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At-home lasers for wrinkles and acne: Everything you need to know

Sephora and Amazon carry countless devices to fix acne, wrinkles, dark spots and more at home, but are they worth the money?

neutrogena-light-therapy-mask

Neutrogena's light therapy acne mask uses a combination of blue and infrared light to reduce redness and inflammation.

Neutrogena

Over-the-counter cosmetic laser and light devices have become as readily available as OTC pain relievers. A quick Google search for "at-home laser therapy for skin" returns devices that promise to zap zits, eliminate unwanted body hair, reduce wrinkles and fix discoloration.

Dr. Tyler Hollmig, director of Laser and Aesthetic Dermatology at Stanford Health Care, told CNET it's obvious why the market for at-home laser treatments has grown so much: "Going to an actual clinic can be less than convenient as well as expensive," he said. "At-home devices are relatively inexpensive and promise similar results as those used by dermatologists."

While it's tempting to place an order for one of these skin-smoothing lightsabers, dermatologists warn that you might not get the results you want. Before you spend the money, learn about the safety of these devices, how they work and what kinds of changes to your skin you can expect.

How does laser therapy for skin work?

To clear up any confusion, it's important to mention that most devices marketed or referred to as "at-home lasers" don't actually use laser technology like the kind you'd get at a clinic or medispa.

"True laser technology is not available for home use," Dr. Kathleen Cook Suozzi, a dermatological surgeon and the aesthetic director of Yale Medicine Dermatology, told CNET. "The at-home 'lasers' on the market are typically light-based devices that do not have the power of laser devices available for in-office procedures."

Home use devices do use some of the technology you'd find in a dermatologist's office, such as intense pulsed light (IPL) and light-emitting diodes (LED), but not with the same pinpointed accuracy.

Many home "laser" hair removal devices also use light therapy, but there are some devices that actually use a laser to remove hair.

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What kind of conditions can at-home skin devices treat?

You can find at-home light and laser devices for treatment of acne, scars, hair removal and wrinkles using various methods, including IPL, LED, heat, infrared and more.

For example, the Skin Clinical Reverse Anti-Aging handheld uses LED to reduce fine lines and smooth your complexion; Neutrogena's full-face light mask uses blue and red light to treat acne; and Nuface devices use microcurrents to stimulate skin and remove wrinkles.

Most at-home treatments fall into one of four main categories:

  • Anti-aging to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and tighten and rejuvenate the skin
  • Discoloration or pigmentation to get rid of sun spots, age spots or other pigmentation issues
  • Hair removal or hair growth to, well, grow or remove hair
  • Acne treatment to reduce redness, inflammation and scarring

Are these devices safe?

Consumers should be cautious before purchasing and using at-home devices, Dr. Hollmig said, and should first be informed about potential issues surrounding safety and efficacy.

"Unlike drugs, devices are less strictly regulated," Dr. Hollmig told CNET. "Many laser devices are dangerous to the eyes [and] can even cause blindness, as well as the skin, potentially causing burns and scars."

Dr. David Lortscher, a dermatologist and CEO of skincare startup Curology, explained that unlike some clinical devices, many home-use devices are designed not to fire unless there is direct contact with the skin. If the user attempts to disable safety features, however, or ignores instructions for use and safety warnings, skin or eye damage can occur.

Some side effects of at-home light and laser skin devices include:

  • Redness 
  • Swelling
  • Irritation or discomfort
  • Itching
  • Unwanted pigment changes

Side effects are rare, Dr. Lortscher told CNET, because the devices use such low-level energy. But because most devices target the pigment in your skin, Dr. Lortscher urges people with darker skin to be cautious, as they are at a higher risk for adverse effects.

skin-clinical-reverse

The Reverse Anti-Aging Light Therapy device from Skin Clinical uses LED to reduce fine lines and wrinkles.

Skin Clinical

Do at-home laser treatments work?

Typically, at-home devices have significantly lower power than those used in a medical setting in order to reduce risks, Dr. Hollmig explained, but there may be a tradeoff between safety and device effectiveness. That is, at-home devices with lower levels of light may be safer, but may not give you the results you want, and vice versa.

"Low energy means safe but extremely subtle results, even after numerous treatments," said Dr. Daniel Friedmann, a dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas, and he cautions against excessive use of at-home lasers when you don't see the results you want.

Even with professional-grade lasers, patients typically need several treatments to achieve the final results they want. And even after that, professionals usually recommend maintenance treatments. That said, you should keep your expectations realistic for at-home treatments.

womens-face-with-nuface-device-rubbing-on-skin

NuFace devices use microcurrents to stimulate the skin, increase blood flow and reduce wrinkles.

NuFace

Should you use an at-home skin treatment?

You should ask yourself a few questions when pondering at-home laser treatments of any sort:

Look for whether the device has been FDA-approved or FDA-cleared (there's a difference) and check out sites such as the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, which all post helpful information on such devices and their uses.

You can also check RealSelf, which diligently monitors and researches all sorts of cosmetic procedures, lasers included. The site also includes reviews and photos from real people who have undertaken cosmetic procedures.

Regardless of a product's FDA classification and the research behind it, you should always exercise caution when using therapeutic devices.

While low-level laser, light and heat therapies may be safe and effective for many people, those who have sensitive skin or a preexisting skin condition -- especially inflammatory conditions like psoriasis and eczema -- should be wary of at-home skin devices.