Whilst non-invasive, some types of professional laser resurfacing still require a few weeks to heal. The safe home versions have no down-time but demand many more sessions than professional treatments for noticeable results.
This article explains everything you need to know about professional laser resurfacing treatments, how home versions measure up and where you can get one.
What you’ll learn in laser resurfacing 101:
How do cosmetic lasers work?
First, lets understand what a laser is and then what they do in our skin.
A laser generates a narrow beam of very intense light. Laser beams are monochromatic which means they’re of all one wavelength. The waves are also in the same phase (coherent) and are parallel to each other (collimated), don’t you know 🤓.
The laser beam is either a continuous or pulsed source of photons. Photons are the smallest measurements of electromagnetic radiation and the basic energy units of all light.7
Roger that. So, what do they do?
They zap specific substances in our skin causing controlled damage with heat. The substances are called chromophores. These are parts of molecule responsible for its colour. Chromophores absorb photons from light of various wavelengths and the colour our eyes see is the colour/wavelength not absorbed by the chromophore. Chromophores occur endogenously (naturally in our tissues), such as melanin, haemoglobin in blood, protein, nucleic acid, and water. Or they can be exogenous, (from an external source) like tattoo ink.8
As mentioned, target chromophores absorb light photons from the laser beams. And because the energy’s intense it converts to heat. If no chromophore is present, the laser beam passes straight without causing any heat or damage. It’s only when the chromophore absorbs photons that the laser causes damage and an injury.10
So, surrounding skin tissues without that chromophore remain unchanged. This principle is called selective photothermolysis. When we know which wavelengths the chromophores absorb, we can use intense light and lasers for various, controlled effects on our skin such as laser hair removal, tattoo removal, and laser resurfacing.
Laser operatives must configure the laser beams to control the heat and damage to the surrounding skin structures.
To do this, the pulse width of the laser must be shorter than the Thermal Relaxation Time (TRT) of the target. TRT is the amount of time needed for an object to cool down to 50% of the initial temperature. It depends on the size of the target chromophore. Larger objects have a longer TRT. For example, in tattoo removal, tattoo particles need a few nanoseconds, whereas varicose leg veins require a hundred milliseconds.
Some experts now believe that the TRT is an outdated concept, because it concerns cooling time, not heating time. They think the unique properties of the skin and how well it absorbs heat should dictate the laser pulse, not how quickly it cools. However, operatives still widely use TRT to calculate laser pulse duration.
So, what effect do lasers have on our skin?
Effects on the skin: Rebuilds collagen & elastin
The skin damage caused by lasers activates a natural healing response called neocollagenesis. This kickstarts your cells into building more collagen and elastin to repair the damage.
Collagen and elastin are the mesh of fibres that support your skin. They’re the main proteins of the extracellular matrix.
- Collagen makes your skin strong and firm
- Elastin keeps your skin tight and supple
Fibroblast cells found in the dermis layer of your skin produce both.
You’ve plenty when you’re young. But from around 30 you produce less and less each year. The result is fine lines, wrinkles, sagging, loss of tone, dull skin, rosy-redness and darker spots. Collagen creams can’t help because the collagen molecules are too big to sink into your skin.
So, neocollagenesis with laser rejuvenation is awesome for aging skin. Here’s what happens.
When the laser destroys or heats the skin cells, they release inflammatory mediators, such as histamine and prostaglandins. These chemical messengers trigger cell growth and collagen remodelling. Your fibroblasts become more active and boost their production of collagen which spreads throughout your dermis. The collagen and elastin fibres then tighten and rearrange in the connective tissues. These cellular-level effects lead to a reduction in wrinkles and sagging 11 and repairs and revitalises your skin. This gives you fresher, smooth and supple, younger-looking skin.
Lasers also treat acne scarring and inflammation, and the visible blood vessels your experience with rosacea. Professionals use Pulse Dye lasers (PDL) to destroy the vascular components (blood vessels) of the dermis, which then regrows without scars and redness.12
But not all laser treatments are the same because there are different types of laser.
Different types of laser
We use various types of cosmetic lasers for facial rejuvenation. The wavelength and how they deliver the laser beams determine their classification. First, we’ll look at ablative vs non-ablative laser, then fractional vs non-fractional.
Ablative lasers generate temperatures over 100 °C to vaporize the outer skin layer (epidermis). They’re the most aggressive and produce the most dramatic results. They create a carefully controlled pattern of skin micro-wounds in the skin surface. They do this by superheating the intracellular water in the skin’s outer layer (epidermis), which then vaporizes the skin cells while also heating the underlying dermis. The effect extends around 1.5 mm deep into the skin. They leave your skin raw. Ouchy.
Your skin reacts by producing loads of collagen and elastin to repair and build a fresh new epidermal layer. This ‘resurfacing’ has a dramatic effect on ageing skin by continuously producing buckets of collagen, but it takes weeks to heal and there’s a risk of infection.
