What's the Skinny on Plasma Resurfacing?

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Physicians are looking for new resurfacing alternatives that are as effective as ablative lasers but with fewer shortcomings

Over the past few decades, common multiple ablative and nonablative modalities for skin resurfacing and rejuvenation have included lasers, chemical peels, light-based energy, radiofrequency, and dermabrasion. Each has its own unique properties, as well as advantages and disadvantages.

One of the newest technological advances in this arena is the development of plasma energy to alter skin surface and architecture. As a technology, plasma energy may bridge the gap between ablative and nonablative energies.

Currently, the most commonly used system for plasma resurfacing is the Portrait® Plasma Skin Regeneration system by Rhytec Inc, Waltham, Mass. Portrait has obtained FDA clearance for the treatment of wrinkles and rhytids of the body, superficial skin lesions (sun damage and dyschromia), actinic keratosis, viral papillomata, and seborrhoeic keratosis.

The system has three energy settings: PSR1 (low) and PSR2/3 (high). Typically, the PSR1 setting is used with topical anesthesia, while the PSR2 and PSR3 settings usually require local anesthetic injections and preoperative sedation.


Plasma is one of the four states of matter, along with solid, liquid, and gas. Specifically, plasma is a gas in which atoms have been ionized, or stripped of their electrons. This is dramatically different from radiofrequency, intense pulse light, or laser treatments.

Plasma is generated inside the device’s handpiece, where ultrahigh-frequency waves impart energy to a flow of inert nitrogen gas. The resulting highly excited nitrogen molecules store the energy used during the procedure. The plasma flows via the handpiece in a controlled, uniform manner over the patient’s skin. This flow releases millisecond pulses of controlled thermal energy that conducts down to the level of the dermis, while leaving the upper skin layers intact.

Therefore, a plasma resurfacing treatment does not immediately ablate the skin. Four to 7 days later, the skin begins to sequamate.

A zone of thermal damage and a deeper zone of thermal modification are created with a line of cleavage separating the two zones. The stratum corneum and epidermis remain intact and serve as a natural biological dressing.

Within days, skin regeneration begins—the damaged skin peels off as the stratum corneum and epidermis appears. A regenerating epidermis replaces the treated epidermis. The deeper sun-damaged architecture is replaced by a new architecture. Intense fibroblastic activity is present, with epidermal thickening and ongoing regeneration.

Healthy new collagen and elastin fibers emerge to form a new reticular architecture of the dermis. This manifests in a continuous improvement in the appearance of the skin for months after the treatment.

Long-term histologic studies have shown a consistency of tissue effects across energy settings. All patients had a fully regenerated epidermis by day 7, with visible amounts of fresh collagen noted by 3 months followed by continuous improvement for up to 6 months.

Plasma energy technology can be used at multiple settings, resulting in variable depths of treatment. At lower settings, thermal energy mimics superficial epidermal effects similar to microdermabrasion; at higher energy settings, deeper thermal effects mimic CO2 resurfacing.

Histological studies indicate that at 1 to 2 joules, thermal energy is limited to the epidermis and dermoepidermal junction. At 3 to 4 joules, the energy reached the papillary dermis—approximately 8 to 12 µm.

Recent studies suggest that using multiple low-energy treatments instead of a single high-energy treatment also allows significant correction of photodamaged facial skin. Results are comparable to high-energy treatment, but with less downtime.


Many patients in the average plastic surgery practice are candidates for plasma treatments. Prime candidates have fine, moderate, and deep wrinkles and are considering laser or facelift surgery.

Studies using punch biopsies after treatment of perioral rhytids showed fresh collagen formation and goo