Content provided by Cleveland Clinic.

Laser resurfacing directs short, concentrated pulsating beams of light at irregular skin. The procedure removes skin very precisely, layer by layer, resulting in fewer problems with hypopigmentation (lightening of skin). This popular procedure is known by several other names, including lasabrasion, laser peel or laser vaporization.

Who is a good candidate for laser resurfacing?

You may be an ideal candidate for laser skin resurfacing if you have fine lines or wrinkles around the eyes, forehead or mouth, scars from acne or non-responsive skin after a facelift. If you have active acne or very dark skin, you are not a candidate for this procedure. This technique is also not recommended for stretch marks.

How does laser skin resurfacing work?

The two types of lasers most commonly used in laser resurfacing are carbon dioxide (CO2) and erbium. Each laser vaporizes superficial, damaged skin cells. Both types of lasers reduce the risk for the patient because they limit the amount of heat absorbed by the skin.

What is CO2 laser resurfacing?

This method has been used for years to treat different benign and malignant skin conditions. A new generation of CO2 laser resurfacing uses very short pulsed light energy (ultrapulsed) or continuous light beams that are delivered in a scanning pattern to very precisely remove thin layers of skin with minimal heat damage to the surrounding structures. CO2 laser resurfacing has been successfully used to treat wrinkles and scars as well as other benign skin growths such as warts, linear epidermal nevi (birthmarks), rhinophyma (enlarged oil glands on the nose) and other skin conditions.

The field of CO2 laser resurfacing is rapidly changing and improving. The ability to rejuvenate sun-damaged, wrinkled skin has been revolutionized by this new technology. CO2 laser resurfacing is yet another tool in the treatment package that includes such options as Retin-A, vitamin C lotion, alpha hydroxy acids, chemical peels, dermabrasion, collagen or fat augmentation and botulinum toxin. Patients should seek out surgeons with documented training and experience in laser skin resurfacing. Allow up to two weeks for recovery following CO2 laser resurfacing.

What is erbium laser resurfacing?

Erbium laser resurfacing is designed to remove superficial and moderately deep lines and wrinkles on the face and should require only local anesthetic. This laser can also be used on your hands, neck or chest. One of the benefits of erbium laser resurfacing is minimal burning of surrounding tissue. This laser causes minimal side effects, such as swelling, bruising and redness, so your recovery time should be reduced. Allow one full week for recovery following erbium laser resurfacing.

If you have a darker skin tone, erbium laser resurfacing may work better for you. Your doctor will determine which laser is best for you after he fully evaluates your medical history, current physical condition and desired results.

What can be expected during and after laser skin resurfacing?

In general, both erbium and CO2 laser resurfacing are performed on an outpatient basis, using local anesthesia in combination with orally- or intravenously-administered sedative medications. Wrinkles around the eyes, mouth or forehead may be treated individually, or a full-face lasabrasion may be performed. The areas to be treated are numbed with a local anesthetic. General anesthesia may be used when the entire face is treated. A partial-face laserabrasion takes about 30 to 45 minutes, and the full-face treatment takes 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

Following laser resurfacing, a dressing is applied to the treatment site for 24 hours. The patient then cleans the treated areas two to five times a day with saline or a diluted vinegar solution. An ointment such as Vaseline, Eucerin or Aquaphor is then applied. This wound care is intended to prevent any scab formation. In general, the areas heal in 10 to 21 days, depending on the nature of the condition that was treated.

Once the areas have healed, makeup may be worn to camouflage the pink to red color that is generally seen after laser skin resurfacing. Green-based makeups are particularly suitable for this camouflage since they neutralize the red color. Oil-free makeups are recommended after laser resurfacing. The redness in the laser-treated sites generally fades in two to three months but may take as long as six months to disappear. The redness generally persists longer in blondes and redheads.

Patients with darker skin tones have a greater risk of healing with darker pigmentation (hyperpigmentation). This may be minimized by use of a bleaching agent before laser skin resurfacing as well as continued use of this agent after healing.

What are the possible laser resurfacing complications?

  • Milia, which are small white bumps, may appear in the laser-treated areas during healing. These may be removed by gentle cleansing with a washcloth.
  • Hyperpigmentation, and more rarely hypopigmentation, may result in the laser-treated areas. In general, the hyperpigmented areas may be treated with bleaching cream to speed fading of the pigment.
  • Reactivation of a herpes simplex cold sore may occur, especially after laser skin resurfacing around the mouth. You can prevent this by asking your doctor for an antiviral medication, which you can begin taking before your surgery and continue taking seven to 10 days after laser resurfacing.
  • You can also prevent bacterial infections by taking an antibiotic prior to the surgery and continuing to take it for seven to 10 days afterwards.
  • You should expect swelling after laser skin resurfacing. Ask your doctor about steroid injections, which can lessen this effect.
  • Patients are encouraged to sleep on an extra pillow at night to help reduce the swelling after laser resurfacing. Ice pack application is also helpful in the first 24 to 48 hours.
  • Scarring after laser skin resurfacing, although very rare, may occur in laser-treated areas.
  • Cessation of smoking is highly recommended because smoking is known to have harmful effects on the healing process.

How should I take care of my skin after laser resurfacing?

It's important to remember that skin