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 similar features, each laser procedure has different effects. Let's 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 

How Laser Therapy Works

The letters in the word "laser" stand 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 tiny area to achieve the desired effects.

Lasers are monochromatic, meaning a given laser emits light of only one wavelength.

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

Lasers emit a light beam wavelength in sync with the target's color, whether they are brown spots, broken red capillaries, or another skin condition.

Ablative vs. Nonablative Lasers

There are two basic lasers used for cosmetic purposes: ablative and non-ablative.

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

Types of Lasers for Cosmetic Procedures

These two basic lasers include many categories of laser types, hundreds of variations, and brand names.

The wavelength of the laser is the main difference between each type of laser, and the correct laser is chosen to target various skin issues. For this reason, your surgeon may recommend a combination of several other lasers to address all of the problems you may have.

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 used to remove warts and skin tags and cut the skin in laser-assisted surgery. 

Pulsed dye lasers have also shown some success, along with less aggressive non-laser, light-based treatments, such as intense pulsed light therapy (IPL) and light-emitting diode (LED) photo facials.

Skin Tightening

Most cosmetic laser procedures provide at least some level of superficial tightening because they produce a controlled skin injury, encouraging increased collagen production. However, CO2 lasers are the laser of choice for more significant tightening results.

In addition, nonlaser, light-based treatments, such as Titan infrared devices and Thermage radiofrequency-based systems, have been successful.

Pigmented Lesions

The pulsed dye lasers are most commonly used to treat pigmented lesions, such as sunspots, age spots, melasma, and other forms of hyperpigmentation.

Nd:YAG (neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet) lasers and fractional CO2 lasers, along with non-laser, light-based treatments, such as IPL.

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.

Unwanted Tattoos

The Q-switched laser and Nd:YAG remain popular for tattoo removal, and IPL can work as another option.

Unwanted Hair

The success and safety of laser hair removal are highly dependent on the pigment present in the skin and the type of hair being treated.

For darker-skinned individuals, the Nd:YAG and diode lasers are often the lasers of choice, and for lighter-skinned people, IPL has proved effective.

Acne and Acne Scars

For deeper acne scars, the CO2 laser remains the gold standard. Recent developments such as the erbium:YAG, fractional laser, and specific non-ablative lasers have shown considerable success in treating superficial acne scarring. LED technology has proven to be quite effective for treating active acne.

Other Light-Based Cosmetic Applications

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


Lasers are used to treat a variety of cosmetic skin conditions such as wrinkles, acne, scars, or removal unwanted tattoos or hair. Lasers emit unique wavelengths of light and are considered ablative or non-ablative. The characteristics of the laser determine what conditions can be treated.

A Word From Verywell

If you have a cosmetic skin condition that you want to be treated, schedule a consult with your dermatologist to assess which laser might be best for your situation. Lasers can be an effective and simple way to improve your cosmetic appearance and help bring back confidence in your appearance.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which laser is good for the face?

    Lasers are used to treat different conditions, and the desired treatment would determine which laser is used. For example, CO2 lasers, erbium:YAG, fractional lasers, and specific non-ablative lasers can be used to treat acne scars.

  • How long does laser treatment take to heal?

    Non-ablative lasers may take almost no time to heal. Ablative laser treatment recovery time depends on the depth of the laser treatment and the individual healing process of each person, which can vary from two to four weeks. The skin may appear raw, red, and scabbed during this healing process.

  • Is laser treatment painful?

    Laser treatment may hurt, or it may not. Again, it depends on the type of laser treatment that occurs. Ablative lasers that cause skin injury will most likely be more painful than non-ablative laser treatment that doesn't destroy the top layer of skin. Topical pain creams can be used during the procedure to help reduce painful sensations.

  • What are the side effects of laser treatment?

    There are risks with any procedure, including elective cosmetic laser treatments. Usually, redness and swelling at the site of treatment are the most common side effects. Possible rare side effects include sensitivity to the sun, pain, infection, burning, and skin discoloration.

  • Is laser therapy FDA approved?

    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labels lasers into classes depending on the level of danger for each laser. Specific lasers are intended only to be used in medical procedures and are deemed laser hazard class level IIIb or IV.

7 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.
  1. American Board of Cosmetic Surgery. Laser skin resurfacing: top 8 things you need to know.

  2. UptoDate. Laser and light therapy for cutaneous vascular lesions.

  3. Ho SG, Goh CL. Laser tattoo removal: a clinical update. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2015;8(1):9-15. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.155066

  4. Dorgham NA, Dorgham DA. Lasers for reduction of unwanted hair in skin of colour: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2019; doi:10.1111/jdv.15995

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Lasers and lights: how well do they treat acne?

  6. American Academy of Dermatology Association. 10 things to know before having laser treatment for your scar.

  7. Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Frequently asked questions about lasers.

Additional Reading

By Blyss Splane
Blyss Splane is a certified operating room nurse working as a freelance content writer and former travel nurse. She works as a freelance content writer for healthcare blogs when she's not spending time with her husband and dog.

Originally written by Natalie Kita