Lasers peel away years of skin damage

With summer around the corner, consider this a cautionary tale – with a happy ending.

Like most boomers, I spent my teen and young adult years braising in the sun. Glazed in baby oil, I lay poolside and rotated every 20 minutes, like a slab of meat on a rotisserie, to ensure even cooking.

Since I lived the first half of my life in Sun Belt areas, I could maintain my shimmering golden tan year round. My tan line never faded. Groovy, man.

Those were the days before skin cancer emerged as one of nature’s leading bogeymen and SPF became one of the world’s best-known acronyms. So I lived in bronzed ignorance of the price my skin would pay for all that solar indulgence.

While everyone’s skin tone degrades with age, the faces of tanners and smokers get the worst of it, according to experts. The damage shows up in the form of those fine lines and wrinkles that hawkers of skincare products talk about in hushed tones on TV commercials. It also shows up as unsightly veiny patches, particularly around the sides of the nose, and constellations of brown, red and pink spots all over the face. Although most are too small to be seen at a distance by the naked eye, together they create a muddy, unattractive complexion. Occasionally they become cancerous, as happened to my brother several years ago.

Rather than wait for veils to come into fashion for men, I decided some time ago to do something about my face. For at least a decade I’ve relied on Botox and fillers to minimize the worst punishments of time and sun damage. Unfortunately, those treatments do nothing to improve the tone and brightness of the skin.

Thankfully, new laser technologies have arrived that can essentially refinish your face. During my semi-annual Botox treatment in December from Dr. Andrew Campbell at Quintessa Medical Spa in Mequon, he told me about a corrective treatment program that he developed utilizing broadband light and ProFractional lasers in tandem. He dubbed his program “The Four-Week Challenge.”

In three treatments over four weeks, Campbell said I’d experience significant improvement in skin tone, color and clarity, as well as textural improvement, tightening and wrinkle reduction – and with only two or three days of downtime. Staring at my sun-fried, gray winter face in the mirror, my cracked lips parted and said, “Where do I sign up?”

Serious medicine

A medical spa is not where bridesmaids go to pamper themselves for an afternoon of bonding. As the name implies, medical spas offer serious treatments.

At first glance, however, you wouldn’t notice the difference. Quintessa occupies a stylish new building with an interior featuring natural finishes and outfitted with plush, trendy décor. The eastern wall is a floor-to-ceiling window that baths the lobby and waiting area in natural light, helping to create that ethereal feeling that’s essential to any spa experience. The staff is as smooth-skinned and as hospitable as the concierge of a high-end Las Vegas hotel.

Terri Edgar, a veteran registered nurse with an encyclopedic knowledge of laser physics, performed my four-week challenge. The lasers used are powerful devices that can be as harmful in the wrong hands as they are a blessing in the right ones. It’s critical, Campbell says, to only have qualified professionals perform laser procedures and to be sure there’s a doctor involved to handle any complications that arise.

“Many spas get a physician to be their ‘medical director,’ but the physician may not have any expertise or background in esthetic medicine, and also is not supervising this person in any sort of regular manner, nor could they if they because of their lack of knowledge,” Campbell warned. “In my opinion, it’s like the person using the laser is practicing medicine without a license.”

The first treatment, called a FotoFacial BBL, utilized broadband light that infuses heat into darker areas on the skin, such as brown and red spots. People with tans and darker skinned African Americans are not candidates.

As a result of the treatment, webs of capillaries just beneath the skin are bro- ken down and reabsorbed while brown spots turn into something resembling coffee grounds and flake off.

Edgar prepared me for the treatment by applying a numbing cream all over my face. My eyes were covered with goggles to shield them from the light. Then she zapped me for about 40 minutes, going over my face methodically.

The sensation is unpleasant but not really painful. There’s an accompanying sound and smell that reminded me literally of a mosquito zapper. Edgar’s journey across

my face was accompanied by a kind of travelogue during which she explained what she was working on and why. She also checked in with me frequently about my comfort level, which was aided by a tube blowing chilled air. I waved it across my face during the procedure, following her trail.

The results of the first treatment were immediately visible. A cluster of brown spots on the left side of my forehead, which were probably the result of driving with the window down and the sun beating against the left side of my face, disappeared. So did some red spots on my right cheek and a web of blue capillaries in the right corner of my nose.

There was some slight swelling and bruising for a day, but nothing that kept me at home. My overall appearance was noticeably smoother and softer.


The peel

The second treatment was the big one – the Artic Laser Peel and Profractional treatment. She also warned me there would be a couple of days of down time following the treatment.

“It’s like your face is an onion, and we’re peeling off a layer,” Edgar explained after I arrived with my face slathered with numbing cream, as instructed. “We’re getting rid of all the dead skin cells – the top layer that looks dull. Your face will be brighter, refreshed.”

“The microlaser peel gets rid of the most superficial layer of the skin, while the ProFractional laser vaporizes very small tunnels into the deeper layers of the skin,” Campbell explained. “The superficial treatment helps with minor textural irregularities, while the deeper treatment makes the skin heal with more collagen, which causes tightening and wrinkle reduction.”

Maximum results are seen after about three months, Edgar said.

The second procedure was significantly more uncomfortable than the first. Each zap was accompanied by a burning sensation – and there were a lot of them. In fact, Edgar left a trail of tiny grid marks across my entire face to the beard line.

For this procedure, the experience level of the laser operator is critical. She has to know how deeply to go in order to achieve the maxi- mum results without going so deep as to cause damage. (The Profractional laser can also be used under anesthesia for deeper peels, such as to remove scars.) As a result of my first treatment and her expertise, Edgar already had a sense of how my skin would respond.

After about 45 minutes, during which time I made good use of the air hose, my face was a bloody pulp. Edgar warned me before I held the mirror to my face but I was still shocked: Freddy Krueger was staring back at me.

Not everyone bleeds from this procedure, however. Every patient is different, Edgar said. I have a lot of veins just under the surface of my skin, and I bleed easily. In fact, Edgar said that I was among the more reactive patients on this score.

But the good news is that I looked a thousand times worse than I felt. In fact, the sensation in my face was no worse than a slight sunburn. And I was looking forward to shocking my partner when I got home and seeing if the cats noticed. (They didn’t.)

Over the next couple of days, I washed my face every four hours with a mild cleanser Edgar had given me, and I soaked my face in a vinegar-and-water solution applied by gauze. If possible, I looked even more monstrous on the second day. But the next day brought a radical improvement in my appearance. By the fourth day I was back out in the world, and by the fifth it was as if nothing had happened.

For a few days following the peel, I experienced some skin flaking similar to the aftermath of sunburn. The real payoff came after about 10 days, when I looked in the mirror and was rewarded with the sight of smooth, soft, radiant skin – and on my face! It had happened so fast that it didn’t seem possible.

“You look so bright,” Edgar exclaimed when I arrived for the third and final treatment, a repeat of the first. Using the broadband laser again, Edgar zapped the remaining pigmented spots as we gloat- ed together on how much my skin tone had improved. She also zapped my hands, removing those hideous areas known as “liver spots.”

The four-week challenge was the most effective non- surgical procedure I’ve tried yet for skin rejuvenation. It’s no wonder Campbell said his colleagues were impressed when he presented the results at the Aging Face Conference in San Diego in January.

The treatment package, which includes a fourth- week follow-up consultation on skincare maintenance, is currently priced at $1,200. Although the results aren’t permanent, Edgar said they can be maintained with BBL touch-ups every four to six months ($400) and a follow- up peel after about a year.

I’ll be there.