For a wide variety of repair jobs, dermatologists use lasers that zap the skin with light or heat. Lasers can remove dark (but not light-colored) hairs from the chin or upper lip, "liver" or age spots, and broken capillaries or spider veins and rosacea. Most laser procedures involve multiple treatments over a period of weeks, and then touch-ups after a year or more. Lasers can scar or permanently darken or lighten your skin, and people with dark skin are at greater risk of unwanted color changes, warns McKeehen.
There are different types of lasers, big and small, and they differ considerably in how much downtime they require after the procedure. A dermatologist may use a photosensitizer — a chemical that makes your skin more sensitive to light — to enhance the laser's effectiveness. If so, you must be very (very) good about staying indoors and away from all sunlight for a couple of days after the procedure, or you will risk a serious burn, says Jeffrey Orringer, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. Also, some illnesses and medications make you sensitive to light and would prohibit you from getting laser treatments.
Cost: Between $1,000 and $3,000, but the costs can be much lower for less-involved treatments.
Frequency: Three to five times over several weeks; touch-ups after a year.
Recovery time: Varies depending on treatment, but up to two weeks of redness; skin can have a severe sunburn reaction.
To decrease wrinkles without surgery, dermatologists are applying heat, in the form of "radio frequency." One technique, Thermage CPT, "truly tightens the skin," says Debra Jaliman, a dermatologist in New York City. "It's like shrink-wrapping," she says. The original Thermage didn't work, she concedes, which gave the procedure a bad name. With the new version, you get about 10 percent tightening initially, and additional tightening over the next six months. Just how much more varies from person to person. The older you are, the more-limited results you will get, Jaliman says. She adds that smokers don't do as well as nonsmokers, "and the more sun damage, the less dramatic results will be."
Cost: $960 to $3,500.
Frequency: Once is usually enough.
Recovery time: Full activity may be resumed immediately.
Tina Adler writes about health, science and the environment.