If you suffer from breakouts and acne regularly, it’s important to let your doctor know before having your skin treated with a laser of any kind. The reason? Some lasers can make existing acne worse and even spark breakouts days after the treatment. “Any laser that disrupts the skin barrier can cause breakouts to occur,” says Miami dermatologist Dr. Deborah Longwill. If breakouts are rare and only happen after a laser, they could be popping up because of the treatment itself, the ointments or a combination of the two.
“With laser-induced acne, the question is always is it the laser that is causing the acne or is it the occlusives that are used before and after the treatment that cause the acne?” notes Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias. Melbourne, FL, dermatologist Anita Saluja, MD, explains that the post-treatment oils are often petrolatum-based which can clog pores.
Dr. Elias says that while any laser can lead to acne or exacerbate existing breakouts, it’s most commonly seen with laser hair removal or resurfacing procedures. “Breakouts often arise from laser hair removal because the hair is dense and coarse. Afterward, a portion of the hair follicles contain dead hair fragments, which the body tries to expel,” says Scottsdale, AZ, facial plastic surgeon Kelly Bomer, MD. “When this happens, there is an inflammatory response, which can cause red bumps with pus, resembling a red pimple with a whitehead.” But it’s not just hair removal that can cause it—any heat-based laser can lead to a breakout because many of them stimulate sebum production.
If you experience “more severe laser-induced acne, it’s best to see your board-certified dermatologist for treatment that may mirror standard acne therapy,” suggests Dr. Elias. However, there are a couple of steps you can take to try to prevent this from happening altogether.
“I always recommend cleansing the skin gently prior to and post-treatment,” says Dr. Longwill. “One should be careful with what they apply to the skin pre and post-treatment due to the skin barrier being disrupted during treatment.” She suggests refraining from applying creams with fragrances and other ingredients that could be comedogenic.
If you get more intensive resurfacing procedures, like Fraxel or CoolPeel, Dr. Elias suggests asking your doctor which creams and ointments can be used to re-epithelialize your skin without being super occlusive. It’s important to keep your skin moisturized after a laser, but if you know your skin is breakout-prone, you may want to skip the heavy, occlusive salves and ointments. “Instead, you can use your favorite moisturizer with hydrocortisone (0.05-1.0 percent) and bacitracin conservatively for a day or two if the laser causes peeling that needs this type of moisture,” says Dr. Bomer.
Rather than waiting for your skin to erupt after the treatment, play it safe and ask your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic for a few days before and after the laser is to be performed, which can help reduce any existing inflammation and clear up whatever may be lurking in your pores. If that still doesn’t help, you may want to consider doing a different type of treatment on your skin, like a chemical peel, which shouldn’t instigate breakouts.
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