Cool! Laser Zaps Away Acne Scars

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 6, 2001 -- Acne scars. Sure, you can cover them up with makeup or facial hair, but it's not a permanent fix. Although several treatment options exist, a new laser is showing promise in getting rid of even the deepest scars that remain decades after acne has run its course.

"That's the beauty of this treatment. It makes no difference how long you've had the scar," says Mitchel Goldman, MD, who spoke about the laser at the recent meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in Anaheim, Calif. "It works on a 50-year-old and it works on a 20-year-old."

Goldman tells WebMD the "cool touch" infrared laser, originally developed to minimize wrinkles, can be used on all skin types. It causes mild redness for up to a few hours after the procedure, but no real pain. The feeling of the laser is described as a rubber band lightly snapping against the skin with an alternating cool and warm sensation.

An average of four treatments is required to erase most acne scars with the laser, although Goldman, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Diego, says treatments can be continued monthly until the patient is satisfied with the results.


"What the laser does is stimulate your body to make more collagen under the skin," explains Goldman. "The deeper the scar, the more collagen you have to make to raise the scar up."

Collagen and other substances like Gore-Tex are often injected under the skin to smooth away wrinkles, frown lines, or even-out scars, including those caused by acne. But unlike injections, which can fade over time, the collagen created by the laser is retained in the skin, according to Goldman.

In a study he conducted of 14 adults, seven experienced a 50% improvement in the appearance of their scars. Everyone else showed at least a 40% improvement.

The "cool touch" laser isn't the only laser option for acne scars. Jim Gilmore, MD, a plastic and cosmetic surgeon in Dallas, tells WebMD he has seen the "cool touch" laser in action but thinks a more commonly used laser -- called an intense pulse light laser -- combined with injections works best for deep scars.


Gilmore says while proponents of the "cool touch" can claim the stimulated collagen lasts longer than injections, there are no scientific studies to prove it because the technology is simply too new.

He says people are excited about "cool touch" lasers mainly because they don't have the long healing times associated with other procedures. Chemical peels, once the standard for treating acne scars, can cause prolonged redness and swelling. So can some of the other lasers. In other cases, surgery and/or dermabrasion might be required that would also prolong the healing time.

But although "cool touch" lasers cause less redness and swelling, they don't give immediate results. That's because the collagen takes months to form.

Gilmore says people looking into "cool touch" simply for the faster recovery time need to be aware that while it looks promising, it may not be the best option as a stand-alone treatment.

"I think the patient with acne scars who wants better skin quality is going to be better served by the combination of intense pulse light and sporadic use of 'cool touch' as opposed to 'cool touch' for the whole face," he says.

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