You may not be familiar with the name "CO2 laser," but in reality, it's one of the most popular and widely used lasers of all time—mostly because of its sheer versatility.
Anything you can think of—like scarring, sun spots, stretch marks and skin growths—the CO2 laser can treat it. Essentially, it's an ultra-effective treatment that's used to treat more dermal issues than I could possibly list while staying in my word count. And that's exactly why dermatologists, beauty lovers, and skincare pros are so obsessed with it—it's the true renaissance laser.
Below, read all about the CO2 laser's benefits, downsides, and more—and what makes it such a popular modality among dermatologists.
What Is a CO2 Laser Treatment?
"It's a carbon dioxide laser used for skin resurfacing," says New York-based dermatologist Dr. Hadley King. "It vaporizes thin layers of skin, creating a controlled injury and as the skin heals, collagen is produced as part of the wound healing process."
The idea of a laser zapping your skin with light beams can certainly sound a bit jarring—but that's exactly what makes them so effective. CO2 lasers, in particular, are used to resurface skin using continuous light beams or short, pulsed light energy (aka, "ultra pulses"). It functions similarly to other exfoliating treatments like chemical peels and dermabrasion—the laser essentially helps remove outer layers of skin to reveal smoother, softer skin underneath.
Benefits of a CO2 Laser Treatment
The biggest selling point of a CO2 laser is that it's an ultra-reliable, effective, and trusted way to rejuvenate your skin's surface in a short amount of time. You'll actually see results—which nearly always outweigh the risks involved (though that's a conversation you should have with a dermatologist).
"The CO2 laser is designed to increase dermal collagen, minimize wrinkles, even out skin tone, and reduce facial scarring," says New York-based dermatologist Dr. Hadley King. "Results are usually more dramatic compared to less powerful procedures with less downtime, and side effects of the CO2 laser are relatively minor and usually resolve within approximately ten days."
In addition to that, these lasers can be utilized to treat a wide range of skin concerns. "It has many uses," says Beverly Hills-based board certified dermatologist Dr. Tess Mauricio. "[Co2 Lasers] can perform impressive skin resurfacing to help improve sun damage, wrinkles, sagging of the skin, scars, stretch marks, remove benign skin growths, and is now being used for vaginal rejuvenation and treatment of incontinence." It can also treat things like warts and enlarged oil glands, and it's an incredible way to fight signs of aging.
Basically, it's the laser that does it all.
How to Prepare for a CO2 Laser Treatment
First, you're going to want to find a trusted, board-certified dermatologist to perform the treatment with the right equipment— this isn't something you can do at home. You should also know there's some downtime involved, so you should prepare to take some time off to heal afterward.
And, like preparing for any laser treatment, you should definitely avoid sun exposure or tanning at least four weeks prior to the treatment. Also, go easy on your skin leading up to it—aka, don't go for any aggressive chemical peels, dermabrasion, or other laser resurfacing treatments.
There are potential side effects of the high-tech treatment that you'll want to do your research on before making the decision to get a CO2 laser treatment. Dr. King says the most likely side effects are swelling, redness, and irritation, but burning, scarring, scabbing, and discoloration are also possible. They should, however, subside within ten days, she says.
The major downside around CO2 lasers is that they're not compatible with all skin tones. "A CO2 laser is best for patients with very fair skin that doesn't have much of an ability to tan—like Fitzpatrick skin type 1 or 2," says Dr. Mauricio. "It's riskier for pigmented skin and you can expect to experience post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) or temporary darkening of areas treated. This discoloration can last for months and cause distress, so patients should be aware of this risk before considering the treatment."
Dr. Mauricio says the CO2 laser isn't the best option for persons of color because there are so many other options out there that are safer for deeper skin tones, and can achieve similar results. "If you're a person of color and want a CO2 laser treatment, make sure you go to an expert to get their opinion and suggestions and avoid possible complications like post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, burns, and scars."
CO2 Laser Cost
Since CO2 laser treatments are expensive for practices, they usually run expensive for patients, too. Depending on which practice you go to, and the area you're looking to get treated, you can usually expect to pay between $1,000 and $2,500.
Unfortunately, there is a little bit of downtime involved after a CO2 laser treatment—so you probably shouldn't book the treatment if you know you can't take any time off.
"It's not for everyone," says. Dr. Mauricio. "There's usually days to weeks of healing from CO2 laser treatments so it's not a 'no downtime' procedure."
Remember: Perfectly normal side effects after receiving the treatment include redness, irritation, and occasionally scabbing—and it can take around ten days for these symptoms to subside, so you probably shouldn't book the treatment before a big event, party, or book launch. (Don't make the same mistake Samantha did in Sex and the City after getting a chemical peel.)
The Final Takeaway
Whether you're looking to treat scars, stretch marks, or skin growths, or just trying to give your complexion the rejuvenation it deserves, the CO2 laser is certainly one of the most effective and powerful tools on the market.
Of course, it's important to do your research and talk to your dermatologist before you make any decisions—be prepared for the side effects, the downtime afterwards, and the fact that the CO2 laser isn't compatible with all skin tones. In any case, the first thing you should do is talk to your dermatologist and go from there.