The Cold Laser
A cold laser facial sounds almost too good to be true: get the proven skin rejuvenation benefits of a laser, without the uncomfortable heat.
I recently went to a place on Queen Street West and plonked down $125 for this treatment, which is technically a combination of crystal microdermabrasion and low-level light therapy (LLLT) using a hand piece encrusted with red lights. Since these lights do not emit any heat, LLLT is marketed as a “cold laser” facial at various spas across the country. This popular gossip site has been singing the praises of a Vancouver aesthetician who offers it. Ever since they published this post last year I have been asked by people, left-right-and-center, about what I think about this cold laser double shot thing.
The skin lady I saw at this place I went to in Toronto said that her “Preserve and Nurture” treatment is pretty much the same thing as to what the Vancouver aesthetician is doing. My skin lady is a former corporate nine-to-fiver who ditched the rat race for the beauty world; she now works as a makeup artist who exclusively offers this treatment in this tiny space she shares with other makeup artists.
I could tell that this place would be a no-frills kind of place from the look of their website, but I wasn’t expecting to see a dingy room the size of my condo’s hallway. When I opened the door I felt like I entered one of those budget-friendly nail salons that offer everything under the cosmetic sun (e.g. lash extensions and mole removal after your pedi!). I felt a little low-classy.
I know what you’re thinking, looks aren’t everything…right? Well, when it comes to aesthetic machines, you can tell a lot from its cover.
Step 1: Crystal microdermabrasion
This is a basic method of exfoliation using a hand-held device that propels a high-speed flow of aluminum oxide crystals onto the skin. At the same time, the machine’s vacuum system sucks away dirt and dead cells from the epidermis (the outer layer of skin). The condition of your epidermis determines how fresh your skin looks, and how well your skin absorbs and holds moisture. Higher-end clinics use diamond-tipped microdermabrasion machines that don’t require a bowl of water with a face towel on top of it, because the machine is “cleaner.” Instead of blasting crystal particles on the patient’s face and then scrapping it off, the tip is encrusted with micronized diamond particles so every stroke across the face feels less scratchier on the skin and doesn’t leave behind crystals. However some skincare experts feel that there’s not a significant difference between crystal and diamond microdermabrasion, but I disagree (I think these experts also shop at H&M – call me a skincare snob #idontcare). Crystal microdermabrasion feels like someone is scrapping your face with a butter knife while diamond microdermabrasion feels like gentle whisking.
Step 2: Low Level Light Therapy (LLLT)
The studio’s co-owner explained that the red light emitted from her machine travels 660 nanometers below the skin’s surface to wake up “sluggish” skin cells, firm up skin for visibly younger-looking skin. She placed a conductor on my back before the treatment to ground the energy. According to The American Association of Dermatology (AAD), red light (in the range of 600-950nm) therapy is currently being investigated for treatment of acne, rosacea, and wrinkles. The AAD states in a press release that “red light works theoretically by stimulating the skin’s energy making machine, known as the mitochondria. As such, stimulated mitochondria make older cells behave more like energetic youthful cells, which hold the key to red light’s anti-aging potential (AAD, 2011).” Notice how the AAD were careful in saying “theoretically,” which implies that there’s no hard supporting evidence to date.
- Crystal microdermabrasion = messy. Two days after my treatment, I was still finding crystal remnants in my ears—much like when you find sand in your ears after a day on the beach.
- Prep gel = clogged up pores. The cold laser gel is made is made up of essential oils, which felt thick for on my acne-prone skin. I was hoping that she would wash off this gel when she finished the cold laser but instead she topped me off with something even more occlusive.
- Sunscreen = greasy. Unlike higher-end places, this place seemed to carry only one skincare line: Consonant, an “all-natural” line that just sits on top of my skin like glue. By the time I got home (an hour later) my face felt so greasy that I immediately washed it.
