Best Laser Treatment for Sun Damage (Which One is Right for You?)

The sun is a powerful source of radiation that can take away your skin’s youthful look. With laser treatment, light can undo whatever harm light has done.

Laser treatment is one of the first-line therapies for sun-damaged skin. The technique is precise, producing excellent cosmetic results but few side effects.

In this article, we explain how laser energy can rejuvenate your skin. We also discuss the different forms of laser therapy and what you can expect during the treatment course.
sun damage example

How Does the Sun Damage Your Skin?

Your skin protects you from the elements, but too much sun exposure can throw off some of its vital cellular processes.

Ultraviolet light, particularly UV-A, enhances melanin production, which creates dark spots. UV-A also breaks down collagen, DNA and other important structures. Damaged DNA reduces your skin’s ability to heal and replace lost collagen. Infrared (IR) light contributes to the injury by degrading elastin.

These changes take away your skin’s radiance and suppleness over time. Among vulnerable individuals, they can also affect health on a deeper level.

What Does Sun Damage on Skin Look Like?

Sun damage produces signs of aging skin, such as:

  • Fine wrinkles
  • Dark spots, melasma, uneven skin tone or other pigmentation problems
  • Spider veins and easy bruising
  • Coarseness
  • Loss of firmness and elasticity
  • Enlarged oil glands and pores
  • Actinic keratosis or other outgrowths that can transform into cancer

Too much sun not only ruins your complexion but also increases your skin cancer risk.

How Can Lasers Treat Sun Damage?

The goal of laser treatment is to stimulate tissue renewal and collagen formation by controlled injury of the skin. Lasers emit high-energy light beams of only one color. Unlike sunlight, which has a wide light spectrum and damages randomly, lasers have specific molecular targets. For skin resurfacing lasers, the target molecules are usually water, hemoglobin and melanin.

  • Water absorbs IR light. Longer IR rays are strongly absorbed, so they don’t make it past the epidermis and upper dermis. Meanwhile, shorter ones make it to the lower dermis without damaging the superficial layers.
  • Hemoglobin, the pigment that makes your blood red, absorbs visible light, specifically, green-yellow light.
  • Melanin, the main epidermal pigment, absorbs IR, visible and UV rays. Lasers emitting short IR waves are weakly absorbed, making them suitable for skin of color.

The differences in these molecules’ light interactions and distribution explain laser therapy’s precision.

how sun damage works

What Laser Types Do Dermatologists Use for Sun Damage Treatment?

Laser dermatologists use different laser skin resurfacing procedures to correct sun damage. They can be classified as ablative or non-ablative.

Ablative Lasers

Ablative lasers include the carbon dioxide (CO2) and erbium:yttrium aluminum garnet (Er:YAG) lasers. They emit long IR waves that can vaporize the superficial skin cells. They cause more inflammation than their non-ablative counterparts but also produce superior and more dramatic results. Ablative lasers are suitable for more severe lesions like deep wrinkles and actinic keratoses.

The Er:YAG laser uses an IR wavelength that is more strongly absorbed by water. It creates less damage and is more precise than the CO2 laser. However, in expert hands, CO2 laser therapy can be more effective for skin rejuvenation.

Ablative lasers generally require injectable pain medication and longer downtime. Additionally, they may cause some severe side effects if not properly done. Combining the techniques, shortening the pulse duration or using the fractional approach can reduce complications without compromising the results.

Before the Treatment

Your doctor will give you a thorough health exam to make sure that an ablative laser procedure is right for you. Once you get a treatment schedule, you may be advised to do the following before coming in:

  • Apply a topical anti-inflammatory medication to reduce downtime.
  • Take oral antibiotics. Ablative treatments wound the skin and risk bacterial infection.
  • Take cold sore medication. The procedure can make you prone to the virus that causes the condition.
  • Stop photosensitizing treatments and blood thinners.
  • Get a medical clearance if you are being treated for a chronic illness.
During the Treatment

You will be given a protective eye covering. The dermatologist will clean the treatment area and inject pain medication. The laser will then be applied on the site.

After the Treatment

Ablative procedures lead to dramatic changes even after only one session, so repeat treatments are not always necessary. However, the downtime may take weeks to months.

Expect redness and swelling right after your session, for these are normal inflammatory symptoms. They resolve spontaneously after a few days. Less common side effects are:

  • Excessive bleeding
  • Skin irritation
  • Acne
  • Infection
  • Cold sores
  • Pigmentation problems
  • Scarring
  • Repeat injury of previously treated skin areas

You may be advised to do the following for your aftercare regimen:

  • Proper wound care, which your dermatologist will teach you.
  • Put an ice pack on the area.
  • Take over-the-counter medication for pain and inflammation control.
  • Avoid harsh treatments and cosmetics until the wound has dried up.
  • Protect the treated area from the sun.
  • If skin redness persists, topical ascorbic acid may help.

