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The newest technology in anti-aging treatments is nonsurgical, noninvasive and (relatively) inexpensive. But does the Pan G Lift deliver on its promise of truly spectacular results? Pauline Anderson, Canadian Living Magazine's Health and Wellness editor, volunteered to find out.
My 10-year-old daughter recently informed me that I'm the oldest among all her friends' mothers. I wasn't surprised; she's my youngest child, and I wasn't one of those women having babies right out of school.
However, the comment generated a discussion in our household about whether Mommy looks her age. My 18-year-old daughter assured me that I look pretty good -- for someone as old as I am (48). My 12-year-old son, insensitive practical joker that he is, took pleasure in loudly announcing my age as our guests arrived for the evening. My husband, ever the diplomat, made himself scarce.
But it's no joke. I realized that somewhere along the line, my face had started to betray the true me. While I was feeling revitalized and refreshed as I tried to watch my diet and exercise regularly, my skin was probably succumbing to the ravages of time.
When the proprietor of the corner store started calling me "ma'am," it was the last straw. My face was saying "old lady," while I was feeling not a day over 30.
I checked in the mirror. Sure enough, a blotched, sunken face stared back. When I looked more closely, I could clearly see the telltale signs of decades-long exposure to pollutants and sunlight -- and just plain age.
It was time to take action.
Don't get me wrong -- I am not vain. When it comes to my skin, I've always been strictly a splash-and-go girl. I rarely wear makeup, and I feel lost at department store skin-care counters. There are just too many products to choose from -- all cunningly aimed at my (and your) thirst for youth and beauty.
But like many other maturing baby boomers, I think young -- and I think I act young, too. I'm beginning to experiment with vitamins, herbs and various exercise regimes. I'm probably healthier and I have more energy now than when I was in my 20s. So why shouldn't I look as young as I feel?
Well, because women, according to my friend Debra, shouldn't tamper with nature. They shouldn't be pressured into altering the basic aging process.
I reminded her that she paints her nails, wears plenty of makeup and regularly gets her hair professionally highlighted. Where, I asked her, do you draw the line between these efforts and going one anti-aging step further?
Other friends, on the other hand, are actively investigating whole-hog face-lifts -- including brow-lifts, cheek-lifts, neck-lifts and eyelid surgery.
Still, it was with mixed emotions -- a little guilt, some curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism -- that I volunteered to be a guinea pig for Canadian Living magazine and test some of the new, quick face fixers that are now on the market. These procedures promise to be less expensive, require less time and pose fewer risks than the traditional surgical face-lift. That means you don't have to take three weeks off work and pretend upon your return that your new face is the result of a stress-free vacation.
I picked SpaMedica in Toronto to try some of this state-of-the-art skin wizardry. Dr. Stephen Mulholland runs the place and its satellite office in Hamilton. I had heard of his work in head and neck oncology (he specialized in this field before applying his expertise to cosmetic surgery). I knew he was on the cutting edge of all skin-enhancing developments and I was pretty sure I could trust him to be honest about the condition of my skin and what he could do to improve it.
Honest he was: in my first consultation, he told me point-blank that my skin was "hollow, sunken and shadowy" when it was supposed to look "reflective, radiant and bright." I had a number of problems, he said, rhyming them off: mild acne scars, traces of rosacea (those red blotches that come and go on the face), age spots, spider veins and fine lines. Oh, and my face has begun to drift -- a polite word for sag.
I also have ultrasensitive skin: a number 2 on Mulholland's six-point scale of skin sensitivity. The only people with skin more sensitive than mine are those who have a blue-tinged, almost transparent face and should shun sun altogether. (Although I don't often wear blush or foundation, I have always made a point of wearing sunscreen. I slather it on year-round. Having attended my share of dermatologist conferences during my two-plus decades as a medical journalist [yikes!], I know it's just plain stupid not to protect your skin from the sun.)
I had one main concern at the start of my quest for perfect skin: Was it too late? Should I have come for help 10 years ago? Mulholland assured me that anyone's face could benefit in some way from the interventions that are now available.
Mulholland introduced me to a series of techniques he offers in what he calls the Pan G Lift. Pan G is short for pan germinal (pan is Greek for all or all layers, and germinal comes from the Latin for germen, meaning seed). The G also stands for the ogee, which, in architectural circles, describes an esthetic S-shaped curve. The face, as well as the body, should have curves in the proper places -- cheeks, forehead and nose, he explained.
The Pan G is designed to lift and rejuvenate all areas of an aging face without surgery. Mulholland describes the Pan G as a coordinated program that offers "a feel-good, safe, efficacious face-lift without invasion."
