Does Ultherapy turn back time? Here's what I learned about the non-surgical lift

I set out to attempt the impossible and travel back in time — maybe five years or so — when my neck didn't look quite as saggy as it does now. It's a tall order, but apparently one that can be fixed after merely an hour in a Midtown Manhattan dermatology clinic. I was there to get zapped with the latest beauty technology: Ultherapy.

It's an outpatient procedure that promises to kick-start my skin's deadbeat collagen and put it on high-speed rewind, reversing nearly a year's worth of aging per month over the next six months.

Kathie Lee Gifford also tried it out this summer. "The next day, I felt I looked better," she said after undergoing a 45-minute treatment with New York dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler.

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Non-invasive Ultherapy may help smooth wrinkles without surgery

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Non-invasive Ultherapy may help smooth wrinkles without surgery

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Why Ultherapy?

What led me to the practice of Dr. Francesca Fusco to test out the treatment was pretty standard stuff. For the past decade, the skin I'd known in my 20s has been on a slow slide that left my cheekbones a little lower, and my jawline looser — everything settled just a couple of telltale millimeters lower than where they used to be. I felt bad about it, but not that bad. It certainly wasn't worth going under the knife to fix it. But what if I didn't have to go under the knife to get the effects of a face-lift — or at least a subtle version of one?

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A surgery-free micro lift is precisely what Ultherapy purports to offer. "This is a step in the direction of a sutureless face-lift," explained Fusco. "I really believe this is the technology that's going to evolve toward that." Swapping the tools of more invasive methods for an ultrasound wand, the procedure harnesses heat produced by precisely targeted sonic waves to startle slacking collagen into rebuilding, which in turn tightens and lifts skin and underlying tissues.

The cutting-edge technology might be a giant leap toward making the scalpel obsolete — but pain is still a very real possibility. One of the most common complaints about Ultherapy is discomfort, with some patients reporting that even though they love the results, they wouldn't undergo it again for that reason alone. The company, in fact, recently addressed these concerns by adjusting the intensity of the procedure to minimize the risk of pain. But while I'd braced myself for the worst, pain was not a part of my experience — or at least it didn't have a starring role.

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Does it hurt?

I downed the painkillers that they dole out to nervous patients and 30 minutes later, my face was slathered with sonogram gel. For the next hour, Fusco inched an Ulthera wand over my neck, jaw, cheeks and forehead, gliding, pressing firmly and zapping with the device, millimeter by millimeter, while we chatted about show dogs and fashion week.

Courtesy Ultherapy--Image Not of the Author
Ultherapy: Reviews & Cost Before & After Pictures

The sensation of each of the hundreds of blasts was strange: like that split second before you actually register that something's too hot. It was the buildup to pain without the pain itself. A few times, she squeezed the trigger and a nerve jetted through my face, but again, it didn’t hurt. It was just startling, similar to the jerk of your leg when a doctor hits your knee with a rubber hammer. The only moments that made me push back hard into my chair were the first couple zaps over my cheeks, which sent vibrations ringing through my dental work. A wad of cotton between my cheek and teeth dampened the sensation completely.

What are the results?

After working her way from my neck to my forehead, Fusco did a second pass, repeating the whole thing over again, then handed me a mirror that reflected back ... well, pretty much the same old me. My cheeks were a little flushed and marginally tighter, but other than that, there wasn’t an immediate difference. Although Ultherapy is billed as a lunchtime procedure, I decided that returning to my office in a drug-induced haze might earn me a reputation as a secret pill popper, so I headed home for an early weekend instead.

The next morning, I looked in the bathroom mirror and began my post-treatment diary. "Jowly Freakout" headed the entry, which went on to describe the set of mumps-y cheeks that had inflated overnight. While most patients experience little to no visible swelling, I found myself among a very unlucky, very puffy minority. It was the kind of thing I could leave the house with, but I didn't exactly want to run into any acquaintances or exes either, so I holed up in my apartment for a "Walking Dead" marathon. By Monday (three days later) my cheeks were a little tender to the touch, but I looked good enough to head back to work without raising eyebrows.

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On day 13, my diary noted, "Cheeks, jawline — magical!" And from that point on, Ultherapy's effects did seem almost supernatural as my resuscitated collagen began slowly knitting together the familiar pattern of a slightly younger me. Edges were softened, curves reset — without the reality housewife-induced fear of over-correction. Two months in and my double chin was a singleton again. And the time-worn circles beneath my eyes, while still there, were diffused. By month four, my hollowing cheeks were plumped just enough to subtract a few years.

Are there any side effects?

As my face shape-shifted, I was also experiencing one very weird side effect of Ultherapy. Although the surface of my skin had as much sensation as before the procedure, I could feel a buzzy numbness that lived just underneath. "Swelling and inflammation," explained Fusco. "But a good swelling and inflammation." The sonic waves had shouted at my skin to stop slacking and it had listened — to the point of deafness. As disconcerting as this lack of feeling was, once I understood that it was temporary, I ranked it as a relatively small price to pay.

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Would I do it again?

The literal price of Ultherapy, however, isn't so small. Treating a full face and neck in New York City averages from $4,000 to around $5,500. In some parts of the country, the price is closer to $2,500. Treating a smaller region, like the brow, will set you back $750 to $1,000, depending on where you live. Practitioners recommend repeating the procedure as frequently as every year and a half, or when collagen visibly starts to slow again.

Ultherapy's results were everything I had hoped for ... but less. Perhaps because I was so happy with the direction my face was heading in, the subtlety of the transformation made me want more. I looked five years younger, so why not 10? Or 15? Near my five-month mark, I headed back to Fusco's office for a follow-up, and I posed this burning question: If I did it again, right now, would it take off another half-decade?

"There's no formula like that — wouldn't it be great if there was?" she said with a laugh. "If we were to do it a second time, would it look better? Probably. How much? Can't say. It's not like architecture." I know one thing: I will be booking a session every couple years to keep pushing the younger me back to the future.

A version of this story was originally published March 28, 2013.