Can You Handle the Heat? What the Buzziest Laser Treatments Actually Feel Like

Photo: Stocksy/Chelsea Victoria
Ask any seasoned beauty editor if they’ve tried the treatments their careers have been spent writing about, and you’ll likely receive mixed responses. The deep-tissue massage at Paul LaBrecque? Yes, and it was amazing. The micro-current facial at Mario Tricoci? Of course, would do it again. It’s the medical treatments that get tricky: A lot of procedures are so cutting-edge or specific (How can I remove that unwanted tattoo? Or: How do I erase the summer's rays from my complexion) that a doctor’s explanation is often as deep as one can dive. Despite their inherent mystery, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS) reported that last year saw a near 20 percent increase in light and laser treatments, with over three million procedures performed in 2017. And one can hardly scoff at the wide-ranging benefits from sun-damage reduction to collagen stimulation.

In an effort to finally experience a few of the most futuristic developments firsthand, I turned to a team of professionals in fields that range from optometry to complexion perfection to gather the facts. “The general trend in cosmetic procedures is patients seeking lower downtimes, and it is always safer to make slow, incremental improvements,” shares Dr. Arash Akhavan, the board certified dermatologist and founder of The Dermatology & Laser Group in New York City who’s built a reputation for his expertise in leading technology (and a particularly light touch). “We always stress to err on the side of natural and gradual results—there are no quick and easy fixes, and overall aesthetic improvement is a commitment.” Commitment, indeed.  After over a dozen separate sessions and months spent calculating the real results, my time as a technological guinea pig is happily up for review.

But before we go there, take note: The dermatologists and pros, who I spoke with said that each of these lasers (with the exception of BBL which is particularly good at targeting redness in fairer complexions) mentioned below are safe for all skin tones; however, they also emphasized that it was wildly important to vet and trust the practitioner who will be performing the laser treatment. As with many in-office treatments make sure to have a chat about your skin ahead of getting anything done for the best results. Aside from that, keep scrolling for insight on what six new wave treatments really feel like, and what you can realistically expect.

To address skin texture and tone: PicoSure Focus

The best party trick of new treatments is tackling multiple skin health issues in one trip. “Patients wanting improvement in both skin texture and tone are the ideal candidates for PicoSure Focus,” explains Dr. Akhavan in the honest and direct manner that I came to expect on my trips to his luxurious 57th Street office in Manhattan. How does it work? “The treatment uses laser light to activate the body’s wound healing pathway in treated cells—this induces new skin formation as well as new collagen formation.” Concerned about all of the above, I was immediately at ease as Alyssa DiBenedetto, director of aesthetics, began to smooth numbing gel across my face. Once my eyes were covered in tiny goggles worthy of Gigi Hadid’s street style collection, the device’s hand piece was then passed gently over my features with a sensation of soft static electricity charging across my skin, and it was truly painless.

After just a few minutes I was already marveling in a handheld mirror at how little redness I saw, which studies back me up on. I grabbed a Mod Skin NYC So Much C Cream ($86) on my way out the door to boost the results, and walked straight to drinks, where all attending were none the wiser until I mentioned where I’d come from that evening. After a few weeks I saw noticeably brighter skin tone, but was most impressed when, after my second treatment a month later, I was swimming with a friend who inquired politely if I’d had Botox recently even though my “entire face still obviously moved.” She was right to ask, as the shallow (but visible) forehead lines I usually hid under my bangs had since smoothed to a taught, mirror-like finish—no injections necessary.

To remove unwanted body hair: Nd:YAG Laser

Describing a cosmetic treatment as “life-changing” may seem extreme, but my first trip to Manhattan’s Beam Laser Spa was nothing short. Of course, the soaring girl power movement has removed body hair’s former stigma to everyone’s delight, but that doesn’t mean that I suddenly stopped desiring smooth, dolphin-like limbs. After years of struggling with irritation from rudimentary removal attempts, I called up Andréa Young, who founded Beam’s airy, boutique-like studio with her sister and staffed an exclusively female team. “How exactly does it work?” I asked, already laying on a soft table as she marked zap-worthy sections of my body with a white Wet-and-Wild eyeliner. “The laser eradicates hair by directing a large amount of heat to the root, which weakens the follicle,” she explained, noting that the days of its technology only working for the very fair are over thanks to dual wavelength and Nd:YAG lasers, which studies have shown work on darker skin tones without the threat of hyperpigmentation. That said, everyone can have different reactions, so make sure your practitioner does a patch test to make sure that it's copacetic with your skin.

