Laser stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” Laser treatments involve using a focused beam of light to permanently affect the surface of the skin. This treatment can be used to improve the skin’s appearance and alleviate a variety of skin conditions. Hair removal, skin reshaping, light therapy (for psoriasis, etc.) and thermolysis (heat therapy for sweating) are some of the most common reasons why people turn to laser procedures.
Laser Hair Removal
In this procedure, individual hair follicles are targeted and destroyed with laser light while causing minimal damage to surrounding tissue. Generally, this procedure is safe and comes with minimal side effects. However, individuals with darker skin are recommended to use caution with this and most other laser treatments. This is because of melanin, the pigment responsible for skin complexion. It is very similar to eumelanin, which is the pigment that produces hair color. Although eumelanin is the primary target of laser treatment, the melanin in the skin may also absorb the laser’s energy. This can cause hyperpigmentation (darkening) and other side effects. Therefore, individuals with light skin and dark hair are ideal candidates for laser hair removal. Hair that is blonde or gray at the root is not seen by the laser, so it is ineffective.
Other Laser Procedures
Laser resurfacing is a treatment used to improve minor flaws on the surface of the skin. This includes acne scars, wrinkles, sunspots, and crow’s feet. High-energy pulsed carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers are commonly used to treat scars, warts, and deep wrinkles. Another option is the erbium laser, also known as the short-pulsed erbium:yttrium-aluminum-garnet (Er:YAG). This laser can be used to treat superficial and moderately deep wrinkles with fewer side effects. Additionally, it can be used to treat atrophic acne scars, seborrheic keratosis, sun damage, and uneven pigmentation. During skin resurfacing, a laser is used to heat fibroblasts residing within the dermis. This action stimulates the production of collagen and elastin fibers which helps to tighten and contour the skin.
Types of Lasers
As with skin and hair color, there are different kinds of laser machines, and some work better than others. Lasers that are used on the skin will depend on wavelength and penetration. In general, lasers can be categorized on whether they are ablative or nonablative. Ablative lasers vaporize tissue, creating a wound while nonablative lasers keep the skin intact.
CO2 laser -vaporizes tissue at a depth of 20 to 60um
Er:YAG (2940 nm) -infrared, used in laser skin resurfacing
Direct Diode (810-1100 nm) – infrared, less powerful than CO2 laser best for darker skin tones
Nd:YAG (940-1440 nm) – best for darker skin tones, also used in surgery
IPL (400-1200 nm) -applies an intense pulse of visible and infrared for the treatment of melasma, rosacea, photodamage, and dyschromia. Although this treatment has minimal side effects, it is not as effective as other options against wrinkles.
Alexandrite (510-755 nm) -uses alexandrite crystals as the laser source to remove hair, surface veins, and tattoos.
Note: “nm” stands for nanometers which are used to measure wavelength.
Choosing a Facility or Provider
If laser treatments are something that interests you, do a web search of the top reviewed places. After you’ve narrowed down the search, call each place and ask which types of laser machines they have and who performs the procedures. This is especially important for people with darker skin tones. Make an appointment to visit 2-3 facilities and have them look at your skin for tone, condition, and hair color (if getting hair removal). This will also be an excellent opportunity to get a feel for the environment, staff, and patient care.
The most important factor when you’re considering laser is the clinician. They must have a lot of experience in dealing with various skin problems and tones. You may ask for a test patch during the visit. Usually, the best spot for this is behind the ear or somewhere on the head or neck area, not easily visible.
Depending on your reasons for researching laser treatments, there are usually alternative therapies. For example, laser doesn’t offer 100% permanent hair removal. In fact, I have a lot of clients that come for regular waxing touch-ups on the areas where they have strays. Their visits are less frequent because the hair is thinner and less visible, so they maintain it with waxing. As for acne scars, wrinkles, UV sunspots, and crow’s feet you can always visit your local Esthetician for facial peel treatments. These may include salicylic, lactic, resorcinol, and mandelic acids along with Vitamin A and C post-treatments. Of course, it is always recommended to use at-home care products and to continue healthy skin habits. S4 Skincare now offers the Replenished and Clarified Mask which is similar to having a facial in a jar.