We are always on the lookout for people’s perspectives of skin treatments that can help explain what happens before, during and after treatments to those who have not experienced them yet. This writer from Elle Magazine has had laser treatments on acne scars. She describes how her skin care routine has changed and what the lasers feel like. If you have been thinking about trying laser treatments for imperfect skin, this piece should help you know what to expect.
Over a year ago, I started going to a dermatologist for laser treatments to clear up the red, post-acne marks strewn across my cheeks. I struggled with severe acne throughout my entire 20s, and after getting on the proper prescription drug (spironolactone), my deep cysts cleared up within a few months. The post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, however, did not. The splotches were deeply colored enough that I needed to wear foundation everyday, and each ruddy mark looked like it could still be an active flare-up. Really, I just wanted to close the chapter on my breakout years (scars included), which brought me to New York-based dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D.
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The first step was to start a religiously consistent skin care routine to help even out old spots and prevent new ones: thorough nightly cleansing with an oil cleanser and regular cleanser to remove free radical-causing pollution, an antioxidant serum to make pigment-producing cells slow their roll, and rain-or-shine sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher on the daily?Engelman likes Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart Broad Spectrum 50 Hydrating Shield, which includes antioxidant idebenone along with sunscreen. But to really up the ante, Engelman suggested I also see her for laser treatments every couple months or so. Diligent skincare can do a lot for staving off future signs of aging?especially products like Elizabeth Arden SUPERSTART Skin Renewal Booster, which works as a precursor to boost the effects of products you layer over the top?but with scarring like mine, laser treatments are really the only way to get rid of all past damage
WHAT ARE THESE LASERS?
At each appointment, I would kick back in Engelman’s treatment chair?not unlike the dentist’s?while she used two types of lasers back-to-back: One was an Nd:YAG laser, and the other was intense pulsed light (or IPL, for short). “These both help target the redness of acne scars, making them appear more skin colored,” says Engelman, a consulting dermatologist for Elizabeth Arden. “They don’t do much for the texture of the scar if there is surface change, but they do help turn the color back to normal.” Here’s how: Skin cells within spots absorb the laser’s energy at such a disproportionate level that the darkened pigments are broken up. Eventually the body naturally gets rid of them.
After about four or five sessions over nine months, the difference became evident?even to my intensely critical eyes. Foundation and concealer were no longer musts. As happy as I was with the results thus far, I decided to follow through with a little bit of cleanup for a few persistent marks on my cheeks and a couple new faint ones from smaller blemishes that had popped up over the summer. I set another appointment to see Engelman, but she told me that IPL couldn’t be done before sun exposure or until six weeks after last sun exposure?I was about to head out on a two-week, sun-drenched vacation. She suggested we skip the IPL this time and do the Nd:YAG laser only, explaining that it’d still be effective (even if I committed the cardinal no-no of tanning) for the same reason it’s also ideal for darker skin types: Most other lasers can’t decipher normal, healthy dark skin cells from those with dark hyperpigmentation, leading to adverse effects.
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Still, she warned, I would have to be extremely diligent about sunscreen afterward so as not to negate the laser’s effects with UV damage, which triggers hyperpigmentation. I packed two bottles of SPF and used it every morning, whether I was beach bound or not.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE?
If you’re wincing as you imagine a laser beam searing your face, you can relax. The actual experience is closer to focused flashes of a hot, prickling burn, and while you can clearly feel something is going on, the sensation isn’t intense enough to warrant numbing cream, anesthetic, or even ibuprofen. In fact, as soon as you feel it, it’s gone?honest. I‘d compare it to tiny intense tingles of static electricity, like when you shake someone’s hand in the winter (minus the awkwardness). You’re also not subjected to one sustained “Will this ever end?!” stream of lasering; rather, the Nd:YAG (like IPL) is only used in split-second “flashes” at each trouble spots, which makes the zapping feeling of heat easier to bear. The tip of the Nd:YAG device Engelman uses?the Cynosure MPX Elite?features a Zimmer SmartCool fan, which continuously blows super cold air to help disguise the discomfort while she quickly zaps each small section. This not only chills your skin, but also helps distract your nerves?an age-old trick in medicine.
Over the sessions, I found that the treatment hurts only if you really pay attention to it. My personal self-soothing trick? Yoga breathing. Whenever I get laser treatments (or any other passing pain, like extractions during a facial), I challenge myself to take the most full, meditative, evenly paced breaths that I can. It’s almost like it creates white noise in my head. It also helps that Engelman gives me an eye shield to wear during the process, which make everything darker and calmer.
If you have a lot of ground to cover (e.g., several areas with hyperpigmentation), the discomfort can start to catch up with you?totally fine to ask the doc for a little break. But it never becomes agonizing?maybe just uncomfortable enough to squirm in your seat a bit. To be frank, getting a bikini wax is about a million times worse.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER?
Another reason this particular laser is so universally friendly is that you need zero recovery time. While there might be a warm feeling in the treatment spots, any lingering soreness is gone by the time you’re checking out at the front desk. There’s no swelling, and you can immediately apply makeup to cover any redness (or you may find you have no redness at all). Because the laser doesn’t ablate (i.e., exfoliate or break the skin), you don’t have to be overly cautious about what you apply to your skin after, and I was free to follow my usual routine. Personally, I went straight from Engelman’s to a spray tan appointment.
Her only words of instruction: absolutely zero UV exposure. Fortunately, I already have a daily SPF ritual and avoid the sun like a vampire. In the few days following Nd:YAG or IPL, there’s never any peeling, roughness, or tenderness. Marks will sometimes get slightly darker before slowly starting to fade away over the course of a few weeks (as long as you’re diligent about sun protection). You’ll see the full results from each session within six weeks; most people need two to three sessions, according to Engelman.
NOT INTO LASERS? TRY A PRODUCT…
If you don’t see yourself as the laser type or the price tag seems steep?each Nd:YAG session costs at least a few hundred dollars and isn’t covered by insurance?at-home treatments are still worth trying. “In red or ruddy complexions, topicals may help to minimize that facial erythema like the Nd:YAG does,” says Engelman, though the effect is temporary, not permanent. Your best bet for a healthy, even, radiant complexion is to use daily sun protection and a skincare regimen packed with powerful antioxidants, like idebenone, thiotaine, and bamboo isoflavones, which help reduce hyperactivity of pigment producing cells and are all found in Elizabeth Arden Prevage Anti Aging Daily Serum. Engleman suggests using it under sunscreen during the day and under moisturizer at night, to prevent age- and sun-induced discoloration (plus, wrinkles!) from forming in the first place.