Ablative vs Non-Ablative Laser Skin Treatments (learn the difference!)

There are so many laser treatments on the market it’s hard to know how to choose! I think the best place to start is by learning some basic differences starting with ablative vs non-ablative.

Ablative vs non-ablative is the basic thing to know before starting your search for the perfect laser skin treatment. Learn the difference are you could end up with a lot more downtime than you anticipated!

What are Ablative Lasers?

Ablative lasers are hard core. They are the most comprehensive aesthetic skin laser offered. They are considered to be ‘wounding’ lasers, as they actually vaporize the outermost layers of the skin in order to allow the regrowth of new, more youthful, smoother skin.

Ablative skin lasers are best used for intense cases of:

  • Deep Set Wrinkles
  • Acne Scars
  • Saggy Skin – instead of a facelift
  • Textured Moles
  • Extreme Sun Damage
  • Crepey Chicken Skin – commonly on your neck

beautyblackbook heartFractional means that instead of treating the full surface of your skin, the laser works in columns. The assumption is that, as your body heals, the areas around the treated skin will also reap the benefits with half the downtime.

Types of Ablative Lasers

There are two ablative lasers that I’d like to talk about. The fractional CO2 and the fractional erbium lasers.

Fractional Co2 Laser

Fractional CO2 lasers are hard core guys! In this procedure your face will be numbed using a local anesthetic or you will be put under general anesthesia depending on the extent of the treatment area or your personal preference.

3am the Morning After Fractional CO2

3am the Morning After Fractional CO2

After you numb, or are unconscious, the technician will apply a layer of thick gel to the areas being treated and, using a handheld extension, will melt off the outer layers of your skin.

After the treatment your skin will be raw and you will feel slight burning. You can expect to be out of commission for a good week to 10 days.  Your skin will peel like a massive sunburn and I wouldn’t expect to put on any makeup at all for the first couple of weeks.

Here’s my experience with the fractional co2 laser.

Fractional Erbium Laser

The Erbium laser addresses the same issues as the CO2 fractional laser but in a less aggressive way. The experience is similar but keep in mind that you may have to get it done a couple times for the same result.

However, the Erbium laser is stronger than the non-ablative fractional lasers which we’ll talk about below.

beautyblackbook heartDO NOT get ablative laser treatment if you are have Asian skin, dark skin or active acne. This treatment is also not recommended for stretch marks.

What is a Non-Ablative Laser?

Non-ablative lasers are less invasive than the ablative lasers in that it simply heats up the targeted skin without actually destroying it.

The process promotes the production of collagen which fills in fine lines and wrinkles and, depending on the kind of laser, coagulates veins under the skin causing them to fade and disappear.

Some are even used for hair removal!

Types of Non-Ablative Lasers

Fraxel Re:Store

The Fraxel RE:Store is used for:

  • Fine Lines – crow’s feet and brow lines
  • Minor Surface Scarring from Acne
  • Pigmentation
  • Sun Damage

Fractional non-ablative resurfacing, like the Fraxel Re:Store, allows for skin surface improvement but without the downtime as the ablative versions. This is because it focuses on the underlying skin so the healing occurs from the inside out.

You’ve got to be numb for this treatment in order to have the strength high enough to make a difference.Afterwards you may get swollen and pink. It’s not a lunchtime treatment, by any means, but you can probably plan on doing it on a Thursday and be back to work on Monday with none the wiser.

It is suggested that you do this treatment 2 or 3 times within a 6 month period to see spots and fine lines fade away and for your skin to feel smoother. The company says ‘With Fraxel, change isn’t drastic or scary – it’s you, just younger’.

Pulsed-Dye Laser (PDL)

spider veins

Another example of non-ablative lasers are ones that focus on veins. One example is the pulsed-dye laser.

Pulsed-dye lasers are ideal for:

  • Broken Capillaries
  • Vascular Lesions
  • Spider Veins
  • Fine Lines
  • Rosacea
  • Stretch Marks
  • Port Wine Stains

Pulsed-dye laser treatment (PDL) only takes a few minutes and has no down time. The technician will put a topical numbing cream on your skin so all you will feel are little stings on your skin, like small rubber band snaps.

You will see immediately results in some cases but it could take up to two or three weeks for the reabsorption of the veins in others.

beautyblackbook heartDO NOT get a pulsed-dye laser treatment if you are dark skinned (South Asian, African) or have a real or artificial tan. This laser grabs onto all pigment and can cause hypo-pigmentation in these cases.

VBeam Perfecta by Syneron Candela is one of the most popular pulsed dye laser brands.

Intense Pulsed Light Laser (IPL) or FotoFacial

The Intense Pulsed Light Laser (IPL) Treatment, commonly referred to as fotofacial, is used for:

  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Age Spots
  • Melasma
fotofacial before montage

Hyperpigmentation before using the IPL laser


My skin after IPL laser treatment

My skin after one IPL treatment with the Lumenis Vasculite. Can you see the difference?

Read my recent article Fotofacial – Dark Spot Eraser (or Forgiveness after a Fiery Summer Season) for a super in-depth explanation. This is my go-to laser for hyperpigmentation.

beautyblackbook heartTIP: DO NOT get IPL treatments if you have Lupus, a tendency for keloid scars, have a dark skin color (South Asian, African) or have a tan.

My laser center uses the Lumenis Vasculite and it really works for me. There are some newer ones out there but I’m sticking with the one that I know works.

Nd:YAG (Neodynium:YAG)

The non-ablative Nd:YAG laser, not to be confused with the Er:YAG ablative laser, is best used for:

  • Broken Capillaries
  • Tattoo Removal
  • Spider Veins
  • Laser Hair Removal

Your skin is briefly numbed before this treatment so, if you feel anything, it will be like tiny rubberband snaps. You can do it during your lunch hour without going noticed. This is my choice for broken capillaries on my nose and upper lip areas. LOVE it!

Summing it Up

When comparing ablative vs non-ablative lasers just think of it this way. Ablative lasers vaporize the outer layers of the skin, have higher downtime with more superficial results on the outer layers of the skin.

Non-ablative lasers address issues underneath the skin like viens, tattoos, or the general tightening of the skin and have a lower downtime.  🙂

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