Laser Skin Resurfacing 101

Woman receiving facial skin care treatment.
People hoping to fight signs of aging might consider laser resurfacing to give their skin a younger, smoother look. See more getting beautiful skin pictures.
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When you walk past a mirror, do you ever stop and do a double take? Perhaps your face is worn with lines from those wonderful memories that still make you smile, or from all those worries that left their mark. Do you wear them as a badge, a medal of honor for a life well-lived? Or do you want to defy the aging process?

If you're more interested in fighting (or hiding) the signs of aging, one option you might consider is laser skin resurfacing. This procedure aims a light beam at various layers of the skin to try to repair the appearance of wrinkles, discolorations, scars or other age spots. After the procedure and some recovery time, you could be left with younger, smoother looking skin [sources: ASPS, Goldman].


There are two types of lasers typically used in laser skin resurfacing: ablative and non-ablative. Ablative lasers remove the surface of the skin by burning the epidermal layer down to the next level, the dermis. The body responds during the healing process by producing more collagen, which generates new layers of skin that are stronger and, ideally, look younger [source: Tanna].

Non-ablative lasers can focus specifically on tissue underneath the skin, using the laser wavelengths to target those spots without harming the surface [source: Goldman]. In place of the damaged skin, younger-looking and clearer skin develops [source: Mayo Clinic]. Also, because the laser is precise, you'll likely face a shorter recovery time than with ablative laser treatments [source: Goldman].


Laser treatment is a newer procedure, but it has support because it avoids many of the harsh chemicals or treatments that older ablative methods use [source: Tanna]. Read on to see whether it could give you the skin you long for and how effective it is in comparison with other skin resurfacing processes.


Effectiveness of Laser Skin Resurfacing

Laser skin resurfacing -- sometimes referred to as a type of skin rejuvenation -- is thought to be effective in improving the appearance of skin, but perfect results are not guaranteed [source: AAFPRS]. Some plastic surgeons say they find laser resurfacing is less invasive, offers more predictable results and can sometimes heal more quickly than other abrasive treatments, such as chemical peels or dermabrasion [source: Goldman].

Skin tone and type, ethnicity, existing skin damage and skin health are factors that contribute to the level of effectiveness one can expect from laser skin resurfacing [source: AAFPRS]. Also, a doctor's previous experience with the technique and the facilities both can affect the results. It's the patient's responsibility to ask questions and become educated about the procedure beforehand. Be aware of the risks and have realistic expectations prior to surgery.


Not everyone is a candidate for laser skin resurfacing. Those with dark complexions might want to avoid the procedure because the facial skin typically will be lighter than the rest of their body for up to a year. If you scar easily, or are on medication, that could also have an effect [source: Goldman].

After the treatment, you should expect at least a few weeks of recovery time. The treated area might need to be bandaged, and it could swell, form scabs and be uncomfortable for up to about 10 days [sources: Goldman, Mayo Clinic]. The skin might be a bright pink for at least few weeks and will likely be extremely sensitive to direct sun for up to a year, so physicians recommend using at least an SPF 30 sunscreen.

Some of the greater risks associated with the treatment are hyperpigmentation (skin that's darker than normal), hypopigmentation (skin that's lighter than normal), and cold sores if you have the herpes virus [source: Mayo Clinic].

More than one treatment might be recommended, and the procedure could need to be repeated as you age and acquire new facial lines [source: Mayo Clinic].

All this in the name of youth and beauty. But how much does the appearance of youth cost? Find out on the next page.


Cost of Laser Skin Resurfacing

In 2008, the average cost of laser skin resurfacing in the U.S. was more than $2,100 for an ablative treatment and more tan $1,300 for a non-ablative treatment [source: ASPS]. And those are just the physician's fees. Beyond that, there are several other factors that could increase the total cost, such as facility, anesthesia and recovery expenses.

Where you have the procedure done can make a difference. If you opt for your private practitioner's office, it's generally going to be less expensive than at a hospital. But if you're planning to have extensive treatment, it might be in your best interest to schedule your appointment in a well-equipped hospital that will be better suited to handle the intense procedure and its possible effects.


