Can doctors treat acne with lasers?

By: Tom Scheve

A better weapon than toothpaste? See more pictures of skin problems.
A better weapon than toothpaste? See more pictures of skin problems.
Kim Steele/Digital Vision/Getty Images

There's no shortage of acne treatments. People around the world are going to bed tonight with faces covered in toothpaste, antibiotics, salicylic acid, lemon slices and any number of other proven and unproven substances. And no wonder: Acne can affect practically anyone, from infants to adults. While it affects some people more than others and is most common during puberty, most people will have to deal with it at some point -- or many points -- in their lives.

One common (and usually effective) way to battle acne is with antibiotics, either in a pill or applied to the skin. Antibiotics work by destroying bacteria that have accumulated in the hair follicle to the point of damaging it. The drugs also calm the body's immune system response, reducing redness and swelling.


However, the bacteria that multiplies and grows in clogged follicles is a common skin bacteria, Propionibacterium acnes (or P. acnes), that's always present. Since its home is your skin, it doesn't like it when an invasive force comes on the scene to wipe it out. And, occasionally, the bacteria puts up a fight and builds resistance to the effects of antibiotics. People who use topical antibiotics irregularly -- less than twice daily, every day -- are at the highest risk of developing resistance to antibiotics.

Common over-the-counter treatments -- such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid (often mixed together into one product) -- can be effective, but they don't work for everyone. Benzoyl peroxide isn't an antibacterial, but in addition to drying the face, it helps reduce bacteria by oxygenating pores. It isn't without its downsides, though. It can cause extreme dryness and peeling, as can salicylic acid, which helps the follicles clear themselves of dead skin cells.

Another treatment has emerged in recent years, but this one battles acne with advanced technology: laser treatment. How do lasers reduce acne breakouts? Are they dangerous? Are they right for you? Keep reading to find out.


Acne Lasers and the War on Breakouts

Not all lasers are created equally. Different types of lasers are used for acne treatment, and they work in different ways. We'll discuss the basics of each.

Diode lasers prevent future acne breakouts by reducing the skin's ability to produce sebum. This is accomplished by destroying some of the millions and millions of sebaceous glands that exist in the dermis (the layer that exists beneath the outermost layer, the epidermis). Although these tiny glands are destroyed within the hair follicles in which they reside, the surface of the skin itself isn't harmed.


This type of laser can also help even or smooth out skin discoloration. And, for those who have suffered extreme scarring from large acne lesions and cysts, diode lasers can also reduce the visible amount of scarring on the skin. They do so by stimulating collagen growth and production of elastin fiber, which firms up the skin from beneath and gives it a smoother, more youthful appearance.

High-intensity lasers (such as CO2 lasers) help to reduce or resurface acne scarring by removing the outermost layer of skin. This leaves a newer, younger layer of skin exposed, and as the outermost layer heals, it becomes noticeably less uneven and discolored than the previous outermost layer.

Some caveats: Treating acne with lasers isn't pain-free. For this reason, topical painkillers are used during treatments. But even then, it may still be uncomfortable. Additionally, laser treatment can cause redness that can stick around for months, though normally it subsides within a week. There's also the possibility of permanent scarring.

Lasers aren't for everyone. For one thing, other less intensive (and less expensive) treatments will be effective for many people. Even if other treatments don't work, laser treatment may not be appropriate for people with certain skin conditions, such as psoriasis, cystic acne or extremely dry skin. Also, most insurance companies won't cover laser treatment for acne, and treatments (often more than one) can run hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the exact procedure. For scar removal, the price will depend upon the size of the area being treated. Treatment of light scarring may cost as much as $1,500, while laser treatment for extensive scarring can reach costs upwards of $6,000 [source: San Joyz].

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Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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