The latest in skincare technology, lasers can effectively improve a variety of skin problems, including acne, sun spots and wrinkles. Ever wonder how laser therapy works? How to care for your skin before and after treatment? What’s the price tag? Get the answers to these crucial questions and begin weighing your options.
How lasers work
- Basic background. Lasers give off energy as light rays — which can be long and steady or short, strong pulses. Different lasers use different wavelengths, so some rays are longer than others. Ultimately, laser therapy vaporizes damaged skin, revealing new, healthy skin.
- Ablative lasers affect skin’s top upper layer. They emit infrared light, which is absorbed by water that composes skin cells. These lasers are often used in patients with severe sun damage, pigmentation problems or acne scars.
- Pros: Typically provide more dramatic results. According to Ladies Home Journal, when it comes to wrinkles, using carbon dioxide (CO2) laser resurfacing, "most people have a 50 percent to 90 percent improvement."
- Cons: Longer recovery time that lasts two weeks with greater sensitivity.
- Examples: CO2 and erbium: YAG lasers.
- Non-ablative lasers work on a deeper level, affecting inner layers of skin called the dermis. Unlike ablative lasers, non-ablative lasers don’t peel away skin’s outer layers. "Non-ablative lasers shoot energy deep into the skin to increase collagen production and even out the texture of skin," dermatologist Frederic Brandt, M.D., tells Allure.
- Pros: Quicker recovery time, less pain and less redness than ablative lasers.
- Cons: Results might not be as dramatic as with ablative lasers. For instance, "wrinkle improvement is reported to be only 40 percent to 60 percent," writes Ladies Home Journal.
- Examples: Nd:YAG, Pulsed-Dye Laser (PDL) and Intense Pulsed Light (IPL).
Conditions lasers can improve
- Acne. Light and heat from lasers can reduce acne. They destroy overactive oil glands and P. Acnes bacteria — both of which play major roles in acne formation. YAG and PDLs are often used for acne treatment. Plus, these lasers "promote collagen formation and renewal which helps diminish acne scarring," according to Arielle N.B. Kauvar, M.D., dermatology professor at New York University School of Medicine.
- Broken blood vessels. If blood vessels dilate too much or break, they become visible under skin. This is due to hemoglobin, an ingredient in blood that has a red color. Broken blood vessels are especially common around the nose and cheeks. PDLs are the lasers of choice, because they "target these reddish pigments," notes Everyday Health. After treatment, redness from broken blood vessels is gone for good, according to InStyle.
- Cancerous growths. For some abnormal cells and cancerous growths, laser therapy combined with a topical medication can be effective. How does it work? Your dermatologist applies amniolevulinic acid to skin, which builds up and sticks to cancerous cells. Then, the laser activates the acid to destroy these cancer cells.
- Fine lines and wrinkles. By stimulating new collagen production and heating/tightening skin’s lower levels, lasers can improve fine lines and wrinkles. After old, damaged skin peels off, healthy, new skin emerges. Both ablative and non-ablative lasers are used to improve wrinkles.
- Pigmentation and sun spots. Over time, exposure to harmful UV rays leads to pigmentation problems, discoloration and sun spots — caused by excessive melanin production. Energy from lasers focuses on these spots, which eventually scab over and diminish. IPL, PDLs and CO2 lasers work well on these problems. Importantly, "Treated spots are unlikely to recur, but sun exposure may cause others to develop," cautions InStyle.
- Rosacea. Symptoms include facial flushing, blushing and redness, caused by enlarged blood vessels. Fortunately, laser treatments can reduce them. PDL shrinks and collapses vessels to prevent redness.
What lasers can’t improve
Although they’re helpful for many conditions, lasers can’t fix every skin problem. These include:
- Deep lines and wrinkles. This is especially true for wrinkles caused by facial movements — like squinting, creasing your brow or puckering your mouth — rather than wrinkles from sun damage. For these problems, consider fillers to plump up wrinkles or Botox injections to inhibit wrinkle-causing muscle movements.
- Sagging skin. Along with age comes loss of firmness and elasticity. Skin droops and sags, especially on our eyelids, cheeks, jaw and neckline. Because lasers can’t undo sagging, a facelift might work best.
Who should avoid lasers
- Dark complexions. People with deeper skin tones — including African Americans, Hispanics and those with olive complexions — have higher risks of discoloration and pigment changes.
- Sensitive skin. If your skin often burns, stings or turns red, lasers might not be your treatment of choice. It’s not just the laser treatment itself that causes problems — sensitive skin also can’t "tolerate the creams and medications needed for proper healing," according to Dr. G. Todorov of Smart Skin Care.
- Herpes. For people who’ve had herpes in the past, laser treatments can trigger the virus, resulting in an outbreak.
Laser treatment can result in adverse effects, including:
- Burning sensation like a sunburn
- Pigment changes and scarring, especially in dark-skinned patients or those who’ve taken Accutane
Some lasers — like the Fraxel laser — might be more likely than others to cause these effects, according to Jeannette Graf, M.D., past assistant clinical dermatology professor at New York University Medical Center. In fact, these burns can leave scars that last for years.
The procedure and pre and post-care
- Pre-laser care. Your dermatologist will give you "antibiotic and antiviral medicines to reduce the risk of skin infections," according to Everyday Health. In addition, you’ll have to discontinue ibuprofen or aspirin, because they thin the blood and raise the risk of bleeding.
- During the treatment. When it’s time for the procedure, the dermatologist carefully cleanses the skin. He or she might administer medication and sedatives either orally or through an IV. To reduce pain, the dermatologist typically applies numbing cream. However, if you’re having PDL treatment, topical anesthetic can actually decrease its effectiveness and pain is minimal, writes InStyle. Finally, you must wear safety goggles to protect your eyes.
- Post-laser care. Don’t be alarmed if skin is red, flaky or oozing. These are normal signs and might last one to two weeks. Talk to your doctor about reactions that aren’t normal, so you know which symptoms to watch out for.
To protect the skin and seal in moisture, bandages are worn, which lead to quicker healing. These bandages will need to be changed frequently to prevent infection or scarring. Cold compresses and prescription medications help to relieve pain.
The dermatologist will provide instructions for cleansing and moisturizing skin. Creams and ointments soothe skin and add hydration. You must also wear sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher to prevent sunburn and sun spots. Skin is especially vulnerable to the sun after laser treatment.
Time and cost
- Time. The bigger the area to be treated, the more time it will take. Non-ablative laser therapy can take a few minutes, whereas ablative laser therapy might take up to two hours.
Depending on your skin’s problems and degree of damage, you might need multiple laser sessions for the best results. Your results can last "from one to five years....Maintenance treatment with topical agents may prolong beneficial effects of laser resurfacing," writes Dr. Todorov.
- Cost. A treatment session can range from $400 to $3,000. Health insurance might not cover laser treatments, so check with your provider.
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