The pulses felt a bit like a hot rubber band snap colliding with a cool mist and even though she offered up a stress ball to soothe my pre-laser nerves, I didn't need it. Hair evaporated with the blast or gently fell out in the days following, and either disappeared or grew back noticeably thinner leading up to my next treatment two months later. Young's strict guidelines about wearing sunscreen to protect freshly treated skin had the added benefit of serving as a constant reminder to reapply my beloved Coola Eco Lux SPF 50 ($36), something that wasn’t foreign to her. “Since prolonged sun exposure should be avoided in conjunction with laser hair removal, we have many clients mention an increased awareness of their protection." Of course this is necessary since laser treatments can make you more sun-sensitive, but once this threat fades as weeks go by, Young says that many clients are left with good habits in place.

To address vision complications: Contoura Vision with The Wavelight

I spent the majority of life legally blind, over-wearing contact lenses and inflaming my corneas to the point where one optometrist told me, at age 25, that my eyes resembled those of a 62-year-old woman—yet I still doubted LASIK. Why, when so many other technologies were advancing, did the surgery that altered a sense as important as your vision seem stuck in the noughties? When I was invited to a press screening of a new correction technique called Contoura Vision, I hustled over and shook Eric Donnenfeld’s  hand, an MD, clinical professor of ophthalmology at NYU, and surgeon trusted to perform laser vision correction on over 1,000 ophthalmologists, optometrists, and their families. Donnenfeld shared how the treatment is customized to each individual eye, which is scanned and analyzed with over 20,000 unique elevation points. “This information is sent to the laser to create a unique, personalized ablation profile which is then delivered precisely to the patient’s cornea,” he explained, noting that 65 percent of patients in FDA trials tested better than 20/20 vision after Contoura.

In a few weeks I was taking my first doctor-prescribed Valium to chill out pre-procedure, then was led cheerfully to the operating room in little booties and a hair net. A few anesthetic eye drops were administered, and I was placed under the first machine which painlessly prepped (read: sliced) my corneas, then a second machine which housed the laser. This appointment was trippy. As I held my eyes open, everything went black with flashes of red and green—but no pain, no fear—just a few seconds in a new world and then it was all over in what felt like 10 minutes. Clear lenses were taped over my eyes to protect them as I slept, and after eight hours of rest I returned for my first exam. Unsurprisingly, I already had 20/20 vision, which only continued to improve over the weeks and months that later passed. The actual hardest part of all? Skipping my signature eyeliner for a few days (yes, really).

To nix fine lines: TempSure

Steering clear of artificial fillers for now? Released this year, there’s a lowkey, futuristic option for fine lines that feels more like a facial than a doctor appointment. "Although patients will always get the best cosmetic results from combining various therapies, TempSure is a great alternative to Botox and filler for those wishing to avoid the use of injectables,” explains Dr. Akhavan, who of course was the first in New York to house the new technology. He explains how radiofrequency procedures like this build collagen in various levels of our skin, which leads to lasting improvements in elasticity. Similar to PicoSure’s wound-healing credentials, he explains that, “TempSure gently but effectively heats the skin to the point that a process of collagen production called ‘the wound-healing pathway’ is activated—this is the same pathway our skin uses to repair itself after injuries, such as paper cuts." Four sessions a month apart can create results that boost skin quality long term.

