Laser Skin Whitening: Discussing Ablative vs. Non-Ablative Lasers

Laser Skin Whitening

What is laser skin whitening?

While the thought of using lasers on one’s skin might sound scary, laser whitening is an increasingly popular process and is relatively safe compared with other cosmetic procedures. Laser skin whitening (also called a “laser peel”) is a cosmetic treatment which uses short bursts of laser light to lighten skin and remove dark blemishes.

During the procedure dermatologists use a hand-held laser emitter to remove the surface layer of the skin. Moving the emitter back and forth across the skin causes the laser light to destroy the melanin-producing cells within it. By reducing the number of these “melanocytes,” the skin’s natural pigment production process can be stopped or slowed, causing the skin to gradually become lighter.

Aside from whitening the skin, laser treatments can work wonders by reducing fine lines and wrinkles. Laser resurfacing is also useful for improving the appearance of sun damage, acne scars, age spots and other common skin concerns.

Laser skin whitening is a non-invasive procedure with a limited amount of risk. There are some side effects to be aware of (see below), but the recovery time tends to be fast and the results are often immediate.

What’s the difference between ablative and non-ablative lasers?

Laser procedures for skin whitening fall into two main categories, ablative and non-ablative.

Ablative laser treatments actually strip away the outer layer of skin. Aside from being excellent for skin whitening, the resurfacing properties of ablative lasers make them powerful tools for reducing the visible effects of aging.

By contrast, a non-ablative laser is one which preserves the outer layer of skin and heats only the subsurface layers of skin. Non-ablative laser treatments typically have a faster recovery time than ablative treatments because the outer layer of skin is left undamaged after the procedure.

The goal of non-ablative treatments is to ‘trick’ the skin to regrow younger, collagen-producing skin cells. Some non-ablative lasers also destroy the melanin-producing cells beneath the surface of the skin so that they no cause irregular pigmentation.

Both types of laser have their own strengths, and each is used for specific purposes.

Because the ablative process involves removing the outer layer of skin the recovery times can be longer. Ablative treatments tend to be more powerful and are often the most effective type of laser skin lightening treatment, but they also carry an increased risk of scarring. (See below for additional risks associated with laser skin whitening).

While non-ablative lasers may have a shorter recovery time and carry a much lower risk of scarring, they generally require multiple treatments in order to achieve the same effects.

» Want to know which type of laser is best for lightening your skin or removing a blemish? Meet our medical review team.

What is a fractional laser skin whitening?

Many plastic surgeons and dermatologists recommend what is called a “fractional laser treatment.” A fractional treatment like the Fraxel laser is a combination of ablative and non-ablative lasers designed to maximize the effectiveness of the procedure and keep recovery times to a minimum.

Each dermatologist will make their own recommendation regarding which type (or types) of laser to use for the treatment. They will base their decision on a patient’s natural skin pigmentation, the location of the discoloration, the depth of the discoloration and the size of the area that needs to be covered.

Some lasers are not recommended for patients with naturally dark skin.

What kind of lasers are used for laser skin whitening?

Depending on the specifics of your case, your dermatologist will choose different types of lasers to lighten skin or remove blemishes. Some of the most common types of lasers include carbon dioxide lasers, erbium lasers, pulsed dye lasers (PDL), intense pulsed light devices (IPL) and Nd:Yag lasers.

Carbon dioxide lasers and erbium lasers are “ablative” and will remove the outer layer of skin during the procedure. These lasers are best suited for treating small spots and sun damaged skin. Because these lasers don’t focus specifically on pigmented areas, they are good solutions for patients with darker skin tones. But keep in mind that ablative lasers can have a longer recovery time.

Like the name sounds, pulsed dye lasers deliver laser light energy in a series of rapid pulses. These pulses are excellent at getting rid of birthmarks, but “PDL lasers” carry the potential risk of creating short term hyperpigmentation spots after the procedure.

