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Laser Skin Resurfacing


Catherine Spader, RN

What is laser skin resurfacing?

Laser skin resurfacing treats superficial facial scars, wrinkles, skin discoloration, and other minor blemishes. Laser skin resurfacing uses an intense, pulsating beam of light to penetrate into the deep layers of the skin. This damages the superficial skin layers, which peel off to reveal fresher, smoother skin.  

Laser skin resurfacing is only one method to treat minor facial blemishes and aging skin. Discuss all of your treatment options with your doctor to understand which options are right for you.  

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Why is laser skin resurfacing performed?

Your doctor may recommend laser skin resurfacing to correct or reduce the appearance of the following minor conditions:

  • Birthmarks

  • Enlarged oil glands on the nose

  • Frown lines, crow’s feet, and other fine lines or wrinkles around your eyes, forehead or mouth

  • Precancerous skin growths. Only certain types of precancerous lesions are treatable with laser skin resurfacing.

  • Skin discoloration due to liver spots, age spots, blotchy skin, and sun damage

  • Superficial scaring from acne, chickenpox, surgery or injury

  • Warts

  • Yellowish or grayish skin tones

Who performs laser skin resurfacing?

A plastic surgeon or dermatologist performs laser skin resurfacing. Plastic surgeons specialize in correcting physical defects that affect a person's appearance or ability to function. Dermatologists specialize in the medical and surgical care of the skin, hair and nails. 

You should choose a plastic surgeon or dermatologist with training and experience in laser skin resurfacing to perform the procedure.

How is laser skin resurfacing performed?

Your laser skin resurfacing will be performed in a doctor’s office or outpatient medical clinic. Laser skin resurfacing usually takes 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the type and extent of your procedure. It  generally includes the following steps:

  1. Your doctor will complete a medical history and physical exam to determine if you are a good candidate for laser skin resurfacing and which procedure is best for you. This includes examining your skin and asking about your expectations.

  2. Your doctor will develop a personalized treatment plan and discuss it with you.

  3. Your doctor may prescribe special skin treatments, which minimize complications and maximize results. These treatments may begin six weeks or more before your scheduled procedure.

  4. On the day of your laser skin resurfacing, a care team member will clean your skin and provide eye protection

  5. Your doctor will apply a local anesthetic, such as a numbing cream, to the treatment area. You may also receive a mild sedative help you relax. Sometimes, general anesthesia is necessary for a large procedure or if you have other procedures at the same time.

  6. Your doctor will direct the laser to the treatment area.

  7. Your care team will apply special dressings to protect the treatment area.

Will I feel pain with laser skin resurfacing?

Your comfort and relaxation is important to you and your care team. Laser skin resurfacing can be painful, but the local anesthetic and sedative should keep you comfortable during the procedure. Your doctor will also prescribe pain medication to use during the healing process. 

Tell your doctor if you are uncomfortable during the procedure or if your pain medication is not keeping you comfortable during the healing process. 

What are the risks and potential complications of laser skin resurfacing?

Any medical procedure involves risks and potential complications. Complications may become serious in some cases. Complications can develop during the procedure or your recovery.

Risks, side effects, and potential complications of laser skin resurfacing include: 

  • Acne breakouts

  • Darkening or lightening of skin color

  • Herpes and cold sore outbreaks near your mouth

  • Infection

  • Redness and pink coloring of the skin. Pink coloring can last up to a year in blonde-haired people and redheads.

  • Scarring (rare)

  • Skin irritation, itching, stinging or blistering

  • Small white bumps, called milia, which you can generally treat with gentle cleansing

  • Swelling, especially around the eyes

Reducing your risk of complications

You can reduce the risk of certain complications by: 

  • Notifying your doctor of any concerns, such as pain or skin redness or swelling

  • Staying out of the sun and protecting your skin with sunscreen formulated for sensitive skin

  • Taking antibiotics and antiviral medications exactly as prescribed to prevent infection and herpes outbreaks

  • Taking oral steroids exactly as prescribed to reduce swelling around the eyes (for laser skin resurfacing near the eyes)

How do I prepare for my laser skin resurfacing?

You are an important member of your own healthcare team. The steps you take before your laser skin resurfacing can improve your comfort and outcome. 

You can prepare for laser skin resurfacing by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history and medications. This includes any history of cold sores (herpes), and all prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.

  • Following your doctor’s instructions for performing skin treatments before your laser skin resurfacing. Your doctor may develop a customized skin treatment plan to minimize complications and help obtain the best results. Treatments may begin six weeks or more before your procedure.

  • Stopping smoking as soon as possible. This can be beneficial and help the healing process.

Questions to ask your doctor

It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a doctor’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment. Contact your doctor with any concerns and questions before laser skin resurfacing and between appointments.

It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointments. Questions can include:

  • Am I a good candidate for laser skin resurfacings? Why or why not?

  • What are my other skin treatment options?

  • What results can I expect?

  • How many laser skin resurfacing treatments will I need?

  • How long will the procedure take?

  • How should I take my medications?

  • How will I take care of my skin after the procedure?

  • When should I follow-up with you?

  • How should I contact you? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

What can I expect after my laser skin resurfacing?

Knowing what to expect after laser skin resurfacing can help you get back to your everyday life as soon as possible.

What results can I expect after laser skin resurfacing?

Results of laser skin resurfacing vary from person to person. You may need two or more treatments to achieve the results you desire. Recovery from each treatment can take one to two weeks or more.

In general, the treatment area will peel to reveal new, smoother, younger looking skin. This new skin will be pink and will slowly lighten to a natural skin color over two to three months. This process can take up to a year in some people, such as blonde-haired people and redheads.  

Sometimes the treated skin can react as if it is severely sunburned. It can become raw, oozing, and may even blister. A yellow liquid may ooze from treated areas to form a crust that gradually heals and goes away.

Follow your doctor’s instructions to protect your new skin and optimize your results during the healing process. Your doctor may recommend:

  • Applying an ice pack during the first day or two to reduce swelling and discomfort

  • Applying special skin moisturizers and other creams or treatments that enhance healing. Do not use any skin product without asking your doctor.

  • Avoiding sun exposure and using a sunscreen every day. Use only the products recommended by your doctor.

  • Cleaning the treated areas two to five times a day with saline or other special solution provided by your doctor

  • Completing multiple dressing changes

  • Elevating your head with an extra pillow when you sleep

  • Not scratching or picking at the treatment area, which can cause scarring

  • Using specific make-up products to give you a natural color until you heal. Use only the products recommended by your doctor.

When can I go home?

Most patients go home right after laser skin resurfacing.

When should I call my doctor?

You should keep your follow-up appointments after laser skin resurfacing. Contact your doctor if you have any concerns between appointments. Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • Acne or cold sore outbreak

  • Blistering, crusting or oozing

  • Pain

  • Swelling, redness, inflammation, itching or stinging

  • Unexpected skin discoloration

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 4, 2016

© 2017 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Facial Peels and laser Surgery. The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
  2. Laser Skin Resurfacing. American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
  3. Laser skin Resurfacing. Colorado Plastic Surgery.
  4. Skin Resurfacing. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

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