They say youth is wasted on the young. I say great skin is, too. Why should babies have a monopoly on poreless, velvety complexions? Mothers love their infants unconditionally; I don’t know one mom who’d reject her newborn because the child emerged covered in liver spots and broken capillaries (as long as she or he could still wear that cute hat!). Lately, however, I’m finding it hard to unconditionally love my own skin, thanks to the sun damage that’s making it look craggy and old. So I set out to see what could be done. What I found? Great skin is not a zero-sum game: Just because kidlets have it doesn’t mean you can’t, too.
Which is why I’m at the New York office of cosmetic dermatologist Fredric Brandt, MD, as his laser specialist, Robert Anolik, MD, examines the coffee-colored drips on my cheeks and the capillaries by my mouth. Back in my thirties, I was mortified when a dermatologist trained a special black light on my face and revealed the sun damage lurking beneath my epidermis. He warned me that my face would become as mottled as the moon unless I practiced safe sun: SPF, hats and beach umbrellas. And though I did ditch my bake-till-I-flake ways, all those years of roasting couldn’t be undone by abstinence alone.
Upon completing his evaluation, Anolik looks at me and says one word: “Lasers.” He explains that lasers today can eradicate everything from “broken blood vessels and redness to uneven tone, large pores, fine lines and brown spots.” To zap broken capillaries, he recommends the Gemini, which targets, then fries, hemoglobin. To fix an overall ruddy tone, he’s a fan of the V-beam laser, which is also drawn to red but is better at erasing diffuse pink color than broken capillaries. To blitz dark spots, he touts the Ruby laser for light to medium skin or the Nd:YAG for darker skin. Both lasers pulverize pigment, but the Nd:YAG offers more conservative settings, allowing Anolik to dial down the intensity for darker skin tones. For overall rejuvenation (e.g., better tone, smoother texture), he is fond of the Fraxel Dual 1550/1927. The Dual is a resurfacing laser, which accelerates the shedding of dead skin cells and the production of collagen. And resurfacing offers medical benefits, too: Because of all the shedding—plus what Anolik calls the Dual’s “ability to stimulate a natural immune response”—it can actually rid the skin of precancerous growths. Results for most patients are so significant and natural looking, Anolik says men (often the biggest skeptics) pour into his practice, asking for the work their wives or girlfriends had.
There are dangers, of course. Licensing standards differ from state to state and are poorly enforced, so you must look for a board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon (find one at asds.net, the website of the Ameri-can Society for Dermatologic Surgery). Otherwise you could end up in the hands of an untrained physician or spa staffer. Anolik, by contrast, has a degree in molecular biology from Princeton and an MD from Jefferson Medical College; he did his residency at New York University and has fellowship training in laser and skin surgery.
It’s equally important to pick a practice that offers a range of machines (Brandt’s has more than 20, but Anolik says an office with at least five should suffice). The reason: As evidenced by the list of lasers Anolik cited, there is no one machine that does it all; most are specialized. So doctors need a battery of equipment to give each patient the pupu platter her skin requires.
Cost, of course, is another consideration. Brandt offered to treat my sun
damage gratis, a perk of my position as editor of More. But lasers aren’t cheap:
The Fraxel Dual can run $800 or more per session, and most patients require at least two treatments. Color-targeting lasers like the Gemini can cost $300 or more per session, and at least two visits are typically required. So would I have shelled out the cash with no guarantee of a good result? I’ve done it before. But in this case, I had nothing to lose but my sunspots.
That’s why, although I’ve come in only for a consultation, I soon hear myself saying, “Bring on the numbing cream!” A nurse snaps “before” photos, hands me four pills (two prednisone