The Laser Lowdown: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Getting a Laser Treatment

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One of Hollywood’s best-kept skin secrets is lasers—everyone gets them, but no one really talks that much about them. In order to get gorgeous skin that glows, consider treating your skin with a laser. You may think they are heavy-duty treatments that will leave you hiding out in your house for days, but there’s a whole breed of lighter lasers now available, too, that can dramatically transform your skin without much pain or downtime. But there’s also a lot to know about lasers because not every treatment is exactly the same. 

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You might have to prep your skin beforehand.

Depending on the problem, some doctors recommend using pre-treatment products to make your results that much better. For example, if you are looking to treat discoloration or melasma, you may be given a prescription for hydroquinone and/or a series of peels to prevent hyperpigmentation from occurring post-laser. Your dermatologist or plastic surgeon may also recommend using a retinoid for four weeks (or more) prior to treatment, which will make the removal of damaged and pigmented skin cells easier. You’ll need to avoid the sun at all costs for a month or so before (and after), too.

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Your skin will probably be numbed.

For less-invasive lasers, your skin will be prepped with numbing cream to hinder any pain, but you may still feel warmth or some sensation. “Nerve blocks, which are injected, and possibly sedation (used for surgery) are used for aggressive lasers or sensitive areas,” says Richmond, VA, plastic surgeon Ruth Hillelson, MD. What you’ll feel depends on the laser used, the setting and how aggressive it is. “Minimal downtime lasers feel warm with a small pinch—any discomfort ends after the treatment. Lasers with longer downtime have residual discomfort for about a day,” adds Dr. Hillelson.

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You may have to change up your skin care products.

With deep lasers, your skin may be crusty, red and swollen, so swap your normal products for gentler ones. Avoid acids, retinoids and anything that can irritate or exfoliate your skin. Keep your skin moist with the recommended ointments, wash with gentle cleansers and avoid the sun. Ablative lasers (they make tiny holes in the skin to create new collagen), can cause pinpoint bleeding, crusting or bruising because the outer layers of skin crust over as they regenerate. San Francisco plastic surgeon Michael R. Macdonald, MD, says it best: “Skin needs tender loving care while it heals.”

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Your skin may turn a little brown.

With lighter lasers that target sun damage, it’s not uncommon for skin to darken a bit—small patches of brown color that flake off—before reaching the end result. Lasers are offered at places other than doctors’ offices, and if the person performing your procedure is not well-versed in how the device works and the role skin color plays, you may end up with discoloration. “Some, like those with darker skin, may see post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation with certain lasers,” says New York dermatologist Sejal K. Shah, MD. “If it doesn’t fade, options like hydroquinone can help.”

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You may experience breakouts.

If your skin is oily or acneic, don’t freak out if you break out. Some lasers draw sun damage and acne to the surface. There can be an overproduction of skin cells, which can clog the pores and lead to pimples. Breakouts can also occur because of post-treatment products, which are usually heavy occlusive creams and ointments. “I tell patients their skin may look worse before the healing phase because of this, especially with more aggressive treatments,” says Dr. Macdonald. If you break out, your doctor can prescribe a course of antibiotics to help keep pimples at bay.

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You won’t be able to wear makeup for some time.

If you opt for a lighter laser, you may only have to skip out on makeup for a day or two. With heavier lasers, you’ll need to let your skin breathe and make sure that it is properly hydrated. Covering up any redness on your face with makeup can prolong healing and actually clog your pores. Once you get the go ahead from your doctor to wear makeup again, which is usually one week later, wear breathable foundation, powder and concealer that is formulated specifically for post-treatment skin, like those that are mineral-based.

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You may need something else besides a laser to reach your end goal.

There are plenty of times when a laser can drastically improve the texture and tone of the skin, but there are also cases when it can only do so much and needs to be coupled with another type of treatment like surgery or injectables and fillers for a better result. Lasers are great for stimulating new collagen, which makes skin look plump and cushiony, and to get rid of sun damage, textural issues, discoloration, and fine lines and wrinkles. But, they won’t do anything for volume loss in the face. “Sometimes, lasers (especially lighter ones) can be coupled with fillers and injectables or facialsurgical procedures like blepharoplasty, facelifts and neck lifts. It’s ideal to do everything at once because you can recover from all the procedures at the same time,” says Dr. Macdonald.

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