All the Ways Skin Laser Treatments Fix Spots, Scars, and Redness
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. When I’m talking to my fellow beauty editors about the skin-care treatments they love (a conversation we have often), it’s not the retinol creams or Korean-inspired facials we're raving about. It’s laser treatments.
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The ladies in the know go to the dermatologist's office to get scars zapped and age spots singed away. Although I’m constantly researching new skin treatments, I’m a relative newbie when it comes to lasers. To be honest, when I hear the word laser, my mind jumps to light sabers before skin care. But as I approach 30, I'm noticing the way my skin is already changing—and it's giving me a new appreciation for the many ways that lasers can help restore skin to its full glory. No Jedi mind tricks here, just effective, science-backed treatments that dermatologists stand by for visible results.
“Nothing really takes the place of what lasers can do for the skin. For somebody who is younger, you can get away with just using a good skin-care regimen—sunscreen, maybe getting a chemical peel here and there,” Kally Papantoniou, M.D., a dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC, tells SELF. “But you reach a point where you wish you could get back that perk that you used to have." That, she says, is where lasers come in. And they can do a world of difference. But you need to know what you're getting into if you want to get the most out of it.
Lasers can do a million things for your skin.
"Laser" stands for light amplified by stimulated emission of radiation. Yep, it’s complicated. But Heidi Waldorf, M.D., director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at The Mount Sinai Hospital, simplifies it: “It’s a wavelength of light, and different things in our skin will absorb different wavelengths.” That means derms use one wavelength to target brown spots, another for red bumps, etc. In fact, every pro we talked to has multiple machines in her office to handle the most common complaints, from fading stretch marks to treating rosacea.
Brown spots and discoloration, redness, wrinkles, acne scarring, surgery scars, stretch marks, and even tattoo removal are all things a dermatologist might recommend a laser for. “They’re not like magic erasers, but they’re quite helpful,” says Amy Wechsler, M.D.
One reason why dermatologists love skin laser treatments: They get the job done and require very little follow-up once a series of treatments is done. Some treatments take a few sessions spaced out over time to work. But after that, you’re pretty much done.
“People have this idea that laser is so expensive, ‘Oh, it takes so many treatments. Oh, I’m going to have such a bad recovery,’” says Dr. Papantoniou. “But really, it’s not that expensive and it works really well.”
Let's be real for a second: Lasers are not cheap. But when you compare a lump sum for a handful of laser treatments to a lifetime supply of [insert skin-care product here], you can see why so many people—derms included—think it's worth the cost.
Here's what lasers can do for you—plus which lasers will get the job done, and how much it'll cost you.
If you want an all over rejuvenating treatment:
Turn to a resurfacing lasers. In this category, Fraxel Dual is by far the favorite among dermatologists. “Fraxel stimulates the fibroblasts in the middle layer of skin called the dermis, telling them to make more collagen and elastin,” says Dr. Wechsler. More collagen and elastin means smoother, younger-looking skin. To do its work, Fraxel causes microperforations across the treated area; it takes about five days to heal from one Fraxel treatment.
Dermatologists choose the Fraxel Dual over other resurfacing lasers because it has two settings that can treat different skin issues. “The Fraxel Dual has two different wavelengths so you can deliver the laser energy to different depths of the skin,” says Dr. Wechsler. “We can treat superficial brown spots on the top and deeper wrinkles.”
Dr. Waldorf adds that Fraxel is also an option to help minimize the rough texture of acne scarring. Fraxel can also be used on the body to smooth surgical scars, like C-section or breast augmentation scars.
The laser lowdown: Expect to pay $500 for just cheeks, $1,000 for full face. It can require three to five treatments to see results. After that, some patients also come back for Fraxel touch-ups once a year.
If you want to get rid of redness:
In addition to her V-Beam, Dr. Papantoniou also uses a KTP laser on particularly stubborn red blood vessels. “If you have those subtle lines, you can basically trace them with a KTP,” she says. “For purplish, bluish veins, the Lyra laser has a hand piece that goes on contact with the skin and has a longer wavelength than the V-Beam or the KTP.”
