Laser technologies can be used to treat skin conditions like fine lines and wrinkles, acne scars, melasma, uneven skin tones and dark spots. The treatment uses a laser beam to remove the upper layer of the skin (the epidermis), while heating the underlying dermis, to stimulate the growth of new skin cells.
While laser whitening can be used to effectively treat melasma and to lighten dark spots, the more aggressive treatments can sometimes lead to “postinflammatory hyperpigmentation” (dark pigmentation) in the areas treated. This is more common in people with darker skin tones.
Laser Skin Whitening Options
According to National Centre for Biotechnology Information, laser skin resurfacing was introduced in the 1980s when carbon dioxide (CO 2) lasers were first used to deliver continuous light beams to the skin. This treatment was later modified due to the high rate of side effects, which including scarring, and a new generation of CO 2 lasers and erbium lasers were introduced that were able to deliver very “short pulsed” light energy to remove skin in a more controlled manner.
This procedure is called ablative laser resurfacing and, while it is generally the most effective, there can be significant complication risks and it has a prolonged recovery time of 2 – 3 weeks.
In more recent years we have seen the emergence of new non-ablative and fractional laser resurfacing technologies that attempt to minimise these risks and shorten the recovery time.
So what is the difference between ablative and non-ablative laser resurfacing?
Ablative resurfacing generally uses an older style carbon dioxide laser and medium depth chemical peel. Ablative lasers work to vapourise the affected tissue, removing the top layer of skin and part of the underlying sub layer. This is usually a single treatment option.
Non-ablative lasers coagulate the affected tissue, while keeping the outer layer of skin intact for faster healing and recovery. The down time is minimal but several treatments may be required. Non ablative or minimally-ablative skin resurfacing can include treatments like Fraxel RE:store and Fraxel RE.pair. You can read more about this procedure here:. http://www.fraxel.com/consumer/fraxel-and-you
Fractional skin resurfacing uses a combination of both ablative and non-ablative laser techniques to produce a more effective result with less risk and a faster recovery time. In fractional skin resurfacing laser energy micro-beams are focused on areas of affected tissue in the upper layer through to the dermis below.
These procedures are not as “strong” as ablative laser treatment but they can stimulate the body to create healthy new tissue in place of the affected tissue, resulting in more radiant, younger-looking skin.
Depending on how much skin needs to be lightened, the patient may or may not need a local anaesthetic for these procedures. While ablative resurfacing achieves the best results there is a risk of scarring with the more aggressive lasers so you should see an experienced laser surgeon to tell you what would be best.
Advantages of Laser Skin Whitening
- Fast results
While some whitening treatments take weeks to show results, laser skin resurfacing is fast and improvements can be seen straight away. After treatment your skin will appear brighter and softer immediately and will progressively improve as it heals over 3-6 months. This is particularly true with ablative techniques where you may only require 1-2 treatments to remove dark spots and improve your skin’s appearance. Non-ablative treatments can take a little longer and may require 1-5 treatments.
- Most people report good results
While skin whitening products are not all equally effective, laser resurfacing technology has been proven to work on a number of skin problems including fine lines and wrinkles, erasing acne scars, repairing sun damage and minimising the appearance of dark spots.
- Professional help
Patients undergoing laser resurfacing are under professional surveillance during and after the treatment. The effects are monitored and, if any complications arise, trained doctors will be able to assist with any problems.
Disadvantages of Laser Skin Whitening
- Possible Side effects
While modern laser technology can assist in reducing the appearance of skin blemishes and dark spots there are possible side effects that you should be aware of. It is common for patients to see a prolonged redness and swelling of this skin after laser treatment and doctors will advise patients that the treatment may also cause skin blistering, scarring, scabbing, cold sore reactivation or other infections.
Because the laser disrupts the structure of the cells beneath the skin surface, it can potentially damage the cells that produce melanin. In some cases this can cause either increased melanin production that will darken the skin (hyperpigmentation) or, in rare cases, a lightening of the skin (hypopigmentation) in some places.
- Treatment Costs
Laser resurfacing costs vary according to the area of skin to be treated and the type of laser used. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS 2012 Statistics), the average cost of laser skin resurfacing is $2,222 for ablative and $1,113 for non-ablative. Generally treatments can range between $500 to $3500. Be aware that using a plastic surgeon may be slightly more expensive than using a dermatologist so it comes down to your own personal preference.
- Recovery Time
After laser resurfacing the skin can react in different ways. Most people say the treatment feels like a mild sunburn with a tingling sensation. The skin may show redness and swelling after the procedure and some people can experience itching or stinging for a few days later. The redness tends to last longer in blondes and red heads.
If you are having laser treatment you should plan for any recovery time needed, after talking with your surgeon. This will vary according to the treatment received. Simple treatments may need a day or two but a full facial treatment may involve having a dressing applied which needs to be kept in place for 7-21 days.
With more aggressive treatments the skin can sometimes become raw, or blister and a yellow liquid will ooze out from the treated areas, forming a crust. It is important not to pick at this because this can lead to scarring. After about five days to a week your skin will become dry and peel and the new rejuvenated skin will show and lighten over the next couple of months. You skin may be extra sensitive to sunlight after laser treatment so it is important to minimise sun exposure and use 30+ sunscreen every day.
While laser resurfacing technology is an effective skin treatment that can be used to brighten skin and remove blemishes, you will need to take into consideration the potential risks and the cost of each treatment. It is recommended you ask a trusted dermatologist for advice before making a decision about this treatment.