Laser therapy

Laser therapy is becoming increasingly useful for a wide range of skin and cosmetic conditions. The word laser stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

Laser therapy works by putting out a very high intensity beam of light with a particular wavelength. The light passes through the outer layers of your skin and is absorbed by a specific target, which varies depending on the condition being treated.

A number of conditions can be treated effectively with laser therapy.

Vascular lesions

Well-defined lesions (abnormalities of the tissue, in this case the skin) that contain blood are usually amenable to laser therapy. These include unwanted blood vessels (‘broken capillaries’) on the face, and birth marks such as port wine stains. Depending on the size of the lesion, the number of laser treatments that are needed can range from 2 to 10 or more.

Laser therapy is also sometimes used for small varicose veins and spider veins.

Pigmented lesions

Pigmented lesions that can be treated include: freckles; solar lentigos (liver, or age, spots); flat, pigmented seborrhoeic keratoses (age warts); and café au lait spots (light-tan spots). Laser treatments for pigmented lesions are generally spaced 6 or more weeks apart, to allow your body to get rid of the dispersed pigment.

Tattoos

The principle of laser tattoo removal is basically the same as that of the removal of pigmented lesions, but the wavelength of the light beam needs to vary depending on the different ink pigments used in the tattoo. In general, homemade Indian ink tattoos and black tattoos respond most readily to laser removal. White tattoos do not usually respond to treatment. Red is relatively easy to remove, while yellow, orange and green are more difficult.

Skin that has been stained from nasal piercing or from iron injections also usually responds well to laser treatment.

Hair removal

Laser-assisted hair removal is both efficient and long term. It works best on thicker, darker hairs, as these hair follicles absorb more light than do smaller, paler hair follicles. Most people find that the amount of hair is reduced by 70 per cent or more after the course of treatment. Laser hair removal also avoids the possibility of ingrown hairs. Sweating changes are sometimes noticed in the treated area.

Signs of ageing

Laser resurfacing is used to help reverse the signs of ageing caused by sun damage. Signs of ageing include fine wrinkles and crinkly skin. Resurfacing is also useful in reducing the appearance of acne scars. Following treatment, your skin often takes several weeks to recover.

Laser resurfacing is a safer and more refined procedure than it used to be, but it is still not recommended for people with olive or pigmented skin because of the possibility of uneven skin tone or loss of colour from the skin after treatment.

Photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy works by applying a photosensitiser to the affected area; the cells in the target lesions absorb the photosensitiser, which is then activated by light, destroying the affected cells. This therapy is generally used to treat actinic keratoses (sun spots) and superficial skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinomas and Bowen’s disease.

Does laser therapy have any side effects?

Immediately after laser therapy there will be redness and swelling of the treated area and your doctor or specialist may advise a few days of taking it easy after the procedure to let this settle.

In people with dark skin, laser therapy can cause loss or unevenness of skin colour lasting several months. Laser resurfacing can also irritate the skin, causing dermatitis or a flare up of acne. In people who’ve previously had cold sores, reactivation of the herpes virus by the laser can bring on a cold sore.

On rare occasions, laser therapy can cause superficial burns, infection or scarring.

Laser resurfacing can make your skin more sensitive to the sun than usual for up to a year after treatment, so try to expose treated skin to the sun as little as possible and use sunscreen as advised by your doctor or specialist.

It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor or specialist about the pros and cons of laser therapy for your particular skin condition.

Last Reviewed: 20 February 2013
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References

1. Mayo Clinic. Varicose veins. Last updated Jan 31 2013. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/varicose-veins/DS00256 (accessed Feb 2013).
2. DermNet NZ. Lasers in dermatology. Last updated 20 May 2012. http://www.dermnetnz.org/procedures/lasers.html (accessed Feb 2013).
3. Mayo Clinic. Laser resurfacing. Last updated 21 May 2011. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/laser-resurfacing/MY00560 (accessed Feb 2013).

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