For those who take their skin treatments seriously, a laser facial is a tempting proposition. With options for treating myriad issues – from sun damage to acne, rough texture and rosacea – laser treatments are booming for good reason.
While laser facials fall under the non-surgical umbrella, they are complex – and no one treatment is suitable for everyone. They also often require commitment, with a course of regular appointments offering better results than a single clinic visit.
“There’s a healthy middle ground with lasers as effective treatments for long-term skin health,” explains facialist Debbie Thomas. She may be the beauty industry’s laser authority, but she takes a slow and steady approach. “By building up strong, robust skin, visible signs of ageing slow down,” she says.
How do laser facials work?
Lasers have been used for aesthetic purposes for around 40 years. “There has not been a new laser technology developed for skincare in about 30 years,” Thomas says. “So when people talk about ‘new’ ones, they really mean an upgrade of an existing technology.”
There are about 10 lasers that are generally used for skin treatments, and while they all work in a similar way, they have different abilities. “Lasers are extremely popular devices used in many cosmetic dermatology practices providing both medical and aesthetic benefits to the skin,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto. “They work by firing a very narrow beam of light, where all of the light waves generated have a similar wavelength. Target molecules in the skin, known as chromophores, will absorb this light and convert it into heat to generate a desired effect,” she explains. This effect may be to reduce blood vessels (and the accompanying redness), fade pigmentation, remove unwanted hair, or to resurface the skin to reduce the appearance of acne scars or fine lines.
The laser treatment sub-types
When looking into laser facials, you’ll likely see various treatments described as either ‘ablative’ or ‘non-ablative’. The basic difference here is that an ablative laser will remove the upper layer of the skin. Non-ablative lasers leave the epidermis intact, bypassing it to directly tackle the dermis beneath. While ablative lasers are usually considered more effective, they traditionally require more recovery or ‘downtime’ after a treatment.
So far, so simple – but things do get a little more complex. “To sub-divide lasers further, both ablative and non-ablative lasers can be ‘fractional’, says Dr. Mahto. “Fractional lasers have been around since the early 2000s; they target the skin by delivering laser energy where the laser beam has been divided into many small, deep columns. These areas are known as microthermal treatment zones (MTZs). Fractional lasers have a faster recovery time than ‘non-fractional’ lasers, as the entire bulk of tissue has not been treated.”
The best laser facials available now
“Choosing the right laser for the right patient requires experience in dermatology to make the right diagnosis, as well as clinical skill in creating a bespoke plan and performing the treatment,” says Dr. Mahto.
A good clinician will be able to tell you which is the best laser for your skin type and individual concerns, as well as provide a realistic assessment of recovery time depending on the device chosen. Below is a generalised guide to the key types of laser, and the skin issues they primarily treat – although bear in mind that many types of laser can work across multiple skin types and issues.
LASER FACIALS FOR REDNESS AND ROSACEA
“Vascular lasers such as a pulse-dye or Nd:Yag can be used to target redness and thread veins of the face,” says Dr. Mahto. They emit a beam of pure yellow light, which is absorbed by the skin and converted into heat that reduces broken veins and those associated with rosacea.
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LASER FACIALS FOR PIGMENTATION AND DARK SPOTS
Lasers such as the fast and powerful Q-switched Nd:Yag and the Alexandrite can be used for the treatment of pigmentation such as sun spots. The former is actually also used in laser tattoo-removal treatments.
However, when using these powerful lasers, “it is important that the practitioner is certain that the spot being zapped is truly pigmentation and not an early skin cancer such as a lentigo maligna”, says Dr. Mahto. “I have certainly first-hand seen patients being treated elsewhere for a pigmented lesion which has turned out to be a skin cancer due to the inexperience of the person offering the treatment.”
LASER FACIALS FOR TEXTURE AND TONE
This is where ablative lasers come in. Carbon dioxide (commonly called the ‘carbon peel’) and Erbium are generally considered the lasers of choice for resurfacing the skin to improve overall skin texture and tone, as well as for scarring – be it from acne, trauma or surgery. “They work by boosting the production of new collagen in the skin over time to provide the skin with support and structure,” explains Dr. Mahto.
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Do laser facials hurt?
All laser treatments are generally considered uncomfortable: expect anything from a pricking feeling to a sensation like the flick of an elastic band or a small electric shock. Some treatments are likened to the pain of getting a tattoo. However, know that laser treatments are generally fast, so you aren’t ever uncomfortable for very long.
Laser facials: the downtime
The reason why many experts prefer to perform gentler laser and IPL treatments over time is because everyone repairs and regenerates differently. “The problem with aggressive treatments is that if you’re someone who doesn’t heal that well you could end up with long-term damage,” Thomas explains.
The facialist says that around 85 per cent of her clients leave the clinic without any redness. However, whether your skin looks ‘normal’ or not it will be stimulated, so you must practice sensible laser aftercare.
“I tell my clients to imagine they’ve got a severe sunburn for three days. Think: ‘Would I sit in a sauna? Would I take a really hot shower? Would I scrub my skin?’ You know intuitively what you wouldn’t. What you would do, however, is soothe and hydrate the skin, and that’s exactly what you should do post-laser.”
Similarly, Dr. Mahto highlights the importance of rigorous sun protection following a laser skin treatment, as the skin will be hyper-sensitive to UV light. “I personally prefer to do more invasive treatments in the autumn/winter months on my patients,” she says.
Dr. Mahto also recommends scaling back your skincare post-laser – especially if you have maximalist predilections. “Avoiding acid exfoliants and retinoids can be of benefit depending on the type of treatment you have had: your practitioner will be able to give you more specific advice prior to therapy commencing. Non-smokers often fare better than those who smoke, as smoking can impair wound healing.”
From Harper’s Bazaar UK