrinkles on my forehead worse than they should be for someone my age?
I wanted answers.
Walking into the scan, I was also aware of all the years I've spent in the sun without any protection. I am a pale Caucasian woman who was raised in two sunny environments: San Francisco's Bay Area and Phoenix, Arizona. I spent a majority of my childhood playing outside and most of my teen years swimming and sunbathing.
Sunscreen was something I only used at the beach or on vacation -- definitely not daily, and only occasionally at the pool. Despite living in the Valley of the Sun, I went to tanning beds in high school to get the bronze complexion I craved.
Knowing that I went so many years without protecting my skin from the sun, I was curious to see how bad the damage was.
What Visia taught me
I went into the scan hoping to figure out what to do about my face's scars, uneven skin texture and visible pores, but more than anything else it showed my the sobering truth of my skin's UV damage. After years of living in sunny climates and rarely putting on sunscreen, I saw the detrimental effects first hand.
I was genuinely taken aback when I saw my UV photo. Just by looking at my face, I don't see much of what I would consider to be signs of sun exposure -- such as freckles or dark spots. But with the UV photo, I can see widespread damage.
The hundreds of black spots and blotches in the photo are UV spots, or areas beneath the skin's surface where melanin coagulates after being exposed to UV rays. Your body produces melanin when exposed to the sun in an effort to protect it. It's also responsible for giving you a tan, but it's not always visible to the naked eye.
UV rays do more than stimulate melanin production -- they also damage collagen in your skin, which ultimately causes wrinkles and sagging. While I can't actually see the collagen damage, those black spots in the UV photo are proof that I've accrued enough UV rays to cause it.
Given my light complexion and history of sunburns, I'm all too aware of the fact that my risk for skin cancer is higher than average. Seeing what damage had already been done, I'm more motivated than ever before to wear sunscreen daily to slow down the signs of aging, prevent further UV damage, and ultimately protect against skin cancer.
There were two more things I learned from my scan. First, despite my fixation on the various wrinkles that have popped up on my face in the last few years, I actually have fewer wrinkles than what's typical for my age -- wooo!
Second, I learned that my forehead is covered in porphyins. I was a bit grossed out to see that, but Dr. Potozkin wasn't fazed. "Some benzoyl peroxide will clear that up," he told me.
At the end of the scan and analysis, Dr. Potozkin offered his advice on what I should be doing to protect against more sun damage and reverse some of the damage that's already been done.
Above all else, he told me to wear sunscreen every day, without exception. Dermatologists the world over will give you the same advice because it's the best line of defense against UV rays.
In order to help reverse some of the existing UV damage, plus help improve skin texture, the doctor recommended products with antioxidants, specifically vitamin A and vitamin C.
Various formulations of vitamin A improve cell turnover and are available in many skin products, from over-the-counter retinol creams and serums, to prescription-strength retinoid ointments and oral medication. Vitamin C has become a popular skincare ingredient in the last several years because studies suggest that it can also reverse sun damage. You can find it in many over-the-counter products.
Do we really need a machine to scan our faces?
Any dermatologist can look at your skin and tell you what kind of issues you're dealing with -- whether that's acne, scarring, rosacea or wrinkles. But Visia allows you and your doctor to uncover what the naked eye can't see.
To be clear, Visia is hardly the first machine to take UV photography -- that practice has been around for decades. But what makes a Visia scan is valuable is that it can tell you how your UV damage (along with wrinkles, red spots and so on) compares to others your age. That data can help you and your doctor better understand the condition of your skin and identify any abnormalities -- like if you have as much sun damage as a 40-year-old when you're only 25.
Technology like Visia is becoming more and more crucial in skincare because it can give us more comprehensive information about our skin than we've had before, and provide better tools to identify and treat dangerous conditions and minor flaws.
When I asked Dr. Potozkin why he wanted to get a Visia machine for his practice, he told me that he was enticed by the fact that it can give patients a detailed analysis of their skin and help them understand all of the factors that affects it.
Bottom line: While you don't need a face scan to get better skin, it will at least show you any and all UV damage on your face. And since many offices that have a Visia include a scan with a regular visit, there's no reason not to try it.