Age of the Botox Babe (Chicago Tribune)

Chicago Tribune

Age of the Botox babe
Young women are lining up for the treatment in the race against aging
By Alison Neumer

Blessed for a few more years with taut, smooth skin, few young women need high-tech facial creams or the "Perricone Prescription" fish diet to diminish the signs of aging.

But many women in their 20s and early 30s are a needle prick away from choosing a much more aggressive approach to preserve their appearance.

Botox, the popular drug used to smooth brows and erase frown lines, is catching on among young women who hope to prevent wrinkles from ever forming.

"I'm completely happy with the results," said Michelle Gellar, 25, who tried Botox six months ago to treat fine lines around her eyes.

"There's not one downside," agreed 34-year-old Amy Handley. She started Botox injection treatments at age 33.

Botox is a purified form of botulism bacteria, a toxin. The FDA first approved it in 1989 to treat muscle disorders. Non-cosmetic uses include for migraine headaches and hyperhydrosis, or excessive sweating.

To smooth the skin, doctors inject Botox into the muscles that form facial expressions, paralyzing them. The procedure takes a few minutes, but its effects last around three months, which means most patients return. Young women who continually use Botox may avoid any or further wrinkles because their faces can't make the movements that create them.

But some doctors are concerned, even though the medical risks are seen as limited. The drug's popularity, boosted in April when the FDA approved it for cosmetic uses, may be swaying young women who don't really need it.

"To give Botox to someone with no signs of aging is way over-treatment," said plastic surgeon Dr. Joseph Franco of New Image Specialists.

"Young women in the past had not been interested in maintaining a youthful appearance," Franco said, but now many more seek out Botox treatments in his Oak Street or Oak Park offices.

Around 30 percent to 40 percent of his Botox patients are women between the ages of 25 and 35, Franco estimates.

The trend of young women attending "Botox parties" or stepping out for a quick beauty lunch break was popularized on "Sex and the City" when Samantha prepared for Carrie's book party with a chemical face peel.

More young men and women are choosing surgical and non-surgical means to polish their appearance and maintain a youthful look. The number of people between 25 and 35 seeking cosmetic or reconstructive surgery rose by about 10 percent from 2000 to 2001, according to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Even as salons offer more spa services for men, and cosmetic companies develop new lines exclusively for them, men are less likely than women to spend on cosmetic procedures at the doctor's office. In 2001, men represented around 12.5 percent of cosmetic Botox patients, according to the reconstructive surgery academy.

For young women, other popular cosmetic treatments include laser hair removal, teeth whitening and micro-dermabrasion, an exfoliation process using tiny crystals to buff the skin. While these procedures are short and relatively painless, they're not cheap.

Gellar, a mortgage broker, would like to keep up the treatments.

"It does what it says it does, only problem is it's too expensive," she said.

Gellar calls herself a "perfectionist." She had plastic surgery several years ago and spends hundreds of dollars on eye creams and other products. Botox seemed worth a try, but she doesn't expect to do it again.

"It's kind of like a tease. You can see what you can look like if you spend $350, but then it fades."

Handley, who plans to continue Botox treatments, believes that more young women would choose Botox if it weren't so pricey. Each treatment is around $400.

"There's a lot of interest among my friends, but it's too costly," she said.

"Botox parties" can cut the price by $100 or more. Because each vial of the drug can treat more than one patient, "parties" use the drug more efficiently and eliminate the need to open a new bottle for each person.

Handley gets a price break as a technician in the office of Botox specialist Dr. Douglas Van Putten. But money aside, "I'd consider anything to help you feel better about yourself," she said

"It needs to be a personal decision."

And a wise one, doctors warn.

Patients are approaching treatment too casually and with unrealistic expectations, worries Van Putten, who has offices on Michigan Avenue and in Mishawaka, Ind.

He estimates that around 20 percent are in their late 20s and early 30s. His youngest patient is 26 years old.

"It isn't magic," Van Putten said. "You also need healthy skin. The reason we get wrinkles is because of ... unhealthy skin."

Avoiding sun exposure and not smoking are ways to prevent lines from forming long-term, he added. Doctors also warn against unsafe administration of the drug even as beauty salons advertise Botox treatments.

Over-injection of the drug can cause side effects such as a drooping eyelid, though most complications are temporary because the effects of the drug fade over time.

Botox is attractive from a business perspective to salons or other non-medical vendors. The drug is easy to get and administer, and repeat visits generate revenue.

"When something is easy, a lot of people do it," Franco said. But he warns people to search out physicians who can provide informed skin analysis and are skilled in a range of treatments, not just Botox.

"If all you have is hammer, the whole world is a nail. ... Botox is an excellent tool, but there are times when it has limitations," he said.

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