How Laser Skin Tightening Can Deliver Smooth, Lifted Skin

How Laser Skin Tightening Can Deliver Smooth, Lifted Skin featured image
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Loose or lax skin can happen for a variety of reasons, be it fat loss, sun exposure or just the effects of good old gravity over time. And it can be hard to lift what’s fallen, especially if you’re looking to avoid an expensive, invasive option like a facelift. That’s where laser skin tightening comes in. Not only can laser energy deliver real results, but these devices deliver much more control than previous treatments.

These devices “use energy sources that interact with the skin to create an outcome of more youthful texture, quality and appearance,” says Delray Beach, FL dermatologist Janet Allenby, MD. “The advantage of these devices is that you have more control of the outcome than, say, an acid peel that is trying to accomplish the same thing.”

That said, laser skin tightening might not be the right option for everyone. Here’s what you should know if you’re looking to restore tighter, tauter skin.

What is laser skin tightening?

Laser skin tightening is exactly what it sounds like. The treatment uses lasers to tighten and smooth skin. The lasers in question “typically emit infrared wavelengths of light that selectively heat the skin’s dermis—without destroying the overlying epidermis,” says Washington, D.C. dermatologist Tina Alster, MD. In doing so, the laser heats the collagen fibers in the skin; collagen, of course, acts as the scaffolding in the skin’s dermis, keeping skin firm and smooth. “When collagen is heated up, the collagen fibers contract, or tighten, and are stimulated to produce more collagen,” she says. This, in turn, tightens the skin.

Unlike neurotoxin injections, which work by inhibiting the muscles that form expression lines, skin tightening doesn’t really address wrinkles. Rather, it targets the folds and lines that arise from loose skin, not those created by repeated facial expressions. They’re ultimately doing two different things.

How long does laser skin tightening last?

Laser skin tightening can last at least a year, if not longer. One study published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found evidence of new collagen and elastin formation a year after receiving a laser skin-tightening treatment (specifically, CO2 laser). Essentially, “the time clock has been set back and becomes the new starting point,” says Dr. Alster. “As long as one takes care to avoid external forces such as sun exposure and extreme weight loss, skin tightening will hold for several years.”

How much does laser skin tightening cost?

The cost of laser skin tightening depends on your location, your provider, and what exactly you’re having done, but as of 2022, the average cost for nonsurgical skin-tightening procedures (like Thermage and Ulthera) is $1,832, according to the latest data from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

Which laser is best for skin tightening?

The different lasers to consider include CO2 fractionated lasers, Thermage RF and Ulthera. They all work by delivering heat in different manners. By harnessing light energy, “CO2 lasers remove the surface of the skin, along with stimulating collagen formation deeper in the tissue in a controlled way that allows skin to heal quickly,” says Dr. Allenby.

Then, there’s radiofrequency energy, as used with Thermage and Thermi RF, as well as ultrasound energy devices like Ulthera and Sofwave; ultrasound energy isn’t a laser, but still merits mentioning because it’s so effective for skin tightening. “These types of energies are directed to the deeper portion of the skin—which is really only several millimeters deep—to create collagen and elastin growth, and probably also triggering a reaction that tells the cells to repair itself,” says Dr. Allenby.

That said, “radiofrequency and ultrasound energy simply tighten the dermis and do little to nothing to the epidermis,” says Dr. Alster. (In other words, your skin will be tighter, but it won’t necessarily be smoother or brighter.) The upside is that they come with less downtime.

On the other hand, with fractionated lasers—so-called because they create controlled injuries in columns, or fractions, of the skin instead of causing indiscriminate damage—you can see other benefits. “There is also evidence of improvements in skin surface discoloration or wrinkles that need removal because the laser wavelengths and energies can be fine-tuned to address these issues,” says Dr. Alster, who considers this her favorite. Dr. Allenby also calls it “the gold standard” for skin tightening.

Who is laser skin tightening right for?

If you have early skin laxity or volume loss, you’re probably a good candidate for laser skin tightening, according to Dr. Alster. However, if you have severe jowling—meaning your skin is drooping past your jawline—then laser skin tightening won’t do all that much. At that point, “surgery is the only viable option,” she says.

Also worth keeping in mind is your skin tone. CO2 fractionated lasers work best on fair to medium skin tones as the light energy could potentially lead to hyperpigmentation among those with darker skin. For devices that use radiofrequency or ultrasound, however, “most ethnicities tolerate this with little downtime,” says Dr. Allenby.

What does laser skin tightening feel like?

Whatever the device you’re using, laser skin tightening will feel hot as the energy in question—be it light, radiofrequency or ultrasound—is being converted into heat as soon as it hits your skin, says Dr. Alster. The exact sensation can vary. “Depending on the area being treated and one’s individual pain tolerance, the sensation can be tolerable, like a mild sunburn, to intense, like hot oil,” she says. For that reason, you’ll be numbed ahead of your appointment, and your provider may decide to give you oral or other analgesics as well to make you more comfortable.

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