Cosmetic Laser Surgery, Is It For You?
A High-Tech Weapon in the Fight Against Aging Skin
In recent years, lasers have shed their science fictional image to become a surgeon's and dermatologist's most promising weapon in the fight against aging skin. According to the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery in Chicago, nearly 170,000 Americans, men and women, underwent laser resurfacing of the face in 1998, up from 138,891 in 1996--a 64 percent increase. That's nearly twice the number of the more traditional surgical facelifts performed in the same year.
Laser resurfacing is a very controlled burning procedure during which a laser vaporizes superficial layers of facial skin, removing not only wrinkles and lines caused by sun damage and facial expressions, but also acne scars, some folds and creases around the nose and mouth, and even precancerous and benign superficial growths. In a sense, the laser procedure creates a fresh surface over which new skin can grow.
While the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate how surgeons carry out these procedures, it is responsible for clearing lasers for marketing for the uses requested by the device's manufacturer.
Lasers in Cosmetic Surgery
But using lasers for facial skin resurfacing was discovered almost by accident, Felten says. In the course of treating acne scars with a laser, surgeons noticed that after resurfacing the skin around the scar to make the scar less visible, small adjacent wrinkles were greatly diminished.
Collagen is the principal protein of the skin, tendons, cartilage, bone and connective tissue. It is a key fibrous protein in the skin's connective tissue, and it helps give the skin its texture. Natural aging and such factors as sun damage and smoking help break down the collagen layer so that the skin's once smooth surface develops wrinkles. New, more youthful collagen actually forms after laser treatment.
Lasers cannot rejuvenate skin on other parts of the body nor can laser treatment lift or remove sagging jowls or smooth out "crepey" or sagging neck skin. These conditions only respond to traditional cut-and-stitch surgical methods.
Is Resurfacing for You?
Dr. Tina Alster, director of the Washington Institue of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, however, warns anyone not mentally prepared for resurfacing or who expects instant results is not a good candidate "This is not easy in-easy out surgery," she says. "Potential patients have to realize that there will be bruising and swelling and they will be holed up in the house for seven to 10 days," she says. "They will have a crusty, oozy, bruised, scabbed, raw-appearing face." Further, they should not expect unflawed skin. "I can't deliver that," she says. "I am not able to give unlined, unscarred skin." Patients, however, can expect a 50 percent or greater improvement.
They must also plan on at least 10 days of healing before applying any makeup. For satisfactory healing, that means following rigorous after-care treatment, including proper skin cleansing, the application of a skin lubricant, and the frequent changing of dressings.
What Are the Risks?
Other risks are more serious, and possibly permanent, including hypopigmentation, or lightening of the skin. "Somewhere between one to two years after treatment it becomes clear that there is a permanent lightening of the skin color where the resurfacing was done," he says.