The (Costly) Magic of Laser Surgery
By Jeanie Lerche Davis
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario
Like a magic wand, a laser can smooth out fine lines and acne scars, vaporize birthmarks and moles, and erase those less-than-glamorous sun spots and facial hairs. Spider veins, warts, tattoos -- they all disappear under the high-intensity light of the laser.
If your body has become a fixer-upper, chances are you've investigated lasers -- trendy and well hyped as they are. When it comes to your bod, you want the state of the art.
"Lasers are extraordinarily useful. ... The technology has advanced so that they can target and remove specific colors and structures -- a blood vessel, a pigmented cell, or a layer of [skin] -- and leave everything around it, above it, and below it, totally unaffected," says Kenneth A. Arndt, MD, professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School.
"There are so many kinds of lasers today. ... They really are like a magic wand to erase the tell-tale signs of time," says Leslie Baumann, MD, director of cosmetic surgery at the University of Miami. "For blood vessels, on the face and elsewhere, the newer lasers don't cause bruising. For pigment problems, there's nothing better."
However, dermatologists caution consumers to keep an open mind when shopping around for a procedure. Lasers are costly -- and may not be the only solution to the problem. "When someone comes to me for a laser consultation, I tell them they don't necessarily need the high technology with the high out-of-pocket expense. In some cases, there's a simpler technique that I can do that very minute, one that's much less expensive," Arndt tells WebMD.
What can you expect from laser treatments, in terms of effectiveness, cost, and recovery time? Here's what the experts say:
Virtually any laser treatment -- except hair removal -- has some "downtime" when you may want to hide from the world, according to Tina S. Alster, MD, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist who literally wrote the book on the subject: The Essential Guide to Cosmetic Laser Surgery.
"Most of the other treatments require at least a couple of days where there may be some bruises, a little bit of redness, and in the worst situations for laser resurfacing [for facial lines and wrinkles] there's a lot of oozing and crusting," she tells WebMD. "The bottom line is, you'll need to be able to take time off work."
"People with lighter skin are easier to treat with lasers, but that does not mean that people with darker skin cannot also be treated," Alster says. "It's just more difficult. They need a dermatologist with a lot of experience treating different colors of skin, different lesions."
Also, you've got to agree to forgo sun tanning afterward, she says. "For the first couple of months, you should not have any sun exposure on the treated area. A lot of times it may tan abnormally or slow the healing process. It's not permanent, but it can cause some blotching and can take several weeks or months to go away."
Here are some tips for sprucing up problem areas:
For the beauty of your skin, there's yet one more advanced form of skin therapy, "intense pulse light therapy," says Seth Yellin, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine and chief of facial plastic surgery for Emory Health Care.
The therapy works by sending light energy through the outer skin, concentrating on the dermal layer just below. "Unlike any current therapy, be it chemical peeling, dermabrasion, or resurfacing with lasers -- all those attack the skin from the outside. This attacks the problem from the inside; it stimulates growth of collagen. So there is no visible damage, no healing that has to occur." He recommends six treatments, at a cost of about $2,000. A traditional full-face laser treatment, he says, would come close to $4,500.
Intense pulse-light therapy is not a laser treatment, Yellin tells WebMD. "Someone on the young side of the curve, from about age 40 to 45, who has fine to moderate level wrinkling, some pigment changes ... we can treat with this machine. It can treat superficial scarring and large pores. It can make pores smaller. ... Let me tell you, there's no other treatment for large pores."
When it comes to cosmetic surgery, the first rule of thumb is to head off problems early, when less intensive treatments are effective, Alster tells WebMD. "Most people won't realize you've been having treatments and you can maintain your youthful look longer. I'm seeing many more people in their early 30s."
Originally published Feb. 4, 2002.
Medically updated April 24, 2003.
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Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005 10:52:24 PM