Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer, 2007. Updated by Chief Editor, Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, July 2015.
Fractional laser treatment is a non-invasive treatment that uses a device to deliver a laser beam divided into thousands of microscopic treatment zones that target a fraction of the skin at a time. This is analogous to a photographic image being enhanced or altered pixel by pixel.
Fractional laser treatment has bridged the gap between the ablative and non-ablative laser techniques used to treat sun-damaged and aging skin. Whilst ablative laser treatments work mainly on the epidermis (surface skin cells) and non-ablative treatments work solely on dermal collagen (mid-layer of skin) only, fractional laser treatment works at both the epidermal and dermal layers of the skin.
The first fractional laser marketed was the Fraxel® device [Reliant Technologies now Solta], which emits a non-ablative 1550-nm wavelength. There are now a number of machines available that use fractional technology, based on erbium:YAG lasers for superficial treatments and CO2 lasers for deeper ablative treatments (eg Fraxel Repair [Solta Medical], Active and Deep FX [Lumenis], Quadralase [Candela] and Pearl Fractional [Cutera]).
Fractional laser treatment is used for the treatment of:
Fractional laser treatment can be used on any part of the body, but is particularly useful on the neck, chest and hands when compared to traditional ablative modalities.
Fractional laser treatment can be used in all skin types and patients, but techniques vary depending on patient age, skin type, sun exposure and body location. Fractional laser treatment can be combined with surgery and other skin treatments.
To understand how fractional laser treatment works a basic understanding of skin structure is required. Briefly skin consists of 3 layers, the epidermis (uppermost layer), dermis (mid-layer) and subcutis (lower fat layer). The epidermis contains pigment-producing cells called melanocytes, which are responsible for skin colouring. The dermis is made up of collagen and elastin fibres that provide skin with strength, toughness, elasticity and pliability (click here for detailed information on skin structure).
As the body ages, the appearance and characteristics of the skin alter. The epidermis becomes thinner so blemishes become more visible, and collagen in the dermis is gradually lost which contributes to the formation of facial lines, sagging skin and wrinkles.
Fractional laser treatment works by targeting both the epidermis and dermis. It does this by delivering a laser beam that is divided into thousands of tiny but deep columns of treatment into the skin. These are called microthermal treatment zones (MTZs). Within each MTZ old epidermal pigmented cells are expelled and penetration of collagen in the dermis causes a reaction that leads to collagen remodelling and new collagen formation. By using MTZs, the laser targets and treats intensively within the zone whilst surrounding healthy tissue remain intact and unaffected and helps heal the wound. This fractional treatment results in a faster healing process than if all tissue in the treatment area was exposed to the laser.
The following is an outline of the Fraxel® procedure:
Four to five treatments with Fraxel® are required, depending on the energy level used and the condition of the treated skin. These are spaced one month apart. The results are not immediate and are slowly progressive, with optimal improvement visible over a three to four month period. This timeframe and treatment regimen allows for complete healing and replacement of damaged tissue with new collagen and elastin, and viable healthy skin cell growth.
Ablative fractional resurfacing lasers are more aggressive, so recovery takes a little longer than after non-ablative fractional laser treatment.
Fractional laser treatment appears to be well tolerated by most patients. Shaving or application of mineral make-up can be done soon after treatment. In most cases, patients can return to work directly after treatments or the following day, depending upon their skin condition and treatment.
Some of the side effects and complications that may occur after aggressive or ablative fractional laser treatments, particularly on neck skin, include:
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