- Temporary results. So how did my face look after my “sluggish” cells were awoken? Exactly the same, with the exception of my makeup going on smoother the next day. I felt like the cold laser didn’t add any additional benefits that I would normally get from a microdermabrasion.
MY IN-DEPTH THOUGHTS…stay with me, you may learn something!
To the average consumer, this treatment can sound very high-tech but in my opinion, it is not. First of all, the science behind LLLT for skincare purposes is weak, with the exception of blue light therapy for treating acne: “Of all the uses of light therapy, treating active acne is supported by the most evidence in the medical literature (AAD, 2011).” There are no peer-reviewed studies performed on humans with the standard clinical before-and-after face comparisons that I can find on red lights. This concerns me because there are so many at-home red light devices and constant Groupon deals for cold laser anti-aging facials offered to the public. The very words “cold laser” seems to make people think that it can work as well as a true laser, which emits some heat.
One of the key lessons I’ve learned about lasers and light energy treatments is that heat is what creates meaningful change to the underlying skin below the epidermis, called the dermis layer. This is where collagen and elastin fibers, which give skin it’s firmness and elasticity, are located.
That’s why clinical lasers and light therapies treatments (e.g. IPL, Fraxel, and Thermage) heat up to about 40 degrees celsius. This high-level heat enables the energy to penetrate into the deep dermis and truly stimulate collagen production. More ablative lasers used to treat deep wrinkles and acne scars (e.g. CO2 lasers, Erbiums, and the ProFractional) actually removes a layer of skin and travels even deeper to the subcutaneous layer, doing more than stimulating collagen cells but also helps to remodel the buggers. This collagen remodelling translates to a noticeable improvement in deep wrinkles, scars, and textural irregularities after just one treatment. Optimal results are seen over a series of treatments, and there are clinical before-and-afters in dermatology journals to prove this effect.
That’s the power of heat! I believe in medical-grade treatments because they are results-driven and are not focused on promoting relaxation.
Of course reducing your stress levels is important to your skin health, but when I hear about wellness-centric places (spas, skin studios, etc.) offering cold laser alongside other services like makeup application or massages, it irks me. I feel like these people are piggy-backing on the success and proven efficacy of true lasers performed under a medical setting, and reeling them in with the wellness factor. Those who want better skin will be disappointed in the long run if they frequent these types of places.
There is a huge difference in education between a dermatologist, a medical aesthetician, and a spa aesthetician. At the very least you want to see the latter, but these days there are more and more places that employ people with a hodgepodge of skills. Since the spa/beauty industry is an unregulated one, anybody these days can call themselves a skin expert, purchase an inexpensive machine, and open up shop.
Case in point: I came across the same LLLT machine used at this place on a “holistic medi-spa” site owned by a woman who is a Reiki Master, Professional Aromatherapist and Wellness Coach (skinunique.com). Case #2: This woman offers LLLT as well as a mishmash of other holistic services such as Polarity Therapy, Cranio-Sacral Therapy, Stress Management Counselling and Bowen Therapy (laserlightenergy.homestead.com). Granted they’re probably lovely women, but what do you think they would do if you get a horrible reaction to their facial? Well, based on their qualifications they may offer you life advice, perform some Reiki on your face to heal it with positive vibes, or try to mitigate the reaction with something from the drugstore.
I recall one spa aesthetician who told me to apply aloe vera and lavender oil on my face after I broke out in hives after getting a facial that used aromatic oils. This was done at a spa in a mall, and I could tell she wanted to get rid of me quickly, as she hastily pointed me into the direction of The Body Shop.
A cold laser microdermabrasion treatment would satisfy someone who doesn’t generally take care of their skin. Any kind of exfoliation, outside of their usual drugstore apricot scrub, would result in a temporary refreshed look. But I would have rather put the $125 towards a chemical peel or bank it up for a real laser treatment at my dermatologist’s clinic. Then I would have longer-lasting results, like smaller pores for a month as opposed to smooth skin for a few days. Plus reliable skincare expertise!