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What laser treatment is best for me?

Written by
Chloë James

There isn’t much of an overlap between sci-fi and beauty – except for an abundance of lasers. Since their aesthetic uses were first discovered in the 1960s, these ingenious devices have developed to a point where they can safely zap away everything from acne scars to unwanted hair. They might be far less dramatic than their cinematic counterparts, but the results can be just as exciting.

Most of this comes down to the fact it seems like they can do just about anything. Back in the 1960s, treatment was limited to carbon dioxide lasers that treated damaged skin cells and reduced wrinkles. But options have expanded dramatically in the past few decades – devices are stronger, more precise, and primed to tackle a long list of concerns. Nowadays, success rates are high, and results are long-lasting. The only question is, how do you know which treatment is best for you?

Let’s start with the obvious: deciding what you want to treat. No matter where it’s used, the basic principles of laser are the same. Its light targets and destroys a specific area – whether that’s pigmentation, hair follicles, or an entire layer of skin. However, different techniques and machines are used depending on what exactly you’re trying to achieve.

Find a clinic or practitioner near you and enjoy a risk-free booking process thanks to free in-clinic consultations and the option to pay in-clinic. Also, you can now split the cost of your treatment into four equal, interest-free instalments using Tabby.

Laser for skin

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The answer to which skin concerns laser can treat is, to be blunt, pretty much everything. Acne scars, hyperpigmentation, broken veins, sun damage, fine lines, wrinkles, and loose skin can all be improved – if not totally eliminated – in the hands of a practitioner wielding the right kind of laser.

Most skin treatments use lasers that fall under two categories: ablative and non-ablative. You might not usually think too deeply about the technology at hand before booking a cosmetic treatment, but the type of laser can make a huge difference.

Ablative lasers

What are they?

Ablative lasers are the more intensive of the two, removing the entire top layer of skin (the epidermis) and heating up the layer beneath (the dermis) to encourage collagen production. As the skin regrows, it looks smoother, tighter, and healthier.

Are they right for me?

Ablative lasers are powerful, so can treat practically all of the most common skin concerns, from wrinkles and acne scars to warts and skin tags. Resurfacing facials use them to remove that top layer of skin and accelerate the skin’s healing process.

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CO2 lasers were one of the first laser devices to hit the scene and are often considered to be one of the most powerful, making it the top choice for intensive work such as tightening skin, smoothing deep wrinkles and scars, and removing warts and skin tags.

But the stronger the laser, the longer the side-effects and downtime. Redness, swelling, itching, and acne breakouts are all possibilities, taking around three weeks to completely resolve. Unsurprisingly, CO2 laser isn’t usually recommended for anyone who scars easily, or those with darker skin tones, as there’s a potential risk of permanent hyperpigmentation.

For a gentler – but slightly less powerful – ablative experience, there are Erbium lasers. These tend to be more precise, so are good at treating smaller concerns, such as dark spots. And for faster healing, you can also opt for fractional ablative lasers such as Fraxel. This breaks up the laser to only target a small portion of skin at a time. It’s best used to treat sun damage – but again poses the risk of hyperpigmentation for darker skin tones.

Non-ablative lasers

What are they?

Non-ablative lasers are like ablative lasers; however, they only heat up the dermis, which boosts collagen production without damaging the surface of your skin. Results aren’t quite as dramatic, and treatments using these lasers normally require multiple sessions, but the upside is that they’re far more comfortable and come with less downtime.

Are they right for me?

Non-ablative lasers – such as Nd:YAG, alexandrite, diode, and pulsed-dyed lasers – are gentler than ablative lasers, and are typically used to improve the appearance of fine lines, brown spots and minor scars.

As their wavelengths are longer, non-ablative lasers go further into the skin and bypass its pigmentation. This minimises the risk of discolouration, making them ideal for those with darker skin tones which are more prone to scarring. People with sensitive skin – or conditions like eczema that compromise the skin barrier and leave it vulnerable to irritation – are better suited to non-ablative laser treatments for the same reason.

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If you’re dealing with vascular lesions like broken blood vessels and spider veins, the long wavelength also makes non-ablative lasers an effective solution. Nd:YAG lasers also been shown to help psoriasis, while pulsed-dyed lasers can help red, brown, and blue birthmarks, as well as scars and keloids, as they target melanin and blood vessels in the skin.

Laser for hair removal

If there’s one universal truth, it’s that hair removal is exhausting. Shaving, waxing, threading, and epilation all get the job done, but hair growth is relentless and, before you know it, it’s time do it all over again.

While it’s impossible to keep hair at bay forever, a full course of laser hair removal can reduce it by up to 90 per cent. Zapping the melanin – the pigment that gives hair its colour – in the hair follicles heats it up and destroys it, damaging the hair’s ability to regrow. It usually takes around six sessions to see the full impact, after which point, you’ll need to go back for the odd maintenance appointment.

Anyone can get laser hair removal, but those with fair skin and dark hair have more options. As there’s less melanin in their skin, it’s easier for lasers to find their target. Alexandrite and Nd:YAG lasers are great for this combination, with the latter specialising in coarser hair, while those with lighter, finer hair might want to try a Q-switched Nd:YAG laser for temporary hair removal..

Clever though they may be, lasers don’t have a mind of their own and can’t distinguish between the pigment of hair and the pigment of skin. This increases the risk of burns, scarring, or discolouration for those with darker skin tones but, thankfully, technology has come far enough to still make laser hair removal an option. Both diode and Nd:YAG lasers have long wavelengths, so they can reach the root of the hair without accidentally damaging the skin.

Laser for tattoo removal

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The whole point of permanent ink is, unsurprisingly, that it’s permanent. Thanks to lasers, reversing tattoos isn’t as impossible as you might think. Just like hair, the pigment of tattoos can be heated up and destroyed. Wavelengths dive down into the dermis to break up these ink particles until they are eventually filtered from the body completely.

But this doesn’t happen overnight. In most cases, it takes six to eight sessions with your practitioner to remove (or mostly fade) a tattoo. Generally speaking, the bigger, more detailed and colourful it is, the longer the process takes. White ink is particularly tough to shift, as it darkens with exposure to light, while yellow proves near impossible to remove.

The three main types of laser used for tattoo removal are ruby, Nd:YAG, and alexandrite, but what matters more than anything is the wavelength. A wavelength of 1064nm works best for black ink and darker skin tones, while red and warm-toned inks should be treated with 532nm, and 694nm or 755nm for blue and green inks.

What else do I need to know?

Laser is a powerful thing, and sometimes it does more than you expect. Ultimately, as any kind of laser treatment creates a micro-injury to your skin, it encourages increased collagen production and cell turnover. Laser hair removal in particular can improve skin texture, as it reduces the risk of ingrown hairs by encouraging hair to grow straight. As you no longer need to shave or wax (or at least not as often) by the time you’ve completed your treatment, those with sensitive skin might also find that the skin in these areas is clearer and less inflamed. So, whether you’re looking to smooth out your skin or not, this is often a happy by-product – and one of the many benefits to laser treatment.

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