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Strengths: Theoretically, these devices can help reduce acne (though not on their own so you'll still need to use a good anti-acne skin-care routine).

Weaknesses: Expensive; time-consuming; each pimple must be individually treated; not advised for noticeably inflamed acne or cystic acne; the Zeno devices are best for those with mild or occasional pimples only.

Zeno is the brand name for a series of handheld devices sold as being able to literally zap zits. Let me start with the warnings for these machines right from the beginning and then I'll get to the details:

Don't use these devices if:

  • You have acne or blemishes that tend to scar or you get red marks that take awhile to heal. These devices may make acne scarring worse by overheating the epidermis, inhibiting skin's ability to heal.
  • You have acne that tends to be red and inflamed. The heat, in some cases, can make the inflammation worse.
  • If you have more than ten lesions at a time. In this case the Zeno devices won't be cost- or time-efficient and there are better options to consider.

Now, for those of you who haven't heard of Zeno ($39.99-$175, depending on which Zeno device you choose), all of these devices use heat to combat the bacteria that contributes to acne. They are sold as being best for mild to moderate acne involving individual pimples, not full-blown breakouts all over the face, and certainly not for cystic or nodular acne. Zeno’s devices are truly limited but that won't stop lots of people from giving them a try despite the hefty price tag for what amounts to a simple heat-emitting machine.

Every Zeno device is battery-operated and make similar claims. Some Zeno hand-held devices use a tip that needs to be discarded and replaced. The tip provides a fixed number of treatments before it must be replaced (and sets of replacement tips aren't cheap: they range from $19-$35). How many treatments you get depends on which Zeno device you choose. For example, the now-discontinued Zeno Mini offers 45 treatments (that's 45 individual pimple treatments, one pimple is treated by one tip, a single tip does not do a full face of treatments), and the Zeno MD offers 150 treatments (that's a 150 individual blemishes that can be treated). The Zeno Hot Spot device offers 80 treatments and doesn't involve disposable tips. However, after 80 treatments (and remember, that's 80 individual pimples, not 80 full-face treatments) you're instructed to toss the device and purchase a new one. Clearly, the Zeno device is pricy both initially and long term, and the more acne lesions you have, the more you'll spend.

It is good news that Zeno doesn't position any of their devices as one-stop treatments for mild, intermittent breakouts. Yet consumers more often than not ignore these details and will try a new option without using other products to combat acne. (Biore Pore Strips come to mind; no matter how many warnings were on the box, most women I've spoken to over the years had no idea they were there.)

Instructions for using the Zeno devices are very similar: you wait for the device to charge and when it's ready (indicated by colored lights) you place the treatment tip directly on a blemish and a controlled heat pulse is generated. You have to hold the device on the blemish for two and a half minutes and (according to the Web site for Zeno) after that "you can clear up a pimple in two hours."

When you place the tip against a blemish, without pressure, a heat "burst" occurs and it happens quickly. There is no risk of "burning" skin when used as directed, but it definitely heats skin. You must wait several seconds for it to recharge before treating another pimple. Twice a day is the recommended usage, and depending on how many pimples you are trying to treat that can take a lot of time. This is supposed to be less expensive and faster than seeing a dermatologist or using over-the-counter treatments such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Does that sound possible or true to anyone? It certainly doesn't to me, and the research doesn't support that notion either.

One other claim made for Zeno's devices that will likely catch the eye of many consumers is that their device is FDA-approved—which, on the surface, conveys some type of special status. It isn't special or a stamp of approval for acne treatment in the least. All heat-emitting devices such as those from Zeno are classified as Class II laser instruments. Just to keep this in perspective, another example of a Class II laser product is the common laser pointer, like the ones used in a classroom or business meeting setting. Doesn't sound too fancy or high-tech now, does it? A Class II light-emitting device does not require a prescription or medical supervision, which is why these devices can be sold without restrictions.

So how does heat possibly affect a pimple? The theory is that the type of heat energy these devices produce when in close contact with a pimple has an oxidizing effect on porphyrins. Porphyrins are naturally occurring substances that are part of a cell's protoplasm (fluid structure). It seems that acne-causing bacteria are able to synthesize and store large amounts of porphyrins. When porphyrins are exposed to heat and light energy, they reach an excited state and a chemical reaction that forms an extra oxygen molecule happens. In much the same way benzoyl peroxide works on acne lesions, the extra oxygen kills acne-causing bacteria, thus reducing the size and severity of a pimple (Sources: Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy, June 2005, pages 63–68; and June 2004, pages 91–95).

What's not as clear (pun intended) is whether or not any of the Zeno devices deliver enough power with each pulse of light to significantly impact acne. There are no published, peer-reviewed studies proving these at-home devices are effective (some published studies have used other devices that are available to physicians, not the general public). Instead, Zeno has done clinical trials whose results are impressive. But would you expect anything less? Considering the marketing and cost of these devices, the company certainly isn't going to go on record with clinical trials showing their device's treatments were average to poor or that they paled in comparison to what doctor-administered light treatments can accomplish.

What's even more telling that none of the clinical trials compared these heat-emitting devices to a sensible anti-acne skin-care routine, or to spot-treating a blemish with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, options that might possibly have superior results. No mention was made of other anti-acne active ingredients such as salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or prescription vitamin A products. All in all, the information about these devices is limited, with great-sounding claims and little real scientific evidence in support of the assertions.

Zeno boasts that none of the in-office heat/light-emitting devices (namely Thermage or Intense Pulsed Light) used to treat acne have been shown to be as effective as Zeno. That's a misleading, absurd claim, because thus far a comparison study has not been done. Moreover, the minimal research that exists for treating acne with light and heat energy has been about long-term results for the entire face, not spot treating when a zit pops up.

If you decide to try Zeno, I recommend purchasing it from or because both have a reliable return policy should you find these devices are not helpful. But make no mistake: none of Zeno’s devices should replace a reliable anti-acne skin-care routine or trump the advice given to you by a dermatologist working with you to get your acne under control.

Is there a legitimate reason to invest in these devices and are they really a great adjunct to an anti-acne routine, or are they a waste of money? The quick answer is that Zeno's various devices may help for their intended purpose, but I would never recommend either as a stand-alone treatment, neither for efficacy or cost.

For more information about Zeno, call (888) 469-9366.

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