Non-surgical anti-ageing treatments

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02.Laser and similar procedures


Many non-surgical skin-tightening procedures work using heat to create controlled injury in the epidermal and dermal layers of the skin, inducing the body to respond by producing more collagen in the treated area.

The increased collagen plumps and thickens the skin reducing the appearance of fine lines, acne scarring and stretch marks. It may also contract existing collagen fibres to produce an immediate effect. Some lasers act on the surface as well as deeper, and have a better track record.


Lasers are used for moderate lines and wrinkles, and improve skin tone, texture, and tightness, though they don’t work on very deep lines (such as nasolabial folds). There are many different laser treatments available, and they’re usually classified according to injury pattern, the depth at which they act and whether they destroy or simply heat tissue:

  • Continuous laser treats the whole area of skin, while fractional lasers penetrate the skin in a pattern of microscopic columns, leaving surrounding healthy tissue unaffected.
  • The wavelength of the laser determines how deeply it penetrates the skin.
  • Ablative lasers destroy the tissue, which is replaced by new healthy tissue, while non-ablative lasers heat the tissue to stimulate collagen production, but leave it intact.

In short, the greater the injury, the greater the effect – the trade-offs being a longer recovery time and a higher risk of adverse events. Non-ablative laser (eg. Fraxel re:store, Laser Genesis ) has the mildest effect, followed by fractional ablative (eg. Fraxel re:pair, Pearl Fractional), with continuous ablative the most effective.

Non-ablative treatment requires only a topical anaesthetic. Your skin will be red for up to a week, and there may be mild swelling and peeling. You’ll probably need several sessions a few weeks apart, costing around $250 per session. In a best case scenario, an immediate improvement can be seen, with continued improvements for the next two to three months.

Fractional ablative resurfacing affects surface and deeper tissue, resulting in longer down time, with redness and swelling of up to two weeks. You may need more than one session at a cost of about $450 per session.

Continuous ablative laser may need a combination of topical and systemic painkillers and sedation. Recovery means a week at home out of the sun keeping the raw skin moist, and it may be red for a few weeks after that. Only one session is needed and it costs around $1500.

Possible long-term effects of ablative procedures include prolonged redness, scarring, pigmentation changes and infections, though risks are reduced with fractional systems and experienced laser surgeons. Doctors advise against laser therapy for people affected by an active herpes infection, who have recently used systemic isotretinoin or with darker skin.


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Intense Pulsed Light (IPL)

IPL uses bursts of intense light energy to heat the epidermis and dermis, stimulating collagen production. It’s best for improving skin tone and texture, as well as discolouration, and may not have much effect on wrinkles. A series of three to six treatments is usually recommended, each costing about $150-400, with maintenance treatments a few times a year. The improvement is gradual, and it may take a few rounds to notice the difference.

Radio frequency, ultrasound and infrared

The different forms of energy used by these devices penetrate below the surface of the skin, inducing heat which causes collagen to contract and new collagen to form. At its best, this treatment tightens skin. Targeted at people in their 40s and 50s with mild skin looseness and wrinkling, it’s promoted as the ideal compromise for taking a few years off your face without the expense and downtime of surgery.

But don’t get your hopes up just yet – according to Dr Phillip Artemi, “The technology is still in its infancy, the results are very variable, and while it has potential, really good responses are rare.”

Even in the best outcomes, this type of treatment doesn’t lift muscle, unlike a surgical face lift; it doesn’t correct sun damage; and it doesn’t reduce hollows caused by age-related fat loss. For these reasons it may be used in combination with other treatments, such as dermal fillers and laser resurfacing or a chemical peel.

The process is uncomfortable, and you may need topical anaesthetic. There may be some redness afterwards, which can be disguised by make-up, but rarely swelling, bruising or pain. There may be an immediate skin-tightening effect as collagen fibres contract. But the full results take a few months to kick in, as collagen production increases, giving a gradual improvement.

  • Radio frequency (Thermage is the most well-known brand of treatment). Only one session is necessary and it lasts a few years, and costs $2500 to $5000, depending on the clinic and the amount of coverage (full face, half face etc).
  • Ultrasound (eg Ulthera) costs around $1000-$3500 and one session will probably be enough, though you may need two.
  • Infrared (eg Cutera Titan) costs around $700 and will likely need two to three sessions.

Do your research

There are plenty of online reviews of these sorts of procedures. Among them, is worth a look because it’s moderated and has input from doctors. But take the reviews with a pinch of salt because results can be very subjective, and some side effects or negative results may in fact be due to patient idiosyncrasies or level of expectation rather than the procedure itself, or may have been due to operator error or older technology.

Keep in mind also that some procedures take some time to have optimum effect, for example, the collagen-generating technologies that peak at about six months or so - reviews or pictures taken before then might not do the procedure justice. If you notice people reporting similar problems about a procedure, raise your concerns with your doctor.

You can easily find online before and after photos of the different treatments. With some it’s difficult to tell any difference, while with others the results are nothing short of miraculous – and may perhaps have had a little help from photo-editing software. Lighting, hair, makeup, clothing and facial expression can make a big difference too. Advertisers may choose to show some of the better outcomes, rather than "typical" outcomes.

Choosing your doctor

When choosing a doctor for cosmetic procedures, you could ask for recommendations from your GP or from friends or relatives who have had similar work done. Consider:

Qualifications: Ideally look for someone who’s a member of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, a fellow of the Australasian College of Cosmetic Surgeons or of the Australasian College of Dermatologists. However, many other doctors (GPs, for example) and some nurses are trained and experienced in administering cosmetic procedures.

Experience: Find out how often and for how long they’ve been doing the procedures.

Fees: What are the initial consultation fees?

Manner: It’s important to feel comfortable with the doctor, and that other staff in the practice are pleasant and knowledgeable.

Some questions to ask your doctor about the procedure include:

  • What does it involve and how long will it take?
  • What will I look like immediately after the procedure? Will I need time off work?
  • Are there any complications associated with the procedure? Are there other side-effects?
  • How much are the procedure fees, including after care and the cost of take-home skin care products or medication, if applicable? If more than one session is recommended, is there a package available? If I choose not to go ahead with all sessions in the package do I get a refund?
  • If complications do occur or the procedure is not successful, how will you deal with this?
  • How many sessions are required and over how long?
  • How long do the effects last, and how often should they be repeated to maintain the effect?
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