What?s a four letter word for a skin condition that affects nearly 80 percent of the population in various forms and can cause considerable emotional stress? If you answered acne, then you hit this hard-to-treat condition on the head. While a more difficult question might have been how to treat acne, dermatologists are at the forefront of using laser technology to stop acne in its tracks – and prevent the acne scars that are often a result.
Speaking today at the 62nd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), dermatologist Tina S. Alster, MD, Clinical Professor of Dermatology, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., discussed how dermatologists have added non-ablative laser therapy to their regimen in the battle against acne.
No. 1 Skin Condition
Acne is the most commonly diagnosed skin disorder in the United States, topping the list of reasons that patients seek out the help of a dermatologist. While studies show that acne is not caused by diet or stress but by physiological factors such as hormones, excess oil and bacteria, patients often place the blame on their own shoulders.
Acne patients are often times truly frustrated, and rightfully so, said Dr. Alster. They hear mixed messages about the causes of acne and sometimes spend an enormous amount of time and money trying to treat the condition with the latest over-the-counter products. By the time I see them in my office, the acne usually has worsened to the point that it is affecting their self-esteem and social lives. But it?s important to remember that acne is a treatable medical condition.
Acne lesions are prevalent on parts of the body where there is a high concentration of pores that contain oil-producing sebaceous follicles, such as the face, neck, chest, shoulders, and upper back. When these follicles become clogged and inflamed, blackheads and whiteheads develop. If a whitehead or blackhead ruptures, its infected contents come into contact with the skin and the infection spreads – producing what is classically referred to as a zit. In a worst-case scenario, the zit becomes so badly infected it turns into a cyst that is located deep in the skin. If left untreated, these painful lesions can lead to an acne scar.
Until recently, a combination of topical and oral medications – including antibiotics – has been used almost exclusively with varying degrees of success to combat acne. Now, dermatologists are using non-ablative laser technology to successfully treat active acne and the scarring that often results as well.
One of the main benefits of non-ablative lasers, in contrast to their ablative counterparts, is that they can clear acne without producing a notable injury to the outer layer of the skin. Non-ablative therapy works by targeting the overactive sebaceous glands that are responsible for acne. The laser emits a wavelength of light that is strongly absorbed by water within the skin. This generates heat in and around the sebaceous glands. By creating a mild thermal injury just below the skin?s surface, a non-ablative laser alters the structure and function of the sebaceous gland, leading to prolonged acne clearance.
“I believe that laser-based applications for acne will one day become the preferred treatment option for acne patients, many of which are dissatisfied with topical and systemic treatments and are wary of their risks and side effects,” explained Dr. Alster. “I use non-ablative therapy extensively in my practice, and I’ve found it to be a safe and cost-effective treatment that has dramatically changed my patients’ lives for the better.”
Non-ablative treatments typically take between five to 20 minutes, during which time the patient experiences a slight snapping or stinging sensation that is alleviated with a pre-treatment topical anesthetic and post-treatment ice application. A series of three to five treatments are delivered at monthly intervals in order to achieve the desired clearance.
Marked reduction in acne lesions often occurs within a couple of treatment sessions, and a series of treatments should result in acne clearance for more than six months. Side effects are limited to mild redness and swelling, which will not interfere with a person?s daily activities.
Acne?s Cruel Reminders
Non-ablative laser therapy is also being used to successfully treat the scars that remain long after the initial acne has been cleared. While acne scars rarely pose a health risk, they are difficult to treat and can be very damaging to a person?s self-esteem. Traditionally, dermatologists have used dermabrasion, surgical excision, and fillers, such as collagen, to diminish scarring. However, the results in many cases were limited.
Over the last several years, laser technology has assumed an increasingly important role in the treatment of acne scars. At first, ablative lasers were used to sculpt or vaporize the skin’s surface. Now, techniques involving non-ablative lasers have taken over, thanks primarily to their ability to promote collagen growth beneath an acne scar without creating an external injury.
“Our experience has shown that patients treated with this therapy experience significant improvement in the appearance of their acne scars, said Dr. Alster. After a series of three monthly non-ablative treatments, patients have many times exceeded our expectations and often outperformed the results obtained by ablative lasers.”
With medical technology advancing at a rapid rate, Dr. Alster cautioned patients to be sure to consult a dermatologist experienced in laser therapy for proper treatment.
“Don?t be afraid to ask your physician questions about his or her experience and qualifications or training with a particular procedure, said Dr. Alster. Since any type of laser procedure can carry potential side effects, it?s important to entrust your care to qualified hands.”