Vampire facials

Grace Ban of Odenton, left, teamed with her doctor, Beth Comeau, to undergo a facial treatment in which Ban's blood was injected to reduce acne scars and wrinkles. (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun photo / July 23, 2014)

A new facial is gaining popularity around Baltimore, and while it won't make you live forever, some doctors and patients say it will make you look younger — at least for a few months.

The vampire facial, a nonsurgical procedure made famous by celebrities like Kim Kardashian, uses a patient's blood to stimulate healing and regenerate cells.

"After healing, my skin just seemed smoother," said Grace Ban, an Odenton resident who received the procedure to reduce the appearance of acne scars and minimize the wrinkles around her eyes. "Even my husband commented a few times after the treatment. He said, 'Your skin looks great.'"

But before you book your appointment, experts say it's important to understand just how the procedure works — and to know that the science supporting any aesthetic benefit is inconclusive.

"Everybody would like to look younger and more fresh," said Dr. John Kim, a faculty member with the American Academy of Aesthetic Medicine. "The jury's still out on long-term efficacy of these procedures, but short term, there's some definite benefits."

There are several different forms of "vampire" treatments, says Dr. Beth Comeau, the Ellicott City aesthetic medicine doctor who treated Ban. All of the treatments use platelet-rich plasma (PRP), created by separating a patient's platelets from red and white blood cells. This concentrated amount can contain five to 10 times more platelets, which stimulate growth in the tissue.

The Vampire Facelift, a term trademarked by Alabama doctor Charles Runels in 2010, occurs when a doctor or medical professional injects dermal fillers for volume and then PRP into the patient's face.

A vampire facial, known as the "PRP facial" in Comeau's office, starts at $600 and involves topically applying PRP after micro-needling — a treatment where doctors make tiny punctures in a patient's skin.

"It's like aerating the skin so we can provide the deeper tissues with this platelet-rich material so it is stimulated to grow new, healthy skin," Comeau said.

The open channels created by micro-needling allow the PRP to reach deeper layers of skin. Once it reaches a wounded area, PRP stimulates fibroblasts, the cells that produce collagen, Comeau said.

"Whatever area it's in, [PRP] tries to rejuvenate that tissue," she said. "The additional platelets are like supercharging the regeneration process. It's an extra boost for healing."

Comeau also uses PRP in certain laser skin-resurfacing treatments to speed recovery.

After reading about the potential benefits of PRP, Ban said she jumped at the chance to try it.

While her first treatment did not yield noticeable results, her second treatment four weeks later did, she said.

"With PRP, you're not going to have an immediate gratification," Ban said. "It's something that takes time because it's regenerative."

Some patients have more success than others, said Kim, who uses PRP at his California practice to treat patients with acne scars and stretch marks.

"It's going to vary between patient to patient, like many cosmetic techniques," he said. "Many of this is subjective."

Applying or injecting PRP for wound healing and to speed recovery is not a new concept. For years, orthopedic surgeons have used it to treat conditions such as chronic tendon injuries and ligament and muscle injuries.

Orioles players Matt Wieters and Chris Davis have had the injections this year to treat injuries, and the treatment has become relatively common among injured athletes who include Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova and golfer Tiger Woods.

Still, research proving any scientific benefit is not consistent.

A study published in the February 2013 American Journal of Sports Medicine found PRP outperformed a placebo in relieving osteoarthritis of the knee. Yet other studies, including one published in the 2011 British Journal of Sports Medicine, found no difference in recovery between patients treated with PRP and a placebo for an Achilles tendon injury.

Dr. Craig Vander Kolk, director of cosmetic surgery and medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, stopped using PRP for cosmetic patients years ago because the science supporting it does not exist, he said.

"The easy part is it's all pretty natural, and it's easy to get to," Vander Kolk said. "The hard part is it's difficult to know what it's actually going to do. … As a plastic surgeon, I want to do things that I know work."

Comeau and Kim both agree more research needs to be done.

"Anecdotally, we see the improvement, but we need better ways of making sure there is true validity to that," Comeau said.

"We haven't seen any large cohort studies that are well controlled," added Kim. "(PRP) is promising, and I think it's helpful. But in aesthetics, we're still in the beginning stages."

In the meantime, there's little harm in applying one's own concentrated platelets to the skin, Kim said.

Just remember that it is still a medical procedure, the doctors advised. Find a physician who is familiar with facial aesthetics, and remember to ask questions.

"When things become medical, you've got to be careful," Vander Kolk said. "Look at what it is, who's doing it, what's their training and what's their experience."