Cosmetic Laser Terminology

Explanation of common laser skin treatment terms |

Below are explanations for some of the most common laser therapy terms:

  • Laser: Laser is an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." Lasers work by emitting a wavelength of high energy light, which when focused on a certain skin condition (i.e. sun spots) will create heat and treat the problem via destruction (i.e. removing the sun spots). There are many different wavelengths (or colors) of lasers because each wavelength treats different things. That explains why so many models and types of lasers exist.

  • Selective Photothermolysis: Photothermolysis means using light (photo) to heat (thermo) a selected area for destruction (lysis). It is the process by which lasers work to treat skin problems.

  • Ablative: Ablative lasers were the first type of laser to be used in laser skin resurfacing. They vaporize the top layer of your skin, physically removing (destroying) any skin damage you want to treat and allowing healthy skin to grow back. Old school CO2 laser resurfacing is an example of an ablative procedure. Nowadays, ablative lasers (not fractionated, which is explained below) are rarely used for the face because of the long downtime. It takes months to recover and multiple ablative treatments to get desired results. Some people are also subject to a high risk of scarring and hyper/hypo-pigmentation.

  • Non-Ablative: Non-ablative lasers penetrate into deep layers of skin without removing the top layer of skin. Therefore, they can treat skin issues without damaging the surface of your skin. These lasers are a significant improvement over ablative lasers because of the large decrease in recovery time. Many non-ablative lasers claim to have "no downtime" and are even advertised as "lunch-time" procedures. However, in my experience, even with a non-ablative laser, you will still experience side effects. But you will be able to go back to your normal life far more quickly than with an ablative laser treatment.

  • Fractional: While non-ablative lasers were less invasive than ablative lasers, they proved to be weaker. Because of this, fractionated cosmetic lasers were developed. Fractionated, fractional, or fractionally means that a laser beam is split into hundreds of tiny beams (a bunch of dots) instead of one solid beam. Therefore, when a fractionated laser penetrates your skin, it penetrates in a scattered way, treating some skin while leaving skin in between alone. In other words, your skin is only fractionally treated with a laser because the laser beam has been split up (think string cheese instead of a block of cheese). Instead of getting one solid dose of laser in a specific area of your skin, you get a spread out dose, receiving the same benefits minus the downtime. The first fractionated laser was Fraxel, but any type of laser can be fractionated - fractionated ablative lasers, fractionated non-ablative lasers, fractionated carbon dioxide lasers, fractionated nd: yags, etc.

  • Pixel Laser: Pixel lasers or pixel technology means the cosmetic laser in question has been fractionated.

  • Continuous Wave: A continuous wave (CW) laser is a laser beam that is constant. The laser emits high energy light non-stop, unlike pulsed lasers which emit laser beams in short bursts. Old cosmetic laser technologies like carbon dioxide lasers and argon lasers are examples of continuous wave lasers. CW lasers are not used to treat facial skin anymore because there are other lasers that produce the same results without such severe side effects and downtime.

  • Pulsed: A pulsed laser delivers laser beams in pulses. Instead of lasing your skin in one continuous beam, pulsed lasers zap your skin in beats. Therefore, instead of going zaaaaaaap like a continuous wave laser, pulsed lasers go zap, zap, zap. There are long-pulsed pulsed lasers, with a pulse duration of around 30-50 milliseconds, and short-pulsed pulsed lasers, with a pulse duration of around 5-100 nanoseconds.

  • Q-Switched: Q-switching refers to the technique of making a laser produce a high intensity beam in very short pulses. Q-switched lasers are a type of pulsed laser, but they are short-pulsed pulsed lasers with durations of 5-100 nanoseconds. Q-switched lasers are usually used for tattoo removal on skin.

  • Long-Pulsed: A long-pulsed laser is a pulsed laser that has a pulse duration of approximately 30-50 milliseconds. It's still a very short pulse, but compared to short-pulsed pulses, long-pulse pulses are relatively long.

  • Diode Laser: A diode laser emits a wavelength of light at 800nm. They are usually used for hair removal, skin pigmentations, and vascular lesions like spider veins.

  • Argon Laser: An argon laser is an ablative, continuous wave laser with argon as the medium. It's an older laser technology and used to be used for laser skin resurfacing. However, because it had a lot of side effects, it is not used that much in cosmetic medicine anymore.

  • Carbon Dioxide Laser (CO2 Laser): Like argon lasers, carbon dioxide lasers were one of the first cosmetic lasers used to treat skin conditions. A carbon dioxide laser is very strong and can cut into or vaporize skin tissue. As the name suggests, it uses carbon dioxide as its medium. A continuous wave carbon dioxide laser is not as favorable anymore to treat facial skin conditions because of the severe associated downtime. Instead, the carbon dioxide lasers used on skin today are fractional carbon dioxide lasers. Continuous wave carbon dioxide lasers are still used to remove moles and other skin issues though.

