- Lasers and light therapy treatments for acne are viable methods to reduce breakouts and minimize acne scars
- While an effective method to control acne symptoms and minimize the appearance of scars, multiple sessions are required and full results can take months to be apparent
- Laser treatments tend to be more expensive than similarly effective acne-fighting therapies
- Potential side effects are few and mild when they do surface
Laser and light therapies are one more powerful weapon in the arsenal of acne-fighting treatments and procedures designed to address this most common of skin conditions. And while they offer a lot of promise and have been proven effective, they’re still not quite the acne-curing silver bullet many would wish them to be. That said, laser treatments are helpful as adjuncts to other acne therapies and a particularly valuable resource for patients for whom more traditional treatments, such as antibiotic, hormonal or retinoid-based topical creams are infeasible due to allergies or other complications.
Do Laser Treatments Work for Acne?
There’s no cure for acne, but as one element of a wider acne treatment plan, light therapy can go a long way towards curbing the frequency, duration, and intensity of flare-ups, as well as reduce the visibility of acne scars leftover from previous outbreaks. Results, however, tend to vary from person to person, and laser therapy for acne isn’t quite as simple as pointing a laser light at a blemish and watching it immediately vanish. There’s much to be said for laser therapy in the fight against acne, but if you’re considering going down this path to deal with your acne problem, you should be aware of the following:
- Multiple treatments are required for best results.
- Laser therapy is usually combined with other acne treatments, such as oral or topical medications.
- Results vary depending on the individual. Most people will see their acne significantly improved with treatments; however, scars may not be completely removed post-treatment.
- It takes time for the full results to come into effect. While patients typically notice improvement after a few weeks of treatment, it may take as long as 12 weeks after the final session for the full results to be apparent.
- Results from laser therapy for acne typically last for a long time, but follow-up treatments every six to 12 months may be required.
- Side effects are rare but do occur. While typically mild, some patients report a lingering stinging or burning sensation that lasts from a few hours to a full day after a session. More serious side effects include minor changes in pigmentation and blistering. The chance of experiencing side effects are significantly reduced, however, when the procedure is performed by a qualified dermatologist, rather than self-treated with an at-home device.
Laser Treatments for Acne Scars
Laser treatments for acne scars function by focusing light on the top layers of the epidermis to break up scar tissue, while simultaneously stimulating new skin cells to grow to replace it. The procedure may not completely remove an acne scar but will significantly reduce its appearance and minimize any discomfort associated with it.
The process begins with the laser removing the top layer of skin where a scar has developed. Once this top layer has been removed the skin appears smoother and the scar less visible. With the scar tissue now broken apart, heat and light from the laser stimulate healthy new cells to develop in its place. The heat emanating from the light encourages blood to flow to the area, reducing inflammation by targeting blood vessels in the scar. The result both stimulates the skin to heal faster while leaving the scar looking less raised and pigmented.
Remember that it can take months to see the results from laser acne scar treatments, and improvements may be barely noticeable at first.
Best Laser Treatments for Acne
Different lasers work using different colors and wavelengths, with some being better for specific skin conditions than others. The following lasers are among the most commonly employed to treat acne and acne scars.
Light therapy with copper-bromide lasers is a treatment which combines two lasers to smoothen the skin’s surface, removing wrinkles while improving overall tone. The way it works is the first laser emits a yellow light (with a 578nm wavelength] that is ideal for improving acne lesions, while the second laser shines a green light (511nm wavelength) that treats pigmented lesions without disturbing the skin around the blemish. The result is brighter, rejuvenated skin.
The first yellow laser kills acne bacteria while simultaneously promoting collagen growth, reducing the redness of an inflammation. Repeated treatments result in smoother, clearer surface skin with fewer noticeable wrinkles or scars, leaving facial skin appearing brighter and rejuvenated.
A copper-bromide laser procedure takes approximately 30-45 minutes per session, which are typically repeated every two weeks or so. As with other light-based skin and/or acne-specific procedures there is no downtime afterward. Patients can go for a session on their lunch hour and return to work afterward with no one being the wiser.
Pulsed dye laser [PDL]
Pulsed dye lasers are more frequently employed to remove acne scars than to treat acne vulgaris directly – although the procedure is increasingly being used to treat patients with acne-induced facial erythema.
Pulsed dye lasers are typically non-ablative lasers that heat the skin and absorb pigmentation to reduce hyperpigmentation, rosacea, broken capillaries and redness. To this end the therapy has been shown to be effective, the laser emits a 585-nm concentration of light that significantly reduces the redness and the elevation of the scar.
PDL therapy is sometimes used in conjunction with topical photosensitizers to reduce the severity and number of acne inflammations. Studies have not shown a reduction in sebum production with its use, but it does have an anti-inflammatory effect on acne lesions.
One 2003 study concluded that 12 weeks after only one PDL treatment the appearance of acne scars were significantly reduced with no serious adverse effects. Another study conducted in 2009 determined that while other laser treatments were relatively effective in treating various types of scarring, PDL treatments were the most effective therapy for acne scars.
There is also evidence indicating that pulsed dye lasers improve acne scarring by increasing collagen production.
The ND:YAG has a variety of uses, ranging from removing unwanted hair to improving fine lines and wrinkles. Because it decreases oil production and pore size while helping to activate collagen remodeling, these lasers work to curb acne breakouts while simultaneously improving the appearance of acne scars via the collagen stimulation it produces.
The laser directs micro-pulses of laser energy to the skin, which warms the deepest layers of the dermis without causing damage to the surrounding skin, which in turn spares patients from a potentially lengthy period of downtime afterward. Patients typically notice a few mild benefits after their first treatment, but much depends on the age and depth of the scar. Removing an acne scar with this laser usually requires approximately four to six sessions.
Side effects are typically mild, consisting of redness that can sometimes last for 24-48 hours, although under most circumstances any remaining redness fades within a few hours.
Are You a Candidate for Laser Acne Removal?
Laser acne removal should be free of complications for just about everyone so long as their practitioner has reviewed their medical history, is aware of any medications they may be taking, and armed with this knowledge determined the procedure to be appropriate.
The only people who might want to think twice about undergoing this therapy are people with darker skin tones. While technological advances are apparently making laser treatments safer for those with darker skin, they’ve traditionally been avoided due to concerns of potential complications with keloids, hyperpigmentation or even stimulating more inflammation.
Darker skin tends to be more reactive and sensitive that paler skin tones and as such could respond to laser therapy for acne by creating more pigment, melanin, and a greater inflammatory response. Consequently, at-home light therapies should be avoided, but your dermatologist will be able to accurately assess whether your particular skin tone will respond positively or negatively to professional treatment.
It’s also important to notify your dermatologist if you’re prone to getting cold sores around your mouth, as some laser procedures used for acne, such as skin resurfacing, can trigger them for those at risk.
How Much Does a Laser Treatment for Acne Cost?
Unfortunately, because it’s considered an optional cosmetic procedure, laser treatment for the purpose of combating acne or removing acne scars isn’t likely going to be covered under insurance.
There are a number of factors that influence the price of laser treatments for acne in the United States, including:
- The number of treatments required
- The size of the area being treated
- If for the purpose of removing acne scars, the number of scars to address
- Your geographic location
- The experience level of your provider
With the above all taken into consideration, the average cost of laser treatments for acne in the United States ranges from approximately $1200 to $2000. The type of laser used typically doesn’t significantly affect the price of treatment. For example, treatments with the ND:YAG laser run between $300 – $600 per session, which is consistent with the cost of other lasers used for acne and acne scarring.
As with any service, it’s wise to shop around before committing to any one provider, as costs – as well as the ability and experience level of providers – do vary.
Laser treatments constitute a viable approach to addressing acne vulgaris and reducing the visibility of acne scars. Given the volume and variety of acne treatments available to consumers, laser and light therapies are relatively expensive by comparison, with no significant evidence to suggest they deliver superior results to traditional therapies.
On the other hand, lasers represent an effective alternative to oral and/or topical medications, which is of particular value for those who are unamenable to traditional therapies due to allergies or other complications.
With respect to acne issues, laser treatments are most commonly used to minimize acne scars, which it does quite effectively, although under most circumstances will not completely remove them.
- Mathew, M. L., Karthik, R., Mallikarjun, M., Bhute, S., & Varghese, A. (2018). Intense Pulsed Light Therapy for Acne-induced Post-inflammatory Erythema. Indian dermatology online journal, 9(3), 159–164. doi:10.4103/idoj.IDOJ_306_17
- Seaton ED, Charakida A, Mouser PE, Grace I, Clement RM, Chu AC. Pulsed-dye laser treatment for inflammatory acne vulgaris: randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2003 Oct 25;362(9393):1347-52. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14585635
- Dong Hun Lee, Yu Sung Choi, Seong Uk Min, Mi Young Yoon, Dae Hun Suh. Comparison of a 585-nm pulsed dye laser and a 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser for the treatment of acne scars: A randomized split-face clinical study. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Volume 60, Issue 5, 2009, Pages 801-807, ISSN 0190-9622. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2008.11.883