For this, no numbing cream was even required, and instead a clear goop (not unlike the stuff you use ahead of flipping on the NuFace) was applied to my face before DiBenedetto rolled the device around for a few minutes in each area. I started to drift away, thanks to the sensation of a hot stone massage or some kind of dreamy energy healing facial taking place. After making passes over sections of my complexion for about half an hour, the immediate visual effect smooth and fresh, a little pink, but only momentarily—a bit like a lymphatic drainage treatment. Safe on any skin tone, the procedure can be applied all over the body, and for all ages. Although it’s ideal for aging complexions, “skin of younger patients is typically better able to generate collagen in response to cosmetic therapies,” Dr. Akhavan notes, and adds that new collagen is produced over the course of three to four months, which is right about when I started to see the little smile lines around my mouth gently smooth and subtly tighten.

To obliterate redness and sun damage: BBL

While long exposure to low-levels of light (the sun, iPhone screens, and the like) can be the culprit for creating unwanted pigmentation, short exposure to targeted, high-intensity light can actually help remove pigmentation and redness. “BBL (BroadBand Light) helps to decrease sun damage and hyperpigmentation, minimize pores and fine lines, and also helps to lighten or reduce red blood vessels on the face,” explained Shay Moinuddin, aesthetic nurse specialist at Chicago’s highly awarded skin clinic, The Few Institute. I’d stopped by the office after complaining of dark spots that had surfaced on my face after too many daylight strolls, not to mention a last-minute breakout before I had to go on camera later that week, sans makeup, to film a beauty tutorial.

Since IPL (intense pulsed light) was an option that Dr. Akhavan had mentioned to relax inflamed spots, I wondered if BBL also help. Moinuddin made no promise of disappearing blemishes, but agreed to give it a shot. What to actually expect? “A specific wavelength of light pulls pigment from the skin, and also uses heat to destroy the lining of blood vessels, which helps to make them fade away or lighten significantly,” said Moinuddin. An added bonus? “The heat also stimulates collagen production which helps to soften fine lines and shrink larger pores.” This treatment, in particular, is most frequently performed on those with lighter skin tones since the device searches for pigment in one's skin, so a doctor's assessment before booking is essential.

With my eyes carefully covered with goggles, she pressed a handheld prism-like attachment against my face, emitting a flash so bright that I could see it through closed eyelids. The bursts continued across my face, feeling like little more than a buzz on the surface. Once goggles were removed, I peered at my skin and noticed little dark speckles that looked like freckles and simply faded away as I washed my face over the next couple of days—and the redness from my breakouts was visibly curbed. No peeling, no flaking, and no downtime made this yet another easy lunch hour appointment which brightened my skin even more after another round. “It normally takes four weeks to start to see improvement in the skin after your first treatment,” shared Moinuddin, though I was sure that this was a shorter timeline IRL. Two treatments in, I’m already enjoying the perks of authentic no-makeup makeup.

To tackle hyperpigmentation: The Lumenis PiQo4

One of the most powerful forms of pigmentation-reducing, collagen-enhancing laser therapy, the Lumenis PiQo4 was the final terrain of my low-downtime technology trek. “The Lumenis PiQo4 procedure is innovative in that it uses photoacoustic technology to break up pigmentation, and is ideal for almost every skin type, texture, and tone,” explained Dr. Anil Shah, a facial plastic surgeon who serves as an assistant professor at University of Chicago Medical Center. In layman’s terms? “The laser is really fast (think 1 trillionth of a second fast) so that the beam will smash the particle to be absorbed by the body later. As a result of this energy, Liobs (Light Induced Optical Bodies) are formed which can create collagen with minimal downtime.”

For this trip, no numbing cream was applied—and I could feel the difference, thanks to the superhigh fluence. “Fluence is a fancy way of saying power,” noted MaryKate Schmidt, Dr. Shah’s laser technician who performed a few artistic passes over my face with the device that felt like hot pin pricks. After, aside from the typical redness that subsided within a couple of hours (and could easily be covered with a tiny bit of BareMinerals ultra-gentle foundation powder) I noticed a teeny tiny honeycomb-shaped red mark under my chin that soon disappeared to reveal a more even-toned complexion. With three treatments for best results, I’m due for another round to undo the damage of an endless summer.

Now, here's how to tell the difference in good light and bad light for your skin and this is the all-important reason to put down your phone at night.

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