Iontophoresis – effect and mode of action

Table of contents

What exactly is iontophoresis?

Iontophoresis (a.k.a. electric stimulation therapy) is a therapeutic procedure in the field of dermatology. It impacts the skin and is used to improve the delivery of substances (e.g. drugs in form of an ointment) into the skin by applying a weak direct current. With its weak currents, virtually free of side effects, drug-free and with no need for an operation, iontophoresis therapy can successfully counteract particularly the excessive sweat formation (hyperhidrosis) of hands and feet (hyperhidrosis palmaris and plantaris) as well as underarm sweating (hyperhidrosis axillaris).

Tap water iontophoresis1 is a simplified procedure to treat sweaty hands and feet as well as underarm and face perspiration; after instruction by a medical professional also in home therapy. Plastic trays are filled with simple tap water and the afflicted body areas are submerged into them. Plate electrodes located on the tray edge transmit the weak current into the water – controllable by a power supply. The technical term for this direct current is galvanized current, the tray baths with electrodes are called electro-galvanic bath.

After decades of positive experience, the procedure is considered a proven and successful therapy tool. The medically proven positive effect of weak currents on the body has been known for more than 100 years. Even today, patients with muscle and bone diseases are submerged in bath trays while a gentle electric current is passed through their bodies (Stanger baths). The iontophoresis applied to manage sweating and skin diseases has been scientifically studied for many years, administered and undergone many technical improvements.

An additional positive effect of iontophoresis is the simultaneous control of complications going along with hyperhidrosis or of concomitant diseases like, for example, fungal infections, eczemata on the softened heel, strong foot odor or strong sweat or body odor when sweating under the arms.

When and how does iontophoresis work?

Hyperhidrosis is a condition most likely caused by a vegetative dysfunction which results in excessive perspiration. Oftentimes, the root cause of excessive perspiration lies on a psycho-social, hormonal or genetic level. Therefore, tap water iontophoresis can only treat the symptoms, i.e. it does not address the root cause. Accordingly, it is advisable to strive for a professional root cause analysis with medical assistance. The long-term experience with iontophoresis, especially in adolescent patients is, however, very positive! The afflicted person perceives an initial success, sometimes “visible” (significantly less sweating) already after only 10 treatment sessions, as extremely liberating. This also helps to manage the mental barriers and anxieties which many years of sweating have often built up (escape from the vicious cycle of excessive sweating and related dread).

During tap water iontophoresis a galvanic current (direct current) is administered – hence the term electro-galvanic bath.

It is the property of galvanic current to only flow in one direction. In other words, the direction of the flow of ions is firmly defined in the water bath, namely from one electrode to another. In the process, the ions (positively or negatively charged atoms or molecules, respectively) present in the water orient themselves according to the opposite polarity of the electrodes. That means in effect that the negative anions in the water migrate towards the anode (“positive pole”) and the positive cations migrate towards the cathode (“negative pole”).

Throughout the galvanic bath the ions, e.g. Ca+ (calcium), Mg+ (magnesium), Na+ (sodium), Cl- (chlorine) etc. dissolved in the water can be absorbed through the skin much easier and faster. There they impact the membrane potentials of the skin cells. Different states of charge prevail in the cells. The outside of the cell membrane is positively and the inside negatively charged. Any modification of the charge controls according biochemical actions in the cell. With regard to hyperhidrosis, these are the changes which result in an amelioration of the condition. The galvanic current has a desensitizing effect and thus a harmonizing impact on the over-stimulated sweat glands. To this day, the precise mode of action in all its details is an integral part of scientific research. Cell and neural research are still in their infancy in this field. Likewise, the exact medical factors causing hyperhidrosis are practically unexplained.

Bottom line: iontophoresis is a demonstrably successful and harmless therapy to manage abnormal perspiration.

Treatment of sweating face, hands, feet and armpit using Saalio® Iontophoresis machine, Saalmann medical GmbH

Which body regions can be treated with iontophoresis?

There is a multitude of indications where iontophoresis has been successfully applied for decades. Detailed explanations describing the individual areas of the body afflicted by perspiration can be found in the menu on the right.

  • sweating of the underarms
  • sweaty hands
  • sweaty feet
  • sweating of the face
  • sweating of other defined body regions (e.g. the neck)

When should iontophoresis not be administered?

Contraindications: In order to avoid health problems, please consider the following aspects. Should you – in spite of an existing contraindication – want to apply iontophoresis, it is imperative that you confer with your treating physician who should evaluate the course of the treatment and accompany you on our way.

  • users with a pace makerusers with a pace maker
  • users with an ICD (implanted cardio defibrillator)
  • pregnancy
  • metalliferous intrauterine pessaries (IUD)
  • metal implants in the area of current flow (arms or legs)
  • large skin defects / wounds which cannot be covered with petroleum jelly
  • highly limited sensitivity of hands and feet (e.g. polyneuropathy)
  • users with cardiac arrhythmia
  • users with seizure disorders (epilepsy)
  • users with malignant diseases in the body region/s to be treated
  • users with severe local inflammations or thrombosis (blood clot/s)
  • users with a high degree of circulatory disorders
  • children under the age of 6
  • users with dementia

How effective is iontophoresis?

Tap water iontophoresis is a conservative therapy, successfully used all over the world as a standard treatment for hyperhidrosis. Many dermatologists as well as medical clinics rely on the positive effect of direct current therapy. Devices for medical practice and home therapy1 “made in Germany” which satisfy the high professional demands of experts are predominantly employed.

The iontophoresis therapy is well received by patients for several reasons:

  • simple handling (after initial instruction can also be applied in home therapy)

  • quick to carry out (15 minutes daily are sufficient)

  • low overall cost (1x purchase + minimal operating expenses)

  • no chemical or medical additives

  • no damage to the sweat glands

The efficiency, however, is a factor that convinces everybody: in most cases an improvement can be felt after as little as 10 treatment sessions. According to our experience, the success rate of iontophoresis therapy to manage excessive sweating is higher than 90 %. This high success rate, however, is dependent on the correct device (very important), the therapy support as well as the body region to be treated. In principle, the iontophoresis treatment can be simply and comfortably administered at home. In order to secure a permanent and optimal measure of therapy success, professional support is recommended.

An individually suitable device should only be recommended by a specialist (e.g. dermatologist).

Recommendation: If you would like to order an iontophoresis device, we recommend the iontophoresis shop as specialist supplier to manage excessive sweating1.

1 Product advertising – clicking on the link will take you to an online store/website which is also operated by us. This is not an editorial recommendation.