What to Know Before Booking a Laser Treatment for Your Face

A dermatologist shares what questions to ask, and how to achieve your desired result.

When the latest lockdown orders came down in Ontario late last year, I accepted the fact that I’d have to live indefinitely with unwanted ombre hair. But since I could have used that pick-me-up you get from a fresh set of highlights, I checked to see if there were any government-approved ways to update my look. While brow shaping, lash lifting, and facials were also off the table, I learned dermatologist-administered treatments were, in fact, not. Could I get my pandemic-induced worries lasered off my face?

New data from Square, a credit card processing company, reveals I’m not the only one who’s asked that question. According to them, there has been a 169 percent increase in transactions at dermatologist clinics across Canada for treatments and products that “rejuvenate” skin, compared to the start of the pandemic. As dermatologist Julia Carroll told me last October, laser treatments are more popular than ever, possibly because people are taking advantage of stay-at-home orders to get treatments that require a recovery period.

And so, since I see next to no one IRL right now, I booked an appointment at a dermatologist’s office for a combo treatment: Intense Pulse Light (IPL), which is basically used to zap blood vessels and acne scars, and Clear and Brilliant, in which thin laser-y needles are rolled up and down your face to reduce the appearance of fine lines, shrink pores and offer “improvement to skin tone and texture.” Both treatments are less aggressive lasers compared to others on the market, and so don’t require much downtime (if any).

I’ve tried IPL before, but never Clear and Brilliant, and I was nervous to get it done. Essentially, the treatments would create micro tears in my skin to force it to repair itself, boost collagen and give me a fresh layer of skin. Despite many glowing online reviews, I found the “your face will feel like sandpaper for about a week after the treatment” part a tad unsettling. I had been warned that, often, more than one treatment is recommended for IPL and Clear and Brilliant, and they should be performed just a few weeks after one another. But, my dermatologist and aesthetician thought I’d likely only need one, based on what I was hoping to achieve.

The whole process took under an hour, and the pain was tolerable. (Though it’s worth mentioning, I don’t balk at pain-for-beauty trade offs.) Afterwards, my skin felt hot, like a particularly brutal sunburn, which only intensified under the humid climate of my face mask. When I got home and looked in the mirror, I could see the itty bitty dots that had been stamped all over my face, and I could feel an aura of heat surrounding my head, and immediately felt regret. Was this really safe? Had I not asked enough questions beforehand?

It would take days for my skin to look normal (contrary to the reviews I read), and over a week for it to not feel like sandpaper. Months later, I don’t think my skin looks that much clearer, nor that much more brilliant. But what was I hoping for, exactly? Was it a mistake to get it done? Or do I need another treatment or two?

To get my questions answered, I spoke to Andrei Metelitsa, a certified dermatologist in Calgary, Alberta. Below, he shares what you need to know before (and after) receiving any laser treatment.

1. Explore skin-care options first

“We always start everyone on skin-care first,” says Metelitsa. “It’s critical.” He tells his patients to wear a good sunscreen (ideally a mineral sunscreen), gentle cleanser, and good moisturizer, and, when necessary, use hyaluronic acid or an antioxidant. After you have a good skin-care regimen set up and in use for a few months, then you can explore other skin-care treatments, such as IPL, microneedling or laser, depending on your concerns. (You may also want to try using a gua sha tool at home.)

2. Choose your derm wisely

The biggest factor to consider when getting a treatment is actually not the type, but the provider. “Seek a board-certified dermatologist,” says Metelitsa. “Some of us have actually done fellowship training in laser therapy where we spent just a year on top of our 12 years of medical education learning about the interaction between the laser and the skin.” In the hands of a qualified expert, laser treatments are “an extremely safe and effective way of addressing a lot of skin concerns and stimulating collagen,” says Metelitsa.

3. Ask the right questions

Metelitsa recommends researching dermatologists and during your consultation, asking how many treatments they’ve performed, if they’re performed on a daily basis, and if they have experience with your skin type and colour. “That will determine their likelihood of success and how skilled they are at preventing the concerns,” he says. “Treatment on a darker-skinned individual is completely opposite than a treatment on a fair-skinned individual.” For darker skin, microneedling could be a better, safer option than laser.

4. Know what you want

Tell your doctor exactly what you’d like—don’t just rely on their recommendation.  That way, they can choose a treatment that will achieve your desired results. For example, if you have a capillary or a blood vessel on your skin, there’s a procedure that can “selectively treat and ideally eliminate these capillaries.” You’ll also want to understand the results that can be achieved. “We have to ensure that the expectations of our clients are properly addressed before the treatment is done,” says Metelitsa. “In my hands, I aim for 50 percent improvement or greater in whatever the concern is—so if they have a brown spot I want it less noticeable by approximately 50 percent or more or completely eliminated.”

5. Have realistic expectations

“We see amazing outcomes where, in some older individuals, rejuvenators can take 10 years off from their overall appearance,” says Metelitsa. But it’s worth noting that the most effective lasers (like the Fractional CO2 laser) also happen to be the most aggressive. With these, patients can expect to be red and swollen for one week or longer. But the good news is just a single treatment may be necessary to see the desired results.

On the other side of the laser spectrum are less-aggressive lasers, known as nonablative lasers. They’re typically recommended for younger patients who want to treat acne scars and sun spots but don’t want too much downtime, says Metelitsa. “We typically do them as a series of approximately 5 to 6, on a monthly basis where they only get a little red and have mild swelling for a couple days,” he says. “But it takes multiple treatments to notice results.”

If you, like me, aren’t ready to shell out $300-$700 per treatment for up to six sessions, a single nonablative laser treatment may not be worth it. Besides, as Metelitsa says “the best compliment to a patient is ‘you look relaxed.’ ” So maybe give meditation a whirl.

Next: Learn how psychodermatology could give you healthier skin

Originally Published in Best Health Canada