Alongside injectables, lasers are among the most popular non-surgical treatments for improving the skin’s health and appearance. But laser facials come with many misconceptions and concerns over the process (and potential pain) involved.
“There’s a healthy middle ground with lasers as effective treatments for long-term skin health,” London’s leading laser facialist, Debbie Thomas tells Bazaar. She may be the beauty industry’s machine queen, but she takes a slow and steady approach. “By building up strong robust skin, visible signs of ageing slow down,” she says. Therefore, don’t see laser treatments as a quick fix (although they can be), but a tool for your anti-ageing arsenal – one that can also aid acne, rosacea, rid thread veins and refine pores.
How do lasers 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 reveals. “So when people talk about ‘new’ ones they mean an upgrade of an existing technology.”
There are about 10 lasers that are generally used for skin treatments, they each have different abilities but work in a similar way. “The light at the beginning of a laser is like any normal light, yet inside the machine there are different filters which remove wavelengths of light, leaving only one. This filtered wavelength is concentrated into a precise beam of light which we can now use to address specific concerns within skin. Each laser is attracted to and absorbed by different cells within the skin.”
So, for example, some of the wavelengths will see pigmentation, either to treat sun spots or for hair removal, some see haemoglobin (think the red in veins), and some don’t necessarily see something in the skin but rather the energy will be deposited in a specific area where perhaps you’re trying to stimulate collagen production, or stint the production of sebum.
The different types of laser treatments
There are two basic groups of lasers used for cosmetic skin treatments Thomas explains: ablative and non-ablative. “Ablative lasers physically vaporise the top layer of skin to peel, while non-ablative lasers work within the skin targeting specific cells without peeling or otherwise damaging the top layers.” Below are some of the types most commonly used and their benefits.
For pigmentation: “The Q-Switched Nd:Yag boost the overall skin tone by picking up and removing flecks of excess pigment in the skin looking blotchy.”
For acne and rosacea: “Porphyrin production is stimulated within the skin to kill bacteria associated with acne. It helps with rosacea as well because that has a bacterial element. Additionally, sebaceous glands temporarily shrink, and collagen production is promoted, making the skin stronger and less sensitive.”
For deep cleansing and brightening: “A facial called ‘the carbon peel’ works to deep clean and deliver short-term brightening. A carbon paste (a bit like charcoal) is massaged into skin and left to dry. It adheres to dead skin cells and goes slightly into the pores, then because the carbon is black when the laser hits it, it vaporises instantly and as it lifts off it takes the impurities and dead skin with it.”
For hair removal: “Here the laser targets the growing cells and blood supply that feed a growing hair. The melanin in hair absorbs enough energy that the heat also destroys the cells directly surrounding it. There are multiple machines for hair removal but the Nd:Yag is safe for all skin colours and works on light brown through to black hairs. If you have fair hair a good time to do laser hair removal is in winter when you have more contrast between your skin and hair colours.”
Slightly different to laser, IPL makes use of a scattered light (whereas only one wavelength comes out of a laser). With IPL you get more exergy, but less control. “I love what it can do,” says Thomas, “but it isn’t safe enough to use on everyone.”
For pigmentation: “The light is absorbed by the existing pigment cells to heat up and damage the melanocytes (pigment cells). The damaged cells then get removed by the body.”
For rosacea or broken veins: “The light is absorbed by the red haemoglobin within the blood contained within the visible vein. The energy builds up quickly turning to heat and cauterising the vein causing it to collapse.”
For rejuvenation: “Multiple factors are used to reduce redness and even-out pigmentation by selectively destroying both unwanted melanocytes and cauterising veins, while also inducing collagen production.”
For acne: “The blue filter used for acne treatment triggers porphyrin production within the skin. Porphyrins kill the acne-causing bacteria and have an anti-inflammatory effect.”
For rejuvenation: “Micro-wounds are created within the skin through the induction of heat (it feels like ‘a bee kiss’ clients say). The skin surface is not broken, however, peeling will occur several days later and after some time revealing a smoother, more even complexion. This laser is great for refining pores, treating scarring, fine lines and wrinkles. Most people will have it done on the whole face, but it can just be done on isolated areas.”
Others popular lasers include Alexandrite for hair removal on lighter skin tones; Erbium, for resurfacing and treating skin tags; and Copper Bromide for acne and calming inflammation.
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 in discomfort for very long.
The reason why Thomas prefers to do gentler laser and IPL treatments over time (such as six treatments) 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,” she explains.
Therefore about 85 per cent of her clients leave the clinic without any redness. But whether your skin looks ‘normal’ or not it will be stimulated, so you must practice sensible laser aftercare.
“I say to clients imagine you’ve got really bad sunburn for three days. So, any time you do anything think whether you’d do that if you had bad sunburn: ‘Would I sit in a sauna? Would I go in a really hot shower? Would I scrub my skin?’ You kind of know what you wouldn’t do. What you would do is soothe and hydrate the skin, and that’s exactly what you should do post-laser.”
Always wear sunscreen (PCA Skin Protecting Hydrator Broad Spectrum SPF30 is Thomas’ favourite), “and we recommend a good basic skincare regime of an antioxidant (in the morning) and a retinol (at night) if you can tolerate it.