At SpaMedica, the Pan G includes a range of procedures, from which several are chosen depending on the individual's skin type and which flaws need to be targeted.
The beauty of the Pan G is that it runs over several weeks; you can return to work after each procedure and, as Mulholland points out, there's no downtime or recovery time involved. There is also little risk, since the program does not include surgical interventions that require cutting and heavy-duty anesthetics.
The cost, too, is a potential drawing card; at $3,999 for the full package (there's a less-expensive version that includes only some of the components), it's less than a Caribbean vacation, cheaper than a computer and certainly not as big an investment as a car. Full face-lifts, on the other hand, can set you back up to $25,000. And if you do opt for a surgical face-lift later, Mulholland will reimburse you half the cost of the Pan G within five years, or 25 per cent within 10 years.
And so began my dermatological adventure. For 12 weeks my friends at the spa worked to even out the colour in my face, smooth fine lines on my forehead and around my eyes and mouth and eliminate the deeper furrows on my brow and cheeks. I returned for numerous treatments that involved everything from lasers and peels to injections and muscle workouts. I also maintained an at-home program of applying creams, cleansers, moisturizers, vitamin therapies and antioxidants every morning and night. I even stuck small stickers that contained vitamins to the corners of my eyes to help diminish my crow's feet.
Here's a detailed description of the procedures. Each session lasted less than an hour, and some procedures (such as the injections) were over in just a few minutes. I've included the cost of individual procedures at SpaMedica in case you only have one or two problems that you want to correct. Please note that prices may be different at other clinics.
What it is: This is like weight lifting for your face; it's aimed at firming up facial muscles and enhancing blood flow. Using an electrode, Dawn Sinclair, my designated esthetician, isolated and mechanically stimulated the main muscles in my neck, cheeks and forehead and around my mouth. Mulholland says he's the only doctor in Canada using this MyoFacial machine, a 1.15-metre box on wheels, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States.
Sinclair started with a low level of energy and increased it gradually over several weeks. After a few sessions she started using elastics (she called them 'little dumbbells') to add resistance and increase the intensity of the workout. They were attached to a thick belt, which was wrapped around my chest, and taped to different parts of my face as Sinclair worked on various muscle groups. The elastics pulled each muscle down while the electrode pulled it up.
My take: At first, the facial gymnastics felt strange and even painful in places -- especially over areas of my mouth that have dental work. I often thought how funny I must look with my muscles dancing around uncontrollably. Despite this, the MyoFacial was my favourite procedure. Very early on, I could feel my face tightening and becoming more elastic. My skin tingled and glowed.
Cost: One MyoFacial for $150; 20 for $2,000. You can also buy a home unit for $2,000 to $2,400 (it includes a SonoFacial ultrasound unit; see SonoPeel). The unit is programmed for six months, or 25 hours (two hours per week). You return twice a year for an assessment and to renew the prescription for the unit.
What it is: In a FotoFacial, various high energy systems emit beams of light that are absorbed by water in the skin, unwanted blood vessels and brown spots. The heat from the light removes the unwanted colour and builds up collagen, leaving underlying cells to form a healthier surface. My FotoFacial program consisted of several three-part treatments. Lying on a bed with my eyes protected and my face covered in cold gel, a nurse used a filter and intense pulsed light to close pores, lighten the pink discoloration and smooth rough texture on the outer layer of my skin (or epidermis). Another filter and a new wavelength of energy went into deeper layers of skin to build collagen and smooth wrinkles. A laser beam then penetrated even deeper, again to build up collagen and plump up fine lines.
My take: The pulsed light treatment felt like elastics being snapped across my face -- it was painful at times and merely irritating at other times. The deeper laser treatment was less painful, since there are fewer nerve endings deep in the skin. I was relatively uneasy about the laser after developing a half-dozen round red burns on my forehead and around my eyes and mouth following one treatment. I was told that this side-effect is rare (other possible but rare side-effects include pigment changes, scarring and bruising) and may have been caused by unprotected sun exposure (very unlikely in my case) or because the laser beam was too intense for my sensitive skin. The sores healed after a few days, and I continued with the FotoFacial, but with some unease. I'm glad I did, though. After each treatment, my skin got progressively more uniform in colour. It took on a healthy, rosy glow, which drew comments from friends and colleagues. And after I finished the Pan G, I was told that I'd only need two FotoFacial sessions every year to maintain the improvements.
Cost: The FotoFacials are sold as a package: $2,500 for six, plus four SonoPeels (see SonoPeel).