Types of ablative laser include the carbon dioxide (CO2) laser emitting light at a 10,600 nm wavelength, the erbium laser emitting infrared light at 2940 nm wavelength, and systems that combine these.1 These combined systems have fewer side-effects, and some studies find they’re equally as effective for facial rejuvenation and wrinkle reduction.2
Non-ablative lasers are gentler on the skin than ablative. The laser beam heats up and damages the outer (epidermis) and lower (dermis) layers of skin, but it doesn’t destroy them. They remain in-tact which means there’s no skin peeling, but results are more subtle and gradual.4 Non-ablativelasers generate temperatures of around 65°C which makes the dermal collagen shrink and uncoil, leading to thermal remodelling of the dermis.9 Your body produces a surge of collagen and elastin to repair and renew the damaged cells, which then gradually freshens up the rest of your skin too.
Non-ablative lasers emit light at wavelengths between 1320nm and 1927nm.3 There are two types of non-ablative lasers. Pulsed dye lasers (PDL) and intense pulsed light (IPL, which uses intense light energy but isn’t a laser), devices create controlled wounds in the dermal micro-vasculature. Mid-infrared lasers target water in the dermis to create heat.
Both ablative and non-ablative lasers can be non-fractional or fractional.
Non-fractional lasers have a wide area of effect. A single, larger beam of energy zaps the entire surface of the treatment zone. This leads to more side effects and an extended recovery period.
Fractional lasers are like a pixelated beam. The laser beam breaks into thousands of tiny evenly spaced beams that create columns of thermal injury in the skin, called microthermal zones (MTZs). MTZs range in size from 100 to 400 μm in width and around 300 to 700 μm in depth.5
Because the laser only treats a fraction of the skin, there is less downtime and fewer side-effects.6
Lasers for darker skin tones
There is a common misconception that laser treatments do not suit darker skin tones. The old theory was that as lasers target chromophores, which include melanin, they could burn and scar darker skin.
However, melanin doesn’t absorb non-ablative wavelengths. So, we can use it to reduce acne scarring and for facial rejuvenation on darker skin tones. Fractional lasers are a better choice for darker skin tones too as they affect a smaller area, minimizing potential issues.13 Avoid ablative lasers on darker skin tones because they can result in permanent hyperpigmentation.
A 2013 research review found that longer wavelength lasers are safe for ethnic skin.14
What clinical evidence is there?
Whilst a few independent clinical studies do exist, overall, there’s a lack of clinical evidence confirming the effectiveness of laser resurfacing and rejuvenation. Here’s a summary of the existing studies.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology reviewed 48 research studies on fractional, non-ablative, skin resurfacing methods. The researchers specifically looked at darker skin types. They conclude that fractional resurfacing is safe and effective for treating acne, surgical, and traumatic scars, melasma, and skin rejuvenation.15
A 55-person trial compared the effects of ablative and non-ablative fractional laser treatments on thyroidectomy scars. Researchers found that both types of lasers significantly reduced the scars’ colour, contour, and skin distortion.16
In another study, researchers combined fractional ablative and non-ablative laser resurfacing treatments on one half of the face and purely ablative on the other. Using just eight subjects, they found there were improvements in wrinkles and pigment in both groups, and results were equivalent. However, in the combination areas, there were fewer immediate side effects.17
However, several laser resurfacing manufacturers have gained FDA clearance for their professional machines. So, this is excellent reassurance that approved machinery is safe and effective.
Are laser resurfacing facials FDA approved?
The job of protecting US citizens’ health lies with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). All manufacturers of laser resurfacing facial devices must have FDA approval before they can sell or market the device in the US.
To apply for approval, the manufacturer must submit substantial evidence the device is effective, safe, and the benefits outweigh the risks. And there are many professional grade laser machines cleared by the FDA from brands such as Lumenis, Sciton, Candela, Cynosure, Fraxel, and Syneron. You can search the 501K database here.
Several home-use laser resurfacing devices, including the NIRA and Tria skin care lasers, are also FDA cleared as over the counter class II medical devices. This means they have a moderate risk associated with their use.18,19
At home laser devices
Compared to a doctor’s clinic, at-home lasers use much less power. These home lasers can reach a depth of around 500 microns (a micron is a millionth of a metre, so it’s 0.5 millimetres). An example professional grade laser goes 500 to 1400 microns.
This means with professional treatments you need many fewer sessions to see results. Most doctors recommend 3 to 5 for non-ablative lasers. And there’s a few days recovery before your skin heals and is back to normal. With home lasers you need many more treatments, but your skin heals quickly within 24 hours.
Professional grade lasers have professional operators too. They’re medically trained specialists who configure the laser specifically to suit the patient. At home it’s just us, so it must be safe and simple.
So, this is all good stuff. Home devices are designed to keep us safe, work with minimal discomfort, repair fast and still give visible results overtime.
You can try one of these clinically-proven safe and effective home devices:
Tria Age Defying Laser – read our review with before & after photos
For crow’s feet, mouth & forehead wrinkles, smooth, firm & radiant skin
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References & sources