A Guide to Lasers and What’s Right For Your Skin
A board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the NYU School of Medicine, Dr. Robert Anolik is a prominent cosmetic dermatologist and researcher in New York whose knowledge of and experience with the newest skin-improving technologies in multiple areas of dermatology—from lasers to radiofrequency to Wrinkle Relaxers and fillers—is enormous. Beyond being a goop favorite, he’s a recipient of Elle Magazine’s Genius Award (they dubbed him “The Techie”), and a Rising Star in the New York Times Magazine “New York Super Doctors” feature, he’s quoted often in the consumer press, the author of numerous academic articles, and lectures frequently on the subject of laser surgery, cosmetic dermatology, and Mohs surgery. Here, he explains which laser does what, along with how best to address common skin issues, from aging to rosacea:
A Q&A with Robert Anolik, M.D.
Are there anti-wrinkle lasers, per se? Which are best for skin texture issues? Do you believe that lasers are the best approach for crepe-iness?
In general, lasers that remodel collagen and stimulate collagen production throughout the dermis of the skin improve the appearance of wrinkles, texture, and crepe-iness. This is because the first two relate to weakening or irregular conformations of the dermal collagen, while the latter is a result of thinning of the dermal collagen. Remodeled and new collagen normalizes this layer so that it is more organized, more even in distribution, and deeper in depth.
There is a surprising misconception that lasers take off the top layers of skin, leaving it white, and/or shiny/thinned. This is not the case. I suspect this mistaken patient belief relates to older methods of rejuvenation like dermabrasion, deep chemical peels, and old-fashioned lasers, all of which did remove surface layers of skin and carried a risk of removing all normal pigment cells called melanocytes. (Today, I still see patients in the office who were treated in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s with these older methods, and some do have these unusual signs of treatment.)
Fortunately, rejuvenating lasers today generally penetrate the surface skin, stimulating the collagen from within and below and triggering its production, rather than simply shearing off the surface. This is because resurfacing lasers today are fractional—meaning that the laser beam is delivered in a pixelated manner, touching the skin in tiny dots, separated by areas of untreated skin. This leaves behind healthy pigment producing cells (melanocytes) and other normal skin cells unaffected by the treatment that rapidly heal the skin and markedly diminish the risk of abnormal pigmentation.
The most commonly used lasers for these strategies are fractional resurfacing lasers. The most popular ones are those with limited downtime (generally from a few hours of pink and dryness to 4-5 days of pink and dryness). My currently used strategies include the non-ablative (non-wounding) Clear and Brilliant lasers . Not only do these lasers stimulate the collagen, they also allow for a surface exfoliation of the skin, which sheds abnormal browning and dullness to the skin. Consequently, the skin looks brighter.
The stronger lasers are ablative (meaning they superficially wound the skin), leaving the skin with redness and scabs for about a week, followed by 3-4 weeks of pink skin. The later 3-4 weeks can generally be masked with makeup, since the skin has healed. These stronger versions are usually reserved for more substantial signs of aging, uneven texture, deep wrinkling, or scars—often acne scars.
More good news about these therapies: I was part of a clinical trial published in 2012 that demonstrated the likelihood that these newer fractional laser treatments promote not just more beautiful skin, but healthier skin as well, by supporting the elimination of pre-cancerous skin changes known as actinic keratoses. These precancers have the potential to turn into squamous cell carcinomas.
Which lasers fight redness and promote skin evenness?
Redness on the skin is caused by a number of things, including sun damage, genetics, hormones, and rosacea. Topical treatments include prescription drugs that are able to limit some underlying inflammation, like metronidazole creams and azeleic acids gels and sulfacetamide lotions. But the most effective method of reducing facial redness is laser therapy. The underlying concept is that specific laser wavelengths can be delivered to the skin in order to heat and eliminate blood vessels while leaving the surrounding skin structures (hair, collagen, pigment, etc.) untouched. These blood vessels are simply cosmetic nuisances—we are not eliminating medically important structures.
Which are best for tightening and fighting sagging?
