Cold Laser Therapy: Skin Benefits, Cost, & Who Should Seek it Out
Even Meghan Markle is a fan.
The old adage of "beauty is pain" is truly never more applicable than in the case of lasers. OK, maybe plastic surgery. But in the realm of minimally invasive aesthetics, treatments designed to blast off layers of damaged skin or cause micro-damage using heat energy in an attempt to fool it into acting younger win the award for cosmetic sadism. Although injecting microdoses of a neurotoxin (like Botox) in your face to smooth fine lines is a close second, but I digress. No pain, no gain, right? Not so fast — a new(ish) laser treatment, called cold laser therapy, has been making waves for its ability to address everything from hyperpigmentation and acne to wrinkles and sagging in a completely non-invasive and pain-free treatment.
Not only are certified ageless goddesses Cate Blanchett and J.Lo fans, sources from The Well in NYC tell us Meghan Markle actually had the entire gizmo flown to London before the Royal Wedding so she could have it available to get her skin glowing via the unique treatment on the big day. According to Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board certified dermatologic surgeon at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue, cold laser therapy is a fascinating technology that has roots in the medical world.
"Cold lasers have traditionally been used for pain management, sports therapy, and chiropractic treatments," she explains. "It was only recently that cold lasers were used for aesthetic treatments because professionals realized the efficacy of the laser's healing and restoring abilities at the cellular level of skin."
Want to know more about this damage-free treatment that's got everyone talking? Keep reading to hear what the experts have to say about cold lasers, including what it is, how it works, and how it compares to traditional lasers.
As Dr. Engelman described, cold lasers — also known as red lasers or low level laser therapies (LLLT) — were originally used by doctors for pain management. The laser features a low-frequency wavelength (usually somewhere between 600 and 1000 nanometers) that penetrates through multiple skin layers. "The light causes a bodily reaction that makes the cells respond in a way that promotes regeneration," says Dr. Engelman. "Cold lasers work by impacting the ATP, chemical energy, in our bodies. Each cell in our bodies contain mitochondria, which generate most of the ATP needed to power biochemical reactions. When a cold laser is applied, it causes these mitochondria to create more cellular energy than normal. Extra ATP in body cells and tissues results in the ability to use this energy to do things such as detoxify, rebuild, regenerate, and aid in the healing process."
In the 50+ years that these low level laser therapies have been in use in the medical world, studies have shown that they do have a positive effect on skin cellular activity and tissue regeneration. Doctors have used LLLT on patients, "for decades to treat a host of medical issues as diverse as rebuilding cartilage and healing tendons," says celebrity facialist Joanna Czech, who herself is a devotee of the at-home cold laser treatment that's all over Instagram right now, the Lyma Laser.
The most popular form of aesthetic laser treatments generally rely on thermal energy (read: heat) to damage the skin. "Traditional laser devices, as used in clinics, work through the stress and damage response, inflicting injury to the skin in order to stimulate collagen," says Czech. Think ablative CO2 lasers, which remove the entire top surface of the skin, or non-ablative CO2 lasers which create targeted channels of injury using 1550nm (erbium) or 1927nm (thulium) wavelengths. "Although both types of laser therapy can target the same skin concerns, aesthetic lasers like fractional laser resurfacing work in a different way," says Dr. Engelman. "This type of laser therapy targets both the epidermal and dermal layers. In the epidermal layer, the outer layer of skin cells, the fractional laser stimulates cell turnover. In the dermal layer, the layer beneath the outermost skin, this laser activates collagen production. Cold lasers differ by solely promoting regeneration of skin."
Now, if you’re thinking that a cold laser sounds an awful lot like an intense pulsed light (IPL) or red light-emitting diode (LED) treatment, you’d be forgiven — they are quite similar. As Dr. Engelman explains, however, they may look alike but they have very different functionalities: "IPL therapy uses a very high energy on the skin, whereas LED therapy uses a lower level of energy. The light used in IPL and LED has a shorter depth of penetration [than cold laser] and scatters, which makes them ideal for treating larger areas and reducing widespread concerns," she says. And Czech adds, "Fundamentally LED and laser light are two completely different light forms. Whereas when LED reaches a dense surface like the skin, it bounces off the surface, whereas laser light can penetrate all the way past the fat and muscle tissue beneath the skin, without losing any physiological power."
Here's where the real beauty of cold lasers shine, so to speak: Because they don't use heat, cold lasers can be used by anyone. The limit does not exist for skin tones and people with inflammatory conditions, including eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, acne, and even sunburns as all are safe to use cold laser treatments — in fact, Dr. Engelman says that those conditions can even be improved with regular usage of a cold laser. The only ones who are advised to avoid cold lasers are pregnant people, as they have not yet been studied enough to know the effects on a fetus.
So, why isn't this treatment at every dermatologist's office and spa in the country? Despite showing promising results, says Dr. Engelman, the studies for aesthetic results are not as plentiful as their thermal counterparts. And, notes Laura Conroy, director of education at The Well, you need quite a few more treatments in order to see comparable results. The Well's 90-minute Complete Laser Therapy treatment (available now at their NYC location, coming soon to their Connecticut wellness retreat at The Mayflower Inn) consists of a specialized machine that features red laser, plus green and blue LED for $515 a session. According to Conroy, in order to see best results, clients should initially come in once a week for six weeks, followed by maintenance treatments once a month. The FDA-approved Lyma Laser at-home system rings in at $2,695. Typically a fractional laser treatment will set you back anywhere from $800 to $4,000 a treatment, depending on where you live and what you get done.
As Conroy explains, cold lasers are for people who want to see an improvement in their skin, but more importantly, are interested in the actual condition of their skin. "I think it's an appeal to somebody who's actually looking for the health of their skin," she says. "It's not going to make somebody who's 50 look 20. What this is doing is helping to restore health and helping you optimize your skin's health for your age. Over time, it can really help to improve the health of your skin and that's what we're really focusing on."Megan McIntyre