When it comes to breakthrough beauty treatments, lasers are often an important part of the conversation. But like scores of beauty products introduced in the past, the benefits of lasers didn’t initially translate to work on those of us who have more melanin in our skin. As a result, many of us assigned lasers to the “Not For Me” List. But laser technology has come a long way so I went to three experts to discuss the changes in laser technology and to help you decide whether it is time to take another look at what they have to offer.
The side effects have been minimized. “Laser technology has improved and so has the understanding of preventing the side effects of laser treatments in skin of color,” notes Michelle Henry, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. “Many new lasers are designed to emit their energy more quickly, reducing the amount of heat introduced to the skin, and diminishing the risk of burns and scarring in darker skin types.”
Some lasers are “color blind”. According to Dr. Jeanine Downie, a board-certified dermatologist specializing in cosmetic dermatology at Image Dermatology in Montclair, New Jersey, these lasers can address a number of our aesthetic concerns. “We have many more “colorblind” lasers that are able to treat us for laser hair removal, broken blood vessels. and for brown spots. Additionally, with the advent of non-ablative fractional resurfacing we too can decrease our acne scarring/surgical scars/stretch marks and have a more even skin tone,” she explains. However, Dr. Downie believes that there is still room for improvement when it comes to some lasers. “For example, tattoo laser treatments are much better but they are still not perfect,” she says.
They turned down the heat for hair removal. Early lasers had difficulty reading dark hair or deeper skin tones which had the potential to cause hyperpigmentation, scarring or burns as well as overall discomfort. Today’s lasers have been adjusted for our comfort and effectiveness. “Lasers have been designed to emit the appropriate amount of energy to destroy the hair but reduce the heat to the skin. It makes laser hair removal significantly more comfortable and safe.,” Dr. Henry, who also practices at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York points out. The number of treatments you’ll need will vary on the body part as well as your hair’s growth cycle. The low end could be 6-8 with the high end requiring as many as 20 treatments.
They provide better solutions for hyperpigmentation and melasma. To decide whether to explore treating your dark spots with a laser, Maritza Perez, MD, Director of Cosmetic Dermatology, St. Luke’s Roosevelt Medical Center in New York City says to first understand that there is a difference between post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and a dark spot. “PIH is always preceded by an inflammatory process like acne, trauma or something,” she says.”That chronic hyperpigmentation of sun exposure is blotchy, there are different levels of damage but you have no inflammation.” Dr. Perez, who is also a Clinical Professor of Dermatology, Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine notes that both peels and lasers are often used for PIH and chronic sun exposure. Perez is excited about using the Pico Genesis Laser, that is a new non-thermal laser that uses ultra-short laser pulses to treat a variety of skin conditions with minimal downtime in her practice in New Canaan, Connecticut. “You can do the whole face in 15 minutes, it’s a win-win situation,” Perez explains. “I think it’s a breakthrough and I want to be at the forefront of breakthrough technology.”
Daily sun protection is no longer an option, it’s a requirement. If you have a laser treatment, however, you can’t play around and skip the sunscreen application. Downie says, “Aftercare depends on which procedure you are having done, the most important and consistent part of aftercare is to make sure you are wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above, every day rain or shine with constant reapplication, regardless of your ethnicity.” Henry agrees, she suggests sun avoidance as an extra measure. “For resurfacing treatments, there might be some redness or swelling for 3-7 days. I recommend sun avoidance for all laser procedures in dark skin,” she says. Our pick for sunscreen is Skin Medica Total Defense + Repair SPF34.
Lasers can target fat too. Dr. Henry notes that “Body sculpting lasers like Coolsculpting and Sculpsure are relatively new and safe for all skin types,” she says. “They are effective at removing local deposits of fat.” Each has been cleared by the FDA to target the abdomen (both upper and lower) as well as the flanks. However, the former accomplishes its mission by making fat cells cold, while the latter heats them up. But there are some parameters on who it might work best for that factor in your BMI, for example among other things. In addition, these are rarely one and done procedures and the results may not be seen immediately. So while it targets fat, it by no means should be considered a weight loss option.
Here’s when you might want to skip the lasers. “Anyone with a history of photosensitizing disorders like lupus should take caution or avoid laser procedures,” says Dr. Henry. Another condition that might require you to defer treatment is a cold sore, according to Downie. “Occasionally, if somebody has a bad outbreak of cold sores or herpes around the lips we will put off doing a laser procedure. We will get them on an antiviral medication like Valtrex and have them come back in again later. It depends on the severity of the outbreak, and it is not always necessary to reschedule those patients.” She adds that any patient that already has cold sores that is doing laser around the lips/perioral area should have a prescription for Valtrex at home in case they break out on weekends or holidays and the doctor is not in the office.
Do your research and check credentials. So what is the best way to find a professional to perform your laser services? Ask around for recommendations and do check their credentials. Laser services could be considered a high ticket beauty investment but price vary by location. However, don’t use price as your number 1 requirement. Downie says many of her laser patients have sought treatment based on a friend’s recommendation. “The patient should look for a dermatologist or plastic surgeon that is board certified in their field.,” she says “They should have experience treating skin of color. They should definitely state to the patient that the laser is good for their skin type.” Henry agrees and adds, “Laser surgery on dark skin is high risk. Fixing the damage is far more expensive than doing it right the first time. This is not the place to use less qualified persons in an attempt to save a few dollars.” So come in with questions, ask to see photographs of patients they’ve treated, don’t be shy. In addition to checking with your friends, we recommend checking the Skin of Color Society, a professional organization, started by noted dermatologist Dr. Susan C. Taylor, that has members across the country well-versed in our needs as part of your research.