The sciences that allow cosmetic dermatologists to tighten (i.e. fight sagging) skin is one of the fastest growing areas in our field. I am involved in a number of clinical trials using these technologies, and there are several very interesting strategies that seem to be improving daily.
It’s important to understand that not all technologies are lasers. Lasers are beams of light that are simply one wavelength. Other forms of energy can be used on the field of cosmetic dermatology, including radiofrequency and ultrasound.
Radiofrequency was one of the first technologies to help tighten skin. With this science, we can safely deliver radiofrequency energy into the skin to produce a heat throughout the underlying collagen fibers. This can stimulate remodeling of existing collagen and the production of new collagen. The result is a tightening/firming to the skin. This used to be a painful treatment, but innovations in delivery make it very comfortable. These strategies include vibration in the handpiece that touches the skin as well as cooling methods to comfort the surface skin.
Finally, it’s important to realize that cosmetic injections of Wrinkle Relaxers and filler also allow me to lift skin. With Wrinkle Relaxers , I am able to strategically place it into muscles that have a downward pull. These muscles include those immediately below the forehead and above the eye. Ideal placement here gives people a noticeable brow lift. (Don’t worry about spock eyebrows— these are prevented by delicate placement of Wrinkle Relaxers in the forehead!) Wrinkle Relaxers can also be used in the chin to lift the corners of the mouth. And it can be injected into the neck to allow a lift to the jowls and neck bands.
Filler injections also give the face a lift. True appreciation for the placement of filler allows contour and lift. Injections underneath facial muscles and in areas where the young face once had more significant, supportive bone and fat pads, give a natural-looking lift. No one will know you were treated, but the face is re-contoured and lifted to prevent the appearance of sagging skin and jowls.
While these techniques are very exciting and becoming more popular, I cannot say that we can achieve the lifting outcomes of surgery. But it also doesn’t carry the risks, scars, or permanency of surgery. Also, I theorize that remodeling and production of new collagen in the skin will slow the rate at which your skin sags over time, since the architecture of the skin is newer and healthier with these treatments.
What’s the best treatment for dark spots?
The best treatment for dark spots is, without question, laser treatment once the spots appear. Topical products are helpful, but most helpful in eliminating the development of brown spots. Consistent use of sunscreen and retinoids helps maintain even, bright tone.
The best laser treatments for dark spots fall into two major categories: pigment specific lasers and fractional resurfacing lasers. Pigment specific lasers are spot treatment therapies. They are used on one spot at a time and work by selectively heating the extra pigment particles in the target area. Typically, the treated areas on the face appear as tiny surface scabs for several days to a week. So planning the right time for these treatments is important, since you may have several days of looking treated, even with makeup.
“The best treatment for dark spots is, without question, laser treatment once the spots appear.”
The other category, namely fractional resurfacing lasers, primarily build collagen in the skin, but also exfoliate the surface. There are many intensities of these lasers, from ones that leave the skin pink and dry for a few hours, to one that leaves it looking superficially wounded for a week and pink for another 3-4 weeks. The stronger lasers are usually used only for patients with dramatically spotty or wrinkled skin; most patients do great with options that leave them pink and dry for a few hours and pink and dry for a few days.
The best treatment overall here is combination therapy. To achieve the optimal outcomes, I encourage all of my patients to protect their skin daily with sunscreen—even in winter and rainy days—and if their skin can tolerate it, retinol or prescription retinoids on a nightly basis. I say if they can tolerate it because the use of retinoids can make the skin irritated, but usually the skin becomes used to it, especially if the patient is moisturizing well. I use it nightly without any trouble. I then bring in the use of YAG lasers for concentrated sun spots and fractional resurfacing lasers to diffusely exfoliate and brighten skin tone.
When my patients do this combination routinely, they are the ones people look at and say, “Wow, your skin is beautiful.”
What are the best to treat acne?
We can use lasers to assist with anti-inflammatory processes of acne. But what I find more effective is integrating light and vacuum benefits in a process called photopneumatic therapy. The procedure involves steaming the skin followed by a handpiece applied to the skin that can pull excess oils out of the pores. Then the system delivers an intense pulsed light that can kill acne causing bacteria as well as assist in normalizing the pink and brown acne discoloration on the skin.