Laser Therapy 101: Cleaning Up Summer Fun

Laser TreatmentEven though summer is over, chances are your skin still shows evidence of summer fun. Autumn is the ideal time to do some housekeeping for your skin. In the spirit of the new school year, I am going to explain various in-office laser procedures capable of cleaning up the effects of summer sun. Think of this post as Laser Therapy 101.

By autumn, skin is worsened by sun damage even for those who practice good sun protection. If you find yourself feeling frustrated because you’ve been wearing hats and sunscreen – don’t despair! Signs of summer sun damage are easily treated with a little housekeeping in the form of laser therapy and use of proper topical treatments.

The current technology in lasers has given dermatologists the ability to offer procedures that require no downtime for patients. A treatment can be discreetly done at lunch, and no one will know! The right laser will treat dark spots, increase your skin’s brightness, and smooth your complexion by getting rid of blotchy spots and redness. There is no wound care required or resultant swelling. Everyone will simply see a fresh, dewy glow.

Lasers have different wavelengths that target and affect one of three things in skin. These are water, heme (a major component of blood), and melanin (which gives us our natural color). We can encourage specific results depending on what we target.

When trying to treat wrinkles or tighten skin, we use the laser to target water. When trying to treat excess redness, port wine stains, rosacea, or red scarring from acne, we target heme. Melanin, which gives us our normal skin color, is also produced in response to sun damage and scarring with acne or trauma and is a component of hair color. Lasers target melanin for a broad range of results from skin lightening to removing unwanted hair.

Autumn skin care usually involves treating the numerous results of sun damage and darkened facial areas commonly referred to as melasma or pregnancy mask. Signs of sun damage include a splotchy complexion; small, light bumps; and darker freckles. The color and texture of your skin may be more leathery with redness on the cheeks.

Melasma is the centralized darkening of the cheeks, the area between the eyebrows, and the upper lip. It’s completely cosmetic but it can be eye-catching and disfiguring. Sun exposure deepens the darkening. It’s usually associated with women during pregnancy, but I see it most commonly in women during their child-bearing years. In my opinion, it’s unfair to ask these women to stay out of the sun. You can’t live tucked away, out of the sun when you have young children. And as I pointed out earlier, sun damage happens even to those who practice diligent sun protection.

Melasma is one of the most challenging of the hyperpigmented skin disorders. Fortunately, technology is now at a point where there are good options. As soon as you notice melasma, you should see a cosmetic dermatologist to treat it because the longer you have it the harder it is to treat. I strongly recommend you seek someone who specializes in treating the darkening of the skin.

I believe autumn skin care is good for those who:

  1. Have dark and/or red scars caused by acne that got worse in the sun,
  2. Avoided laser hair removal in the summer (some of the lasers used for hair removal can treat sun damage at same time),
  3. Have melasma,
  4. Feel their skin needs a freshening or “pick me up” or
  5. Want to look their absolute best for the upcoming holiday season.

There is an array of available laser technology. In my experience, the more aggressive lasers require longer downtime for healing. The more mild lasers allow my patients to return to their normal lives right after their appointments, with no one realizing they just had a cosmetic laser treatment. Here is a list of lasers and their treatments from the most aggressive to the least.

  1. Resurfacing lasers were some of the first lasers. Their function is exactly as their name implies. These lasers strip off the top layer of skin. This is an invasive treatment and requires about one month of downtime. Risk of scarring is significantly greater than with other lasers. The first two weeks of recovery are the most painful. This procedure requires anesthesia, but can be performed in your doctor’s office. Although the downtime and risk of scarring are a real concern with resurfacing, when performed on the right patient, the results can be quite dramatic and long lasting with just one treatment. Usually, patients do not need to repeat the laser treatment for 5-10 years. And although the newer (nonablative) lasers are quite convenient with continued improvement in the results, none has truly come close to the results achieved with resurfacing.
  2. Pulse dye lasers treat port wine stains, red birth marks, excess redness from rosacea, acne scarring, and sun damage. An experienced practitioner can adjust settings, resulting in little to no downtime for the patient. This laser requires 2-4 treatments.
  3. Q-Switch aggressively treats brown spots. Newer technology allows us to scan the entire face so we can clean distinct brown spots along with background sun damage “chatter.” I must emphasize the importance having this treatment done by a dermatologist. The reason for this is because you don’t want to laser off something that may be a sign of skin cancer or another skin disease that requires a skin biopsy to diagnose prior to the laser treatment. This laser requires 2-4 treatments.
  4. Fractional laser therapy is supported by the same science as laser resurfacing. The goal was to develop a treatment that had similar results but was less traumatic. The idea is that instead of removing the skin’s entire top layer, we can use a laser technique that creates little micro-holes across the skin. The result is a type of skin rejuvenation version of connect-the-dots. New skin growth looks for more new skin. This treatment helps a lot of melasma cases, but if you have olive or darker skin tones, it’s best to proceed with caution as there is an increased risk for some patients of developing worsening skin darkening. Fractional laser therapy helps the overall texture of skin. It requires 4-8 treatments and 1-2 days of recovery.
  5. YAG lasers are by far one of the most versatile. They treat hair removal; lighten sun damage, sun spots, and dark acne spots; and smooth the skin’s overall texture. This laser can be surprisingly comfortable when used in the right hands. There is absolutely no downtime. My patients are often pleasantly surprised with the feeling. The treatment provides a rosy glow and I’ll even use it on myself before important events. I have also found great success in treating melasma with the Yag laser. Because it is a mild laser, it requires more treatments, from 4 to 8 treatments and sometimes up to 12. But the YAG is also the least expensive of all the lasers.

Life is all about balance. We live to not only do the things that are good for us but to enjoy ourselves. An investment of time and expertise can undo the damage of last season. Today’s laser technology allows every skin type and tone – from a Nicole Kidman to a Michael Jordan – to enjoy the benefits.

Published on 11/20/2010 | Last updated on 12/20/2016