  • Erbium Laser: An erbium laser is an ablative laser used for skin resurfacing. Like carbon dioxide lasers, erbium lasers vaporize the surface of your skin. However, they do not penetrate as deeply as CO2 lasers and are therefore used to treat moderate wrinkles and photoaging on the face, hands, and neck. Non-fractionated ablative lasers are rarely used for the skin anymore because fractional lasers are less invasive. There are several models of fractionated erbium lasers used today.

  • Dye Laser: A dye laser is a laser with organic dye as the active medium. The most popular type of cosmetic dye laser is the pulsed dye laser.

  • KTP Laser: KTP stands for potassium (K) titanyl phosphate (TP). A KTP laser uses potassium titanyl phosphate crystal as its medium. KTP lases are known as green colored cosmetic lasers and they are used to treat vascular lesions, such as broken capillaries, spider veins, and redness in the skin.

  • Nd:Yag Laser: An Nd:Yag laser is a laser that uses neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet as its medium. It is one of the most common lasers, available in both continuous and pulsed modes. There are a variety of Nd:Yag lasers, which are used to remove unwanted hair and treat skin veins and facial redness.

  • Alexandrite Laser: This laser uses alexandrite as its laser source. Alexandrite lasers are used for hair and tattoo removal. They are especially good at removing green and black colored pigmentations in the skin.

  • IPL: IPL (also known as Flashlamp, photorejuvenation, and photofacial procedures) stands for intense pulsed light. IPL is not a type of laser, but a light-based treatment often referred to as a cosmetic laser treatment because they both treat similar skin conditions in similar ways. IPL uses short bursts of high intensity light from specific flash lamps to selectively destroy pigment cells, capillaries, and hair roots on your skin. Therefore, IPL is used to treat pigmentation, vascular lesions, rosacea, hair removal, and photorejuvenation. IPL is better for people who have light, pale skin. Though post-treatment side effects resemble a sunburn, some people actually experience skin blisters.

  • Fraxel: Fraxel is a family of three cosmetic lasers made by a company called Solta. All three lasers in the Fraxel family use fractional photothermolysis to treat certain skin conditions. There are two non-ablative Fraxel lasers and one ablative Fraxel laser. The two non-ablative lasers are Fraxel re:fine (used for skin rejuvenation and minimizing fine facial lines) and Fraxel re:store (used for skin resurfacing, treating photodamage, and reducing the appearance of acne scars). The ablative laser is Fraxel re:pair, which uses a CO2 laser to treat skin pigmentation and deeper facial wrinkles. Fraxel was one of the first fractionated lasers on the market.

  • Vbeam: Vbeam is the name of a pulsed dye laser manufactured by the company Candela. It treats rosacea, port wine stains (birthmarks), and broken blood vessels, essentially minimizing any skin condition involving redness. Vbeam uses a cooling spray with each laser pulse to minimize pain from the treatment.

  • Radiofrequency (RF): Similar to how lasers are an energy source, radiofrequency is also an energy source for aesthetic medical procedures. The most common cosmetic treatment using radiofrequency is Thermage, a device developed by the same company that makes Fraxel. Radiofrequency is used to heat (or damage) deep layers of your skin (without damaging the surface) so your body will "heal" the injury, producing more collagen to tighten skin and make it look younger. However, radiofrequency contracts fat cells so many people have experienced facial fat loss and thinner faces after receiving radiofrequency treatment.

  • Infrared: Infrared is another source of energy used in cosmetic medicine. The most popular infrared skin device is called Titan. It is often used for a "non-surgical face lift." Heat from infrared energy contracts, but does not destroy, collagen in your skin. Your skin then increases its collagen production to "replace" the lost collagen, resulting in a "lift" in your skin.

  • Ultrasound: Ultrasound is the newest energy source used for cosmetic medical procedures. Ultrasound imaging allows you to visualize the tissue beneath the surface of your skin. Therefore, you can see where damage is located and target them precisely. Ultrasound facial procedures rejuvenate the skin and minimize sagging. Ulthera is the name of a popular ultrasound treatment device.

  • Skin Rejuvenation: Skin rejuvenation and photorejuvenation basically mean making your skin younger by minimizing wrinkles, pigmentation, sagginess, and other damage from photoaging. There are three main ways to rejuvenate your skin: 1) thermal photorejuvenation using radio-frequency (i.e. Thermage), 2) chemical photorejuvenation using chemical peels, and 3) mechanical photorejuvenation using cosmetic skin lasers.

  • Photoaging: Photoaging is a term used to describe the aging of the skin that occurs because of the sun's UVA and UVB rays.

This list only skims the surface of all the terminology involved with the different types of cosmetic lasers. However, it should broaden your understanding of what people mean when they talk about lasers for your skin.

To learn more about the different types and models of cosmetic lasers, read this.

Last updated: October 14, 2011

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