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Important Facts & Myths about Lasers


This week a patient of mine told me that her nail girl told her to never have her underarms lasered because it causes breast cancer. Although I have often been asked if any radiation comes from our lasers (there is zero radiation from cosmetic lasers of any kind), I was curious as to where she got this false information. She said that the girl who does her nails knew a girl who had her underarms lasered and that person also had breast cancer.

The truth is that all cosmetic lasers, whether for hair removal, photo rejuvenation (e.g. IPL or BBL), skin resurfacing or anything else, has a wavelength in a safe zone, where there is no radiation emitted whatsoever. Each laser’s wavelength is attracted to a specific something, usually a colour. If it doesn’t see that colour, then it isn’t even absorbed into the skin. Yes, the skin, only the skin. In other words, the lasers can’t see the thyroid, the lymph nodes or any other part of the body that is more than skin deep. Dear nail girl: leave the facts to the professionals and keep your silly conclusions to yourself.

Here are some other myths about lasers:

Myth #1: Cosmetic lasers are a ‘new’ technology and still very much in the developmental and experimental stage.

The first dermal laser treatments were conducted by a dermatologist named Leon Goldman in 1962 for the removal of tattoos. Since then, cosmetic lasers have been successfully developed for the treatment of scars, varicose veins, birthmarks, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, hair removal, and much more. There are thousands of clinical studies conducted on cosmetic lasers and their effective and safe use in many skin concerns has been proven many times over.

Laser treatments are developed through sound scientific principles to produce specific results while minimizing unwanted side effects. In hair removal treatments, for example, the energy from the laser is tuned to heat up and thereby deactivate hair follicles, thus preventing them from further activity. In the case of tattoo removal, the pigments in the tattoo ink are targeted, and the specific wavelength is designed to break up the pigments so they can be eliminated by the body’s waste systems. Provided a laser treatment is given within the specified guidelines and with the proper diagnosis of a trained expert, the results and side effects are almost always predictable and controllable.

Myth #2: Lasers are unnecessary because all their benefits can be achieved with skin care products.

Unlike store brand skin care products which may have all kinds of exorbitant claims, medical equipment such as cosmetic lasers are required by law to be thoroughly tested for effectiveness and safety. Laser machines cannot be marketed unless approved by the US FDA (or European equivalent CE mark) which sets stringent rules on claims that any equipment may make. For example, most hair removal lasers are not allowed to say that they give permanent hair removal, but only permanent hair reduction. This is because occasionally hair does regrow in an area after treatment, but it will be greatly reduced in quantity and appearance.

Skin care products on the other hand, are rarely required to prove their claims, so they can claim “better than Botox” or “as effective as laser” without repercussions. There are no skin creams or serums that can remove varicose veins, resurface and smooth out severe acne scars, reduce the appearance of birthmarks such as Port Wine Stains or help remove unwanted tattoos. Its simply not possible and doesn’t exist, nor will it ever.

 Myth #3: After one treatment, you can tell if lasers will be effective or suitable for you.

Every single person is different, and what works for 90% of the population may just not be right for the remaining 10%. Depending on different factors such as your skin sensitivity, pain tolerance, or even your lifestyle habits such as smoking, excessive sun exposure or usage of certain drugs or skin care products, you may respond differently to a laser treatment. That is why it is important for you to trust your doctor, and allow him or her to determine the course of your treatment and deciding if you need to change the settings from your previous procedure or not.

Myth #4: Having laser treatments causes the skin to thin out and become weak.

Lasers do not cause the skin to become weak and thin, in fact the controlled heating and wound action of a laser treatment actually induces the natural skin reaction of collagen and elastin formation to replace the damaged skin. Even repeated usage of lasers will not cause the skin to be damaged or weakened, provided your laser provider has a thorough understanding of the limitations of the equipment he or she is applying to the skin.

Myth #5: All laser equipment provide the same range of treatments.

Lasers are not a one size fits all, and most equipment is highly specialized and calibrated for specific purposes. There are two main types of lasers – namely ablative and non-ablative. Ablative or cutting lasers work by physically destroying the top layers of the skin, and are used in procedures such as laser resurfacing and scar revision.

Non-ablative lasers work by targeting specific depths or colors while leaving the top layer of the skin unharmed. Different laser modalities are calibrated for various uses including hair removal, skin rejuvenation, reducing excess pigment and tattoo removal. While a single machine can often be used to treat a range of different concerns, the wavelength and energy levels must be adjusted for each specific purpose.

Different laser machines are also calibrated differently and may have specific strengths, ie. Profractional laser is very good for acne scar revision and skin rejuvenation, but differs from the Cutera Excel V that targets hair and vein removal. Even rival hair removal lasers can differ in the skin / hair types which they are used for, so having a professional who knows the ins and outs of the equipment is essential for effective and safe treatment.

Myth #6: Lasers are all the same, no matter the companies who create them

Fact: Lasers may be an established and well understood medical tool, but just like a kitchen knife has the potential to be deadly, a laser in the wrong hands has the potential for serious damage. A laser that is unreliable and poorly engineered or poorly maintained is even worse, which is why you need to ensure the laser equipment you are being treated with is safe.

Major medical laser names such as Cutera, Sciton, or Lumenis are continuously being tested for quality and safety as well as efficacy. The lesser brands that sell to spas don’t have equivalent parameters to follow and therefore don’t need to be as effective.

Myth #7: Once you start using lasers, stopping treatments will cause your skin to rapidly deteriorate.

A laser treatment simply changes the conditions of your skin at the time of the treatment, and does not produce a dependency. For example, after an strong laser treatment such as a resurfacing procedure that vaporizes skin cells to encourage cell renewal, your skin will heal and become smoother, even, and more supple. You may need several treatments to achieve your end goal, but certainly there is no need to continually undergo treatments once you have solved the problems you wish to address. Eventually on-going aging and lifestyle factors will cause pigmentation, wrinkling or other problems to recur, which is when further treatments or a maintenance program may be necessary.

Myth #8: A laser treatment shouldn’t be painful and if it produces a severe reaction, it is a failure.

It is important to remember that a laser procedure is in fact a serious thing, and it is designed to cause controlled damage to induce the skin to heal and renew itself. A laser resurfacing procedure commonly produces a bronzing effect, as if you have had a sun burn, as the skin injury causes old and pigmented cells to die off and be replaced. Some swelling after the treatment may also be seen. Many doctors believe that although unpleasant, the more severe the reaction (tissue swelling, intense redness, flushing and sensation of heat), the better the results of the treatment. Other treatments such as hair removal may not produce as severe reactions, and any blistering or pus formation after a laser treatment is most certainly not desired. It is usually best to check with your physician or technician to determine if your post-laser reaction is indeed normal or if it needs attention, but bear in mind, a severe reaction is not necessarily a bad thing.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t ask my car mechanic how to do my plumbing, so it would only make sense to ask a professional in the required field of expertise that you are seeking answers for. Without the facts, you could be keeping yourself from achieving great results with cosmetic lasers that have proven themselves for many years to be safe and effective. When in doubt, ask  your dermatologist or your laser technician. They are the ones who work with the machines and they are the ones who have the proper education to answer your questions based on facts and experience.

 ~ Sheri Roselle, Medical Esthetician at Toronto Dermatology 

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