Types of Cosmetic Laser Procedures

If you're considering laser surgery for a cosmetic procedure, you may come across various types of laser procedures. While they all have some similar features, different lasers procedures have different effects. Then let's take a look at which lasers work best for common skin conditions.

Close-up of woman receiving non-surgical radio-frequency energy laser skin treatment
ARICAN/E+ / Getty Images 

Laser Treatment

Laser (L-A-S-E-R) stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. A laser is a single-wavelength (one color of light) source of high-energy light that can be accurately focused to transmit that light onto a very small area to achieve the desired effects.

Ablative vs. Nonablative Lasers

There are two basic types of lasers used for cosmetic purposes: ablative and nonablative.

Ablative lasers vaporize the top layers of damaged skin, while non-ablative lasers work deeper in the skin without removing or otherwise damaging the top layers. For this reason, you will not have any downtime after having a cosmetic procedure that uses solely nonablative laser technology.

How Lasers Work

Lasers are monochromatic, which means that a given laser emits light of only one wavelength (color of light).

Lasers work in cosmetic procedures through a selective photothermolysis process. This means that they modulate the frequency of light (photo) to produce heat (thermo) in the specific area that will be destroyed (lysis).

To do this, the wavelength of the light beam must be in sync with the color of the target, whether they are brown spots, red broken capillaries, or another skin condition.

Why So Many Different Types of Lasers?

The two basic types of lasers include many subcategories of laser types and hundreds of variations and brand names.

The main differences between the types of lasers have to do with wavelength. Different laser wavelengths target different skin issues. For this reason, your surgeon may recommend a combination of several different lasers to address all of the problems that you may have.

Laser Types for Different Cosmetic Uses

  • Fine Lines and Wrinkles: For treating lines and wrinkles, a combination of skin resurfacing and skin-tightening procedures can be used or both can be accomplished with a more aggressive ablative laser, such as a CO2 (carbon dioxide) laser or Erbium lasers. The CO2 laser is also commonly used to remove warts and skin tags and for cutting the skin in laser-assisted surgery. Pulsed dye lasers have also shown some success, along with less aggressive nonlaser, light-based treatments, such as intense pulsed light therapy (IPL) and light-emitting diode
    (LED) photofacials.
  • Skin Tightening: Most cosmetic laser procedures provide at least some level of superficial tightening because they produce a controlled injury of the skin, which encourages increased collagen production. For more significant tightening results, CO2 lasers are the laser of choice. In addition, there has been much success using nonlaser, light-based treatments, such as Titan infrared devices and Thermage radio-frequency based systems.
  • Pigmented Lesions: The most commonly used lasers for the treatment of pigmented lesions, such as sunspots, age spots, melasma, and other forms of hyperpigmentation are the pulsed dye, Nd:YAG, and fractional CO2 lasers, along with nonlaser, light-based treatments, such as IPL.
  • Precancerous Lesions: Almost all surgeons agree that cancerous lesions should be removed via scalpel (with a knife during surgery) to ensure clear margins and complete removal. This provides a sample for a pathologist to look at to determine exactly what the lesion was. By removing precancerous growths, such as actinic keratoses, before they have a chance to become malignant (squamous cell skin cancers), though, lasers are now routinely being used as a preventative measure. Ablative lasers, such as the CO2 and erbium:YAG, are generally chosen to remove these lesions.
  • Vascular Lesions: Vascular lesions include broken blood vessels on the face, unsightly spider veins on the legs, spider nevi, hemangiomas, and certain birthmarks such as port-wine stains. For these types of skin irregularities, IPL is a common choice because it is minimally invasive. Also popular for treating these lesions are the pulsed dye, Nd:YAG and diode lasers.
  • Tattoos: The Q-switched laser and Nd:YAG remain popular for tattoo removal, and IPL can work as well.
  • Hair Removal: The success and safety of laser hair removal are highly dependent on the pigment present in the skin and the hair of the patient being treated. For darker-skinned patients, the Nd:YAG and diode lasers are often the lasers of choice, and for lighter-skinned patients, IPL has proved effective.
  • Acne and Acne Scars: For deeper acne scars, the CO2 laser remains the gold standard, and more recent developments such as the erbium:YAG, fractional laser and certain nonablative lasers have shown considerable success for treating superficial acne scarring. For the treatment of active acne, LED technology has proven to be quite effective.

Other Light-Based Cosmetic Applications

There are many different modalities of light-based technology being used in the world of cosmetic surgery today. Though these methods are often referred to as “laser” procedures, the devices being used are not actually true lasers. These technologies include IPL, LED treatments, Titan and similar infrared energy-based technologies and radio-frequency based procedures, such as Thermage.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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