Skin Deep

Facts about lasers and other light wavelengths

The use of lasers in medicine is one of the biggest breakthroughs of the last century, but they are commonly misunderstood.

Today, dermatologists and other physicians have access to an astonishing array of light- and energy-based devices that are effective for treating a wide variety of medical conditions and cosmetic concerns, but it’s important to understand the basics.

Technically, laser stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” In practice, laser treatments for the skin isolate one particular wavelength, which affects a specific part of the skin. For example, different lasers can target pigment of different colors (like brown discoloration, bruises, port wine stains or tattoo ink) or the pigment found in the hair follicles.

Certain laser wavelengths can also be used to resurface the skin either superficially or deeply. Lasers are extremely effective for a variety of skin concerns, but they aren’t the only option.

Intense Pulsed Light (or IPL) is a close relative of lasers, but rather than delivering a single wavelength of light, IPL is capable of emitting pulses (as opposed to a steady beam) of a variety of wavelengths. This is why IPL is often used for improving redness, brown spots and other aesthetic concerns with just one device.

IPL can also be customized for individual patients to address their specific needs. The size of the beams emitted by IPL devices are also larger than laser beams, which means they can cover more surface area in less time (making it a good option for hair removal).

IPL has also been found to be effective for rosacea, broken blood vessels, sun damage, wrinkles, scars, acne and tattoos—all with little to no downtime.

There are pros and cons of each, including cost, recovery and the need for multiple treatments—and a thorough discussion with your dermatologist can help determine which treatment best fits your needs, lifestyle and budget.

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