In June, the FDA approved using the N-Lite laser to also treat inflammatory acne vulagris, the most common type. That approval was based on Chu's study, published this week but presented earlier this year before the Royal Society of Medicine in England and at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.
It's the latest in a recent series of nonpharmacological treatments being investigated, in part because of growing concern that the bacteria that cause acne may become resistant to antibiotics often used to treat severe cases.
For several years, so-called "blue lights" have been used to kill the bacteria, but with limited success because they don't penetrate skin as deeply as N-Lite -- producing shorter-lived results. And a more powerful laser has also been used on acne, but only on back skin because it can cause irritation, says Chu. Because N-Lite has a different wavelength that doesn't damage skin, it can be used on facial skin and is relatively painless.
Still, one expert not connected with Chu's study -- which was not sponsored by the Wales-based manufacturer of N-Lite -- tells WebMD that it's still too early to determine if this laser will be the "go-to" treatment against acne.
"FDA approval for acne is not the same for lasers as for drugs," says Guy F. Webster, MD, PhD, vice chairman of dermatology at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, who wrote an editorial in The Lancet that accompanies Chu's study. "Drugs have to be shown to work with big studies. Lasers seem to only need to show safety and some response."
Webster notes that the results seen in Chu's study, the first to evaluate N-Lite's potential against acne, was similar to that of benzoyl peroxide, a popular over-the-counter acne medication -- that is, "not insubstantial, but also not enough to satisfy many patients."
Meanwhile, a single N-Lite treatment costs about $600 in the U.S., says Trow. "That's on par with something like Accutane (a prescription medication for severe acne)," he says. "The only problem is that N-Lite isn't covered by insurance. Anything that's new always costs a little more."