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Home > Patient & Family Resources > Health Library > Laser Resurfacing
Laser resurfacing is a treatment to improve the look of the skin. It uses a laser to send out brief pulses of high-energy light. This light is absorbed by water and substances in the skin called chromophores. The light is changed into heat energy. The heat then destroys (vaporizes) thin sections of skin, layer by layer. As the wounded area heals, new skin grows to replace the damaged skin that was removed during the laser treatment. Some lasers only tighten the skin by heating it but do not destroy the skin.
The CO2 (carbon dioxide) laser is the most common type of laser used for resurfacing. Erbium lasers are also used often.
In most cases, laser resurfacing is very precise and causes little damage to the surrounding skin and tissue. It is done most often on the face, but it may be done on skin in other areas of the body, such as the hands, neck, and chest.
Newer methods of laser resurfacing cause fewer problems and have faster recovery times. These methods include:
The areas to be treated are cleaned and marked with a pen. A nerve block with a local anesthetic is usually used to numb the area before treatment. You may also get medicine to help you relax. If your whole face is going to be treated, you may need pain relievers, sedation, or stronger anesthesia. (In some cases, general anesthesia is used.) You may need to wear goggles to prevent eye damage by the laser. And wet towels will be placed around the area to absorb excess laser pulses.
The laser is passed over the skin, sending out pulses. Each pulse lasts less than a millisecond. Between passes with the laser, the skin will be wiped with water or a saltwater solution. This is done to cool the skin and remove tissue that the laser has destroyed. The number of passes needed depends on how large the area is and what type of skin is being treated. Thin skin around the eyes, for instance, needs very few passes with the laser. Thicker skin or skin with more severe lesions will need more passes.
The pulses from the laser may sting or burn slightly. You may feel a snapping feeling against your skin. In most cases, there is little or no bleeding. Severely damaged skin is more likely to bleed. When the treatment is done, the area is covered with a clean dressing or ointment.
Laser resurfacing is usually done in a doctor's office or an outpatient surgery center.
The time needed to heal and recover after laser resurfacing depends on how big and deep the treated area is. Someone who has the full face resurfaced, for example, will take longer to recover than someone who has only a small area of skin treated.
In most cases, the wounded area will be pink, tender, and swollen for at least several days. Cold packs and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen) may help reduce swelling and pain. After the skin grows back, the skin will stay red for several weeks.
Proper care of the treated area while the skin heals is very important.
If you are getting treatment around your mouth, you may get an antiviral drug called acyclovir to prevent infection. Tell your doctor if you have had cold sores in the past.
You will need several follow-up visits to your doctor. The doctor will keep track of how well the skin heals and regrows. He or she will also watch for and treat early signs of infection or other problems.
Laser resurfacing may be used to remove or improve the look of:
People with lighter skin who do not get a lot of sun exposure after the procedure tend to have the best results. People with darker skin may benefit from laser resurfacing, but their skin may not heal as well.
You may not be a good candidate for laser resurfacing if you:
There are many things that can affect the short-term and long-term results of laser resurfacing. These include your skin type, the health of your skin, how much experience your doctor has, the type of laser used, and your lifestyle after the treatment. Some types of skin problems or defects respond better to laser resurfacing than others. People with lighter skin who limit their time in the sun after treatment tend to have better results than those with darker skin and those who keep spending lots of time in the sun.
In general, laser resurfacing tends to have good results with fairly low risks.
The long-term results of laser treatment may not be seen for several months.
Side effects and risks of laser resurfacing may include:
Laser resurfacing first injures or wounds the skin and then destroys the top layers. You need to prepare yourself for how your skin will look after treatment and throughout the healing process. It is also very important for you to follow your doctor's instructions on caring for your skin after the treatment. This will help you avoid infection and help your skin heal.
Be sure that your doctor knows what you hope to achieve. And make sure that you know what results you can expect. Even with realistic expectations, you may not see results for several weeks or months after the treatment. And you may need more than one treatment to get the results you want.
After laser resurfacing, you will need to wear sunscreen every day and avoid the sun as much as you can. New skin is more likely to be damaged and change color from sunlight.
Laser resurfacing, chemical peel, and dermabrasion are the most common techniques to improve the texture and look of the skin. These techniques use different methods, but they have basically the same effect on the skin. They destroy and remove the upper layers of skin to allow the skin to regrow.
No one technique is better than the others. When done by an experienced surgeon, laser resurfacing may be slightly more precise than chemical peels or dermabrasion. But the choice of technique is based on the site you want to treat, your skin type and condition, the doctor's experience, your preferences, and other things. Some people may get the best results by using more than one technique.
Other Works Consulted
Tanzi EL, Alster TS (2012). Ablative lasers, chemical peels, and dermabrasion. In LA Goldman et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 8th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3021–3031. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Current as of: April 1, 2019
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family MedicineKeith Alan Denkler, MD - Plastic Surgery
Current as of:
April 1, 2019
Medical Review:Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & Keith Alan Denkler, MD - Plastic Surgery
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