What it is: Whereas the MyoFacial elevates the face by strengthening muscles, and the FotoFacial takes care of discoloration, builds collagen and gets rid of fine lines, I needed something else to tackle the deeper wrinkles -- most notably around my mouth. I had these deepening lines that looked like they were headed toward ugly jowls à la John Diefenbaker if I didn't do something soon.
Enter hyaluronic acid. At about nine weeks into my Pan G, Mulholland froze pretty much my entire mouth and injected this acid into the layers of fat beneath the top layer of skin. There are several brands of this injectable substance now on the market: Restylane and Hylaform, as well as the longer-lasting Perlane (the one I got). Other injections include Artecoll and MicroFat. These materials absorb water and plump up the skin to smooth out wrinkles. They do not have the allergic potential of the cow collagens of old. They last anywhere from 12 weeks (Restylane and Hylaform) to six months (Perlane) to one year (Artecoll and MicroFat).
My take: I'm convinced that the results -- most notable on my cheeks -- were worth it. I no longer have sagging jowls, or at least they're less noticeable. But getting there was no picnic. The needle used to inject the Perlane hurt despite the freezing, and my mouth remained rigid for several hours. Take a trip to the dentist and multiply that by about 10 and you'll know the feeling. I recommend this one at the end of the day; I was out of commission for a couple of hours afterward.
Cost: Injections generally range from $400 to $600 each (Artecoll costs $750; MicroFat, about $1,000). One injection per site is usually enough. I had injections at two sites.
What it is: There are certain muscles in the face that we don't want to strengthen -- the ones causing my furrowed brow, the crow's feet around my eyes and the grimace lines at the corners of my mouth. That's where Botox comes in. An injection of a tiny amount of botulinum toxin blocks the nerve signals transmitted to these target muscles, which essentially paralyses them. Botox softens wrinkles in these areas and prevents further frowns and squinting. "We're trying to prevent the unattractive facial animation that doesn't add anything to your life and actually depresses the face," says Mulholland, who is one of a few doctors who inject Botox below eye level. It requires a special skill, and he did it with exceptional ease.
My take: It's a strange feeling not being able to frown even when you try to, but I quickly adjusted to it -- especially when I had a wrinkle-free forehead to show for my efforts. That in itself erases almost a decade from the face.
Cost: $400 per site. I had Botox at three sites. It lasts about three to four months.
What it is: Using ultrasound energy, a very fine blade vibrating rapidly (at about 30,000 cycles a second) lifts and vacuums up dead skin cells and removes blackheads to produce a smoother and healthier skin surface. This one is great for skin like mine. If my face were less sensitive, I would have undergone less-gentle microdermabrasion, which uses very fine particles of salt or aluminum oxide crystals to scrape the scaly, crusty dead cells off the outer layer of skin.
My take: The procedure may sound painful, but it's actually not uncomfortable at all. And it works! My face immediately felt buffed and looked and felt smoother, which added to the benefits I had already derived from the FotoFacial and MyoFacial.
Cost: $150 for one; four for $500. There are six to eight included in the Pan G.
While all these procedures are available individually, they work best in concert to encourage blood circulation, moisturize, condition and tone skin and allow the skin to breathe.
The Pan G includes astringents, toners, moisturizers and cleansers that are chosen for your particular skin problems. "We take control of your skin-care program, so it's not one of those variable over-the-counter experiences that you get from some department stores," says Mulholland. Not having to decide for myself which products work best on my own skin was a great relief.
And the end result?
Almost everyone noticed a change. I got compliments and comments from friends and colleagues who knew I had "work" done and from others who didn't. Even my son, who was totally in the dark about my Pan G, told me I looked good. Coming from him -- a boy who rarely notices anything, let alone expresses an opinion about it -- that really meant something.
But frankly, I care less about what others have noticed than about how I feel. And I do feel somewhat transformed. Over the course of the program, lines lessened or disappeared, my skin tightened and my colour brightened. It's not a dramatic improvement but a noticeable one.
But this wasn't about transforming a 40-something average-looking mother into a knockout movie star. It was about doing something for myself and learning a lesson almost any woman can stand to learn: that you're allowed, sometimes, to do something nice for yourself.
Do I now look 24? No, but that wasn't my goal. My objective was to look as good as I feel. I'm going to be hanging around this world for another 40 or so years -- at least that's what the statistics tell me -- so I want my face to be as healthy as it can be for as long as possible. I want this face to continue to reflect the me that's on the inside -- healthy, confident, vital and young.
For me, my Pan G was inspiring. So much so that I've now decided it's time to rev up my body-renewal plans. My revised goal? To lose that 10 pounds I've been meaning to shed and stick to the newer, more-intense exercise program that I haven't had time for.