Dermatologists can use a laser to reduce a scar's appearance and minimize pain and itching. Laser treatment can also prevent scars from forming after surgery.
The laser helps stimulate new, healthy skin growth. Although laser treatment cannot completely remove scars, it can make them less noticeable and uncomfortable.
People can get laser therapy on many types of scar, including surgical scars, acne scars, and scars from injuries. It is also safe to use on the face.
In this article, we look at how laser treatment works, its uses and procedure, and factors to consider before getting this treatment.
Laser treatment penetrates the outer layers of skin to stimulate new, healthy skin cell growth. The laser removes older, damaged layers of skin so that new, healthy skin can grow in its place.
Laser treatments are, in essence, creating a new scar in place of an old one. However, the new skin should grow more uniformly.
The formation of scar tissue is a natural bodily response to injury. Scars are not harmful and do not require removal for medical reasons. However, if they are painful, limiting, or affect a person psychologically, a range of methods can reduce their appearance and discomfort.
Laser treatment can help with scars by:
- decreasing pain or itchiness
- reducing their appearance
- improving the range of motion of the skin around the scar
Doctors can choose from a variety of lasers that use different wavelengths of light and affect the skin in various ways. Some lasers are ablative, meaning that they remove the top layer of skin, while others are nonablative, retaining the skin's surface while affecting the layers underneath.
Some lasers may be unsuitable for certain skin tones because they may cause the skin to grow back discolored.
Examples of laser types that doctors use in scar treatment include:
- ablative fractional carbon dioxide laser
- intense pulsed light
- long-pulsed 1064-nm Nd:YAG
- nonablative fractional laser
- pulsed dye laser
- Q-switched Nd:YAG
A doctor should thoroughly evaluate a scar before recommending a laser for treatment use. They should explain the potential benefits unique to a particular laser as well as its possible side effects.
Laser treatment can help with many common types of scar, including acne scars and injury scars.
Doctors tend to recommend it for superficial scars. Deep scars or scars that restrict a person's movement will typically respond better to more intensive treatment.
A doctor may recommend laser treatment for the following types of scar:
- acne scars
- burn scars
- surgical scars
- injury scars
The American Academy of Dermatology say that laser treatment is not a cure for scars and does not remove them completely. In some cases, a doctor may recommend a combination of therapies, for example, using injectable fillers alongside laser therapy to make the scar less noticeable.
Doctors may recommend taking certain actions ahead of the procedure to ensure that it is as effective and safe as possible. These may include:
- Avoiding medicines and herbs that increase the risk of bleeding. Examples include aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen, and herbal supplements such as garlic or ginkgo biloba. It is important to tell the doctor about any prescription blood thinners.
- Avoiding products that contain glycolic acid or a retinoid for 2–4 weeks.
- Staying out of the sun and not exposing the skin to ultraviolet (UV) light for extended periods. Doctors may not be able to use laser therapy if a person has a tan or sunburn.
- Refraining from cosmetic procedures, such as chemical peels, collagen injections, and waxing.
- Quitting smoking at least 2 weeks before the procedure. Smoking impairs the skin's ability to heal, which can affect the treatment results.
On the day of the procedure, the individual should avoid using lotions, deodorants, perfumes, or any other products that could potentially interact with the laser treatment. The skin should also be clean.
Depending on the part of the body that requires treatment, a doctor will usually suggest wearing clothing that is easy to take off and put on, such as a soft button up shirt and loose fitting pants.
Before a person undergoes laser treatment, a doctor will examine the scar and mark the skin with a pen to identify the area for treatment.
The following is an example of how the treatment process may work:
- A doctor will clean the area around the scar and may inject local anesthetic or apply a numbing cream to the area.
- If the scar is on the face, they may ask the person to wear protective goggles.
- The doctor will place wet towels or gauze around the scarred area to absorb laser pulses that would otherwise affect healthy skin.
- The doctor will pass the laser over the scar tissue. They may occasionally apply a cooling saline or water solution.
- After the treatment is complete, the doctor will apply an ointment and a clean dressing to cover the area.
The treated area may remain red for several hours after the procedure. There may also be mild swelling and stinging that might feel similar to a sunburn.
After the procedure, doctors often recommend applying moisturizing lotion to the area at least twice daily and refraining from applying makeup until the redness has gone away.
A doctor should discuss potential side effects and risks with the individual before performing laser procedures. The side effects may depend on the type of laser, the severity of the scar, and the person's skin tone.
Some of the more common side effects include:
- minor bleeding
- skin infection
- skin crusting
- skin discoloration
It is also possible that the laser scar treatment could prove ineffective or worsen the scar's appearance.
If laser scar treatment is purely for cosmetic reasons, it is unlikely that medical insurance will cover the cost.
If the scar is due to surgery or is debilitating, health insurance may pay for a portion of the treatment cost. People can discuss these costs with their doctor and insurance company.
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the average cost for laser skin resurfacing, which includes scar treatment, is $2,071 for an ablative laser. The average price for nonablative laser treatment is $1,144.
A doctor is likely to advise a person to have multiple scar treatments over several months to see the best results. The suggested number of overall treatments will affect the cost as well.
We look at other ways to reduce the appearance of specific types of scar in the following articles:
Doctors may use laser therapy as a single treatment or in combination with other approaches to reduce the pain, itching, and appearance of scars. The laser ideally allows new, healthier-looking skin to grow in place of scarred skin.
If a person is concerned about a scar's cosmetic appearance or a scar is physically uncomfortable, they can talk to their doctor about treatment options.