The laser lowdown: The cost is usually $400 to $600 per treatment. The results of a vascular laser can vary depending on the patient. For those with rosacea, it can take two or three treatments to see a significant difference. After a treatment, skin can appear pink—as if you got a sunburn. There is a slight chance of bruising.
If you want to get rid of brown spots—or a tattoo that you regret:
When shit happens and you hate that tattoo, lasers can erase your ink. “The tattoo laser is attracted to pigment in the skin, brown in particular,” says Dr. Papantoniou. Warning: Not all designs come away easily. “In order to remove a tattoo, it depends on the quality of the tattoo, how much pigment is in there, if it was professionally done versus done in a garage, if it’s old, if it’s new,” she says. Overall, new tattoos that are done professionally are harder to remove. Plus, colors like green, yellow, and blue can be stubborn.
Since a tattoo laser targets the color brown really well, it can also be good for treating dark spots. “For somebody who has a lot of little small sunspots scattered around, Fraxel would be a nice choice because you’re going to treat the entire surface,” says Dr. Papantoniou. “For people who come in that have nice skin and it’s just a couple new age spots that are sticking out, I find that tattoo lasers are superior for treating those.” She uses the MedLite laser in her practice.
The laser lowdown: Price will be $150 to $400 per session. It can take several sessions (10 to 25) to remove large tattoos.
If you want to get rid of unwanted body hair:
Because hair-removal lasers target the pigment in hair, it works best on skin types with a high contrast between hair and skin color (think: fair skin and dark hair). Dr. Papantoniou uses the Candela Gentle Pro Laser for most of her patients. For darker skin, she recommends something like the Lyra laser. Other experts also recommend the nd:YAG. “You want to use a laser that has a longer wavelength that’s going to bypass that top layer of skin pigment in a darker individual. It’s going to penetrate to that depth where the hair follicle is and be attracted to that pigment,” she says. “If you use a laser that you would use on a very fair skin type on somebody of African-American descent, you could definitely cause a burn.”
All the derms caution that people with medium to dark skin tones should make sure the technician is well-versed in lasers for darker complexions. “No skin type has to stay away from lasers,” says Dr. Wechsler. “It’s just very much operator dependent.”
The laser lowdown: Laser hair removal costs around $200 to $400 a session, and multiple sessions are required to see results.
That brings us to a major caveat to this laser lovefest: Make sure you go to a legit provider.
Currently there is no board certification in laser medicine. And while most lasers require some training to operate, sometimes that course is given by the company that makes the machine—to anyone who buys it. “Unfortunately the way things are with lasers, almost anybody could just buy a laser and open shop,” says Dr. Papantoniou. “It’s a strong machine. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can definitely cause injury.”
The pros recommend seeing a medical doctor when it comes to laser treatments like the Fraxel and V-Beam. Even with treatments as simple as laser hair removal, make sure you do a thorough check on the facility. Another thing to consider when you sign up for a laser treatment: Does this facility have the right medical staff to handle an emergency if something goes wrong? “You’d be surprised how many people I see who have complications from laser treatments,” says Dr. Papantoniou. “There’s no laser police running around. People get injured, and they can’t even sue.”
Also, be cautious you’re not lasering something that’s more serious than just a brown spot.
“Before you get brown spot or red spot lasered, get it evaluated to make sure it doesn’t need a biopsy,” says Dr. Waldorf. She also warns against getting laser on top of an active tan, as this could increase the risk of hyperpigmentation. Dr. Wechsler adds that it’s good practice to stay out of the sun right after a laser treatment as well. If you’re taking any oral retinoids, like Accutane, you could have a higher risk of scarring, so wait six months to a year before signing up for a laser treatment.
Oh, one final note. Did we mention that laser treatments can hurt like a bitch?
Let me preface this by saying everyone’s pain threshold is different. However, lasers are known to be painful. “It depends on the area of the body," says Dr. Wechsler. "The face and the neck tend to hurt more with the laser than other areas. Although bikini and underarm laser hair removal definitely hurts, too.”
Most times a dermatologist will apply a strong numbing cream before using the laser. “We give people stress balls and ice afterwards,” Wechsler says. And she adds, “no pain, no gain.”
This article first appeared in Self.