Intense pulsed light or IPL devices focus specifically on pigmented cells. While these lasers have the advantage of selectively destroying only darker skin cells, they may not work well on patients with naturally darker skin tones.

How is the procedure performed?

Prior to a laser skin whitening procedure, your dermatologist may conduct a test on a small patch of skin. This test gauges your skin’s reaction to the laser. If there are no unexpected reactions or side effects from the test, your dermatologist will schedule a date to perform the actual procedure.

Just before the procedure begins, an anesthetic cream will be applied to your skin in order to dull any pain or excessive tingling. You’ll also be given a set of protective goggles to protect your eyes from the laser light and may be asked to remove any metallic earrings or other jewelry which could reflect light.

During the procedure, your dermatologist will move a handheld laser device along the surface of your skin. You will likely feel a tingling sensation, and may also feel bursts of cold air coming from the device.

Typically a laser skin whitening procedure takes approximately one hour, but could take 30 minutes or less depending on the size and location of the area being treated. A “full face” treatment may take up to two hours.

How long does it take to recover from laser skin whitening?

After a laser skin whitening procedure, it’s common to experience mild bruising and swelling. Your doctor will apply bandages to the treated area. After 24 hours have passed you will need to clean the area four to five times per day. You can ease the pain and reduce swelling by taking over-the-counter pain medications and applying a cooling aloe vera gel.

You may also experience blistering and crusting after a few days. These effects typically disappear within two weeks of the procedure. The severity of these side effects depends on the specifics of a given procedure and which types of lasers are used.

Laser skin whitening typically has a swift recovery time of one to two weeks. While you don’t need to plan time off work, you may feel more comfortable taking a couple days off depending on the amount of swelling or bruising you experience.

Remember that your skin may not look lighter right away, but you should start to see a gradual lightening over the course of the next few weeks.

Depending on the type of lasers that were used, you may experience sensitivity to sunlight for up to six months following the whitening procedure. Going in the sun, or getting a sunburn can slow the recovery period and may undo the effects of the procedure. Remember to regularly apply sunblock of at least SPF 30 following the procedure to protect your skin.

If your skin begins to scab or peel, remember not to pick at it.

Does laser skin whitening work?

As with all cosmetic procedures, one of the major criticisms of skin whitening therapy is that the results can be varied.

For some patients, the results are excellent and long-lasting. For other patients the results may be hard to notice, or fade quickly in the weeks following the procedure.

If you’re considering laser whitening be sure to talk with your dermatologist in order to establish a realistic set of expectations regarding the results of the procedure. Be sure to ask how long the procedure will last, and what the associated risks are in your specific case.

How much does laser skin whitening cost?

The costs of laser skin whitening depend on the size of the area being treated, the type and intensity of the treatment, the type of lasers used, the number of treatments required and the geographical area of the treatment center or clinic.

In the United States, a “full face” skin whitening treatment will typically cost anywhere between $500 and $5,000. A personal consultation with a dermatologist or board-certified plastic surgeon is necessary for any estimate specific to your case.

» The cost of laser skin whitening depends on your personal goals, and on where you’re seeking treatment. Meet our medical review team.

What are the risks or potential side effects?

Aside from mild swelling and bruising, there are a few more serious risks to be aware of.

These risks include scarring and skin infection. The risk of scarring is usually only associated with ablative lasers and fractional lasers which remove the outer layer of skin. When working with a board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon these risks are minimal.

Another potential risk is temporary hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation — where the skin being treated becomes either too light or too dark for a period of time following the procedure. Your doctor should discuss these risks with you, and let you know what your options are in case they occur.

Relative to other cosmetic procedures, laser skin whitening is extremely safe and relatively low risk. If you’re hesitant about going under a laser, you may want to consider alternative clinical approaches to skin whitening that use chemical peels and creams.

» Still have questions or concerns about laser skin whitening? Meet our medical review team.

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