Local anesthesia, which numbers a specific location on your body, will be less costly than general anesthesia, which typically puts you to sleep; however, you must consider what will make you most comfortable [source: DocShop]. It might depend on whether you choose an ablative or non-ablative treatment.

Some patients might also want to buy special makeup after the treatment to cover up the damage until the skin heals. The total cost generally includes initial ointments, bandages and creams provided by the physician immediately after the treatment. However, the cost of pain medication and sleeping pills might not be included in the overall treatment bill.

If you're considering laser skin resurfacing, review your options and speak with your doctor about cost beforehand. Of course, different patients will require different levels of treatment, so each case will vary.

This procedure rarely qualifies for your insurance, but many clinics might be willing to work with you by setting up a payment plan or helping you find a loan [source: Goldman]. Even if your insurance might not cover your resurfacing, it might be able to cover some associated costs. Keep reading to find out what your insurance might cover.


Laser Skin Resurfacing and Insurance

If a procedure is purely cosmetic and completely elective, chances are your insurance won't cover it. In some cases, if the treatment is necessary to fix extreme facial deformities or accidental injuries, you might be eligible for some coverage [source: AAFPRS].

Insurance companies may use definitions provided by the American Medical Association (AMA) to determine whether they will cover a particular procedure. The real question is whether the surgery is considered to be reconstructive or cosmetic. Reconstructive surgeries correct abnormalities that were caused by factors outside the patient's control, such as birth, disease or injury -- procedures needed for the body to function properly. However, if the surgery is not necessary, it's often considered to be cosmetic, or elective. In that case, companies deem that the patient is looking for improved appearance, not improved body function [source: Freedman].


There is no clear end-all definition. Insurance companies have the right to interpret the two terms as they see fit. In other words, a consumer might consider a procedure to be reconstructive, but an insurance company could insist that it is cosmetic. For example, if a person has a drooping eyelid, the insurance company will likely want to know from the plastic surgeon whether the eyelid problem results in reduced or distorted vision. If vision is impaired, the insurance company will probably cover the procedure to repair the eyelid. If the person sees just fine, the insurance company may refuse coverage. Insurance companies require extensive documentation from the physician on whether the procedure is reconstructive or cosmetic [source: Freedman].

Most laser skin resurfacing is considered to be cosmetic. If you want to find out more about whether insurance will cover your treatment, talk to your physician or his or her staff.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • A Board Certified Plastic Surgeon (ABCPS). "Cost of Laser Skin Resurfacing." July 29, 2009. (Accessed 7/30/09)
  • The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS). "Facial Peels and Laser Surgery." (Accessed 7/30/2009)
  • American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). "Skin Rejuvenation and Resurfacing." (Accessed 7/20/09)
  • American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPA). "2008 Plastic Surgery Procedural Statistics." (Accessed 8/20/2009)
  • DocShop. "Laser Skin Resurfacing Cost and Financing Information." (Accessed 7/21/09) http://www.DocShop/education/dermatology/facial/skin-resurfacing/cost-financing/
  • Dowden, Richard V., MD. "Frequently Asked Questions about Laser Facelift." Cosmetic and Plastic Surgery, Inc. Jan. 1, 2009. (Accessed 7/30/2009)
  • Freedman, Skip. "More than Skin Deep." Plastic Surgery Practice. April 2005. (Accessed 7/30/2009)
  • Goldman, Mitchel, M.D., reviewer. "Laser Skin Resurfacing." Consumer Guide to Plastic Surgery. April 2009. (Accessed 7/19/09)
  • Mann, Denise. "Facelifts: They're Back (And Better Than Ever)." Consumer Guide to Plastic Surgery. October 2008. (Accessed 7/30/2009)
  • Marchione, Marilyn. "Nation's First Face Transplant Shows Face." The Washington Post. May 6, 2009. (Accessed 8/19/2009)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Laser resurfacing." Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). May 23, 2009. (Accessed 7/30/2009)
  • Tanna, Neil, M.D., and Steven M. Hopping, M.D., FACS. "Skin Resurfacing: Laser Surgery." eMedicine from WebMD. March 21, 2008. (Accessed 7/20/09)