Laser resurfacing uses powerful lasers to remove several layers of the epidermis, encouraging your skin to produce new, firmer and smoother skin and enhancing the production of firming collagen in your skin. The powerful lasers essentially burn away damaged skin — but that will leave your skin looking red and feeling raw for days or weeks after the treatment.
Here’s what you should expect during your laser resurfacing recovery.
Recovery From the Classic CO2 Laser Treatment
This powerful laser is the gold standard for laser resurfacing. “A CO2 laser is the most aggressive and gives you the best results, but it results in the most morbidity,” says Lori Cherup, MD, a plastic surgeon at Radiance Plastic Surgery in Bridgeville, Pa. “If you can invest five to 10 days in healing, the CO2 laser will give you the maximum result you’ll get from a laser.”
Immediately after you’ve had the laser resurfacing procedure, you can expect that your skin will be red, itchy and swollen — and your doctor may prescribe steroids or other anti-inflammatory medications to help you deal with the swelling. An ice pack can also help with inflammation.
Your face will be bandaged — depending on your doctor’s protocol, you may need to remove the dressing after a day and keep skin clean and covered in ointment for several days after that to help prevent scabs from forming. Other doctors recommend keeping the same dressing on for several days to encourage skin healing. Dr. Cherup uses Flexzan dressing, a thin, polyurethane foam bandage that keeps the area moist and helps promote healing. “The flexzan dressing helps heal the skin — it’s removed after five to six days.”
You should plan to stay at home and recover for at least the first week after the procedure, if not longer. For a few weeks after the laser resurfacing, your skin will look red, feel raw and may peel several days after the laser treatment is complete, so most people want to wait until their skin has started to heal before they face the outside world.
The skin may remain red or discolored for weeks or even months after the laser resurfacing treatment is complete. Once you get the doctor’s okay, you can apply oil-free makeup to your skin to mask any residual redness as it continues to heal. You should choose a foundation with a bit of a green cast to help offset and minimize the redness.
Your new skin in the areas that were treated with the laser may be lighter or darker in color initially, and also more sensitive to the sun. You’ll need to apply a high-SPF sunscreen (at least 50 SPF) to help protect your skin from damage.
Recovery From Fractional CO2 Laser Resurfacing
Fractional CO2 lasers help can help tighten and smooth skin without the extended recovery time, but the results are less pronounced than the fuller CO2 treatment. “The fractional lasers take out vertical columns of skin millimeters apart,” says Cherup. “That leaves islands of normal skin that repopulate, and the skin heals when the injured areas heal together, tightening the skin. It isn’t a surgical procedure, and there’s really no down time.”
You may expect some redness and swelling for a couple of days after you’ve undergone fractional laser resurfacing, but you won’t have the significant recovery time that comes with a more extensive CO2 laser treatment.
Recovery From Erbium Laser Treatment
Erbium laser resurfacing doesn’t penetrate as deeply into the skin as the CO2 laser, so it’s used for blemishes or wrinkles closer to the surface. And because it isn’t as powerful and can more closely target the tissues that need to be treated, erbium lasers don’t burn the neighboring skin, so they require less downtime for recovery. Any redness and swelling you develop may subside within a week of treatment.
To help your skin heal after erbium laser resurfacing, you’ll follow a similar protocol as the CO2 laser resurfacing, including using ice or medications to reduce swelling, ointments to prevent scabbing and high-SPF sunscreen to protect your skin from damage as it heals.
Keep in mind that it may take longer to get back to “normal” than you might expect. “You may end up staying red longer than you want, or have increased or decreased pigmentation,” says Josh Korman, MD, FACS, a plastic surgeon in Mountain View, Calif. That will help ensure that you receive the maximum benefit from your investment in creating a smoother, clearer complexion.