Acne, a condition that plagues most teenagers, afflicts 40 to 50 million people in the U.S. and is the country’s most common skin condition, says the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). However, fewer people suffer from acne that’s severe enough to cause scars. Fortunately for those who do have permanent reminders of their pimples, dermatologists offer effective treatments, including fractional skin resurfacing, that can make acne scars less noticeable.
Acne forms as a result of three interrelated factors, according to the Mayo Clinic. First, the skin produces too much sebum (skin oil). Second, the skin sheds too many dead skin cells, which can irritate the hair follicles at the skin’s surface. And third, bacteria may overgrow, also leading to irritation in the follicles. The combination of excess sebum and dead skin cells can block a hair follicle completely, which causes a nodule or cyst to form just below the skin’s surface. The result is a pimple, which can lead to a pitted-type acne scar if it becomes badly infected with acne-causing bacteria.
Fractional laser skin resurfacing is one of the newest laser technologies for treating acne scars. It combines the benefits of ablative lasers (which work well in treating acne scars but can cause significant injury to the skin and therefore healing time) and non-ablative lasers (gentler, less invasive laser technology that isn’t as effective in treating acne scars). Fractional laser resurfacing applies strong laser pulses to a patchwork of tiny spots on the face, causing a series of minute injuries that then stimulate the skin to regenerate.
Medical studies show that fractional skin resurfacing is effective in improving the appearance of acne scars. For example, a 2008 study in the “Journal of Dermatological Treatment” looked at fractional laser treatment in 27 Korean patients with moderate to severe acne scars on their faces. After three to five sessions each of fractional laser treatment spaced three to four weeks apart, researchers reported excellent improvement in eight patients and significant improvement in 16 patients. Three patients achieved moderate improvement in their acne scars.
Fractional skin resurfacing does not work instantly to treat acne scars. Because the technology is designed to stimulate the skin’s own healing powers, patients need to give it time to work. Typical treatments take up to 40 minutes, and dermatologists generally recommend at least three to four sessions, spaced about every three weeks, for the best results. Gradual improvement continues for up to a year after the last treatment.
Although fractional laser resurfacing has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat acne scars, health insurers may refuse to pay for treatments because they are considered cosmetic in nature. In addition, the AAD notes that acne scars can be difficult to treat, and dermatologists often recommend a combination of different therapies, potentially including fractional skin resurfacing, to get the best results.