Beauty 411: How Do Lasers Work?

You've probably heard that these powerful light beams can zap fine lines and age spots. But do you know how they do it?

Reviewed by Mohiba Tareen, MD on August 10, 2012

Q: I've heard a lot about lasers, but how exactly do they work?

A: Fine lines, discoloration, acne scars, large pores, broken blood vessels, and age spots -- you name it, lasers, or microscopic beams of light, have the power to help correct it. Lasers use heat (and light) to stimulate the growth of fibroblasts, which are precursors to new collagen in the skin. More collagen means firmer, fresher, younger-looking skin. There are two main types.

Ablative lasers take off the surface of the skin and can result in scabbing, significant downtime (up to two weeks), and some discomfort. Your skin may be red, raw, and oozing, but once that passes, deep acne scars and troublesome wrinkles will be drastically reduced.

One of the hottest lasers in this category is fractionated laser skin resurfacing. (Fraxel is the brand name of the pioneering device in this arena.) Although thousands of microscopic laser beams (each one-tenth the diameter of a hair follicle) make pinpoint punctures in the skin, the process doesn't affect the surrounding tissue. It has become popular for treating the signs of aging with much less discomfort and downtime than traditional, nonfractionated ablative lasers. Typically, redness lasts about a week.

Non-ablative lasers don't break the surface of the skin and are generally gentler options, leaving mostly mild redness and irritation. Some work after just one session, but many take a few appointments to achieve the end results. I happen to like the Genesis 1064 YAG laser for zapping rosacea and shrinking pores -- with almost zero downtime. The MedLite laser is the one I use for fading brown spots over a few sessions. -- Debra Jaliman, MD, assistant professor of dermatology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

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Debra Jaliman, MD, assistant professor of dermatology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, N.Y.

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