Non-Ablative Lasers

Non-ablative treatments include the pulsed dye laser (PDL), intense pulsed light (IPL) and non-ablative Fraxel laser. The light beams in these procedures hit deeper targets in the skin but leave most of the epidermis intact. The results are gradual and modest, so they are less effective for treating severely sun-damaged skin.

Non-ablative lasers do not create open wounds or cause significant pain. Their side effects are also usually mild.

PDL targets hemoglobin and is suited for areas with prominent blood vessels. The VBeam treatment relies on this type of laser.

In IPL treatment, the equipment uses a broad light spectrum, although it filters light to target melanin, hemoglobin or dermal water selectively. It can, therefore, correct a wider range of skin conditions, including fine lines, spider veins and liver spots. It produces short IR rays that are gentle on dark skin.

The non-ablative Fraxel laser treatment uses the fractional approach. Instead of injuring large areas, its IR laser creates microscopic cuts deep in the dermis between columns of healthy tissue. Recovery is quick because it produces multiple repair areas from the spared tissues. This therapy induces significant collagen formation but causes little inflammation. It can improve rough skin texture, spider veins and unwanted pigment.

Before the Treatment

Your doctor may advise you to do the following to prepare for a non-ablative laser therapy session:

  • Take cold sore medication.
  • Avoid photosensitizing treatments and blood thinners.
  • Secure a medical clearance, if necessary.

During the Treatment

You will be asked to wear a protective eye covering. Your dermatologist will clean the treatment site then apply the laser beam in pulses. The equipment numbs the skin with a cold, numbing mist, so you won’t need pain medication during your session. The doctor will apply a cooling gel on the area if you’re getting IPL therapy.

After the Treatment

The downtime after non-ablative laser therapy is minimal to none. However, the cosmetic changes are gradual and become noticeable only after multiple sessions. The number of treatments varies for each patient, though they are usually spaced about four weeks apart.

The usual side effects of these procedures are redness and swelling, which go away after a day or two. You may also observe some blistering and transient hyperpigmentation, but scarring and infection are rare.

You may do the following for your aftercare regimen:

  • Put an ice pack on the area to reduce swelling and redness.
  • Apply sun protection.
  • Avoid activities that trigger skin flushing.
  • Drink plenty of water to flush out the damaged cells.
  • You may use makeup again right after your session.

With adequate sun protection, the effects of laser skin resurfacing procedures can last for years. Laser treatment is safer and more cost-effective than a facelift in treating a wide variety of lesions caused by sun damage.

sun damage treatment

Which Laser Treatment is the Best for Sun Damage?

There are several factors to consider when choosing which laser therapy to use.

  • The kind of skin condition you have and its severity. There is no single form of laser treatment that works well for all blemishes.
  • Your doctor’s expertise. You can ensure the best results when you choose a highly skilled laser skin resurfacing specialist.
  • Your expected results. Lasers will not solve all skin problems. Additionally, the benefits of any treatment must be weighed against its potential risks.
  • Your skin type. Dark skin is more light-sensitive because of its high melanin content. Additionally, individuals of color are more prone to keloid formation. Setting the light source to short IR, which melanin absorbs weakly, reduces the risk of developing unwanted side effects.
  • Your medical history and previous skin treatments, which will let the doctor know if laser therapy is safe for you.
  • The lesion’s anatomic site, which impacts the effectiveness and safety of the procedure.

Your doctor at BHSkin Dermatology will work closely with you so you may get the optimum treatment for your sun-damaged skin.

Can Lasers Reverse Sun Damage?

Lasers can enhance the appearance of sun-damaged skin but not the speed of DNA repair. So total reversal is not possible with this type of treatment alone.

In terms of cosmetic outcomes, the most aggressive laser treatment, the non-fractionated CO2 laser, can improve the appearance of deep wrinkles by as much as 90%. Gentler procedures are not as effective on deep wrinkles as they are on fine lines and spider veins.


Excessive sun exposure can age your skin and increase your cancer risk. Laser treatment is one of the methods that dermatologists recommend for rejuvenating sun-damaged skin. It is precise, generally safe and produces satisfactory cosmetic results. It has several types, and your dermatologist will help you choose the best one for you.

How to Keep Your Skin Looking Young in Sunny LA

Los Angeles is a wonderful place to live in, but the sun can wear out your beautiful skin. At BHSkin Dermatology, our laser resurfacing experts can help you restore that youthful glow.

Can’t wait to look fabulous for your age? Book your appointment today at our Encino or Glendale clinic or our virtual portal.

Get superior skincare from LA's finest dermatologists

Book the type of an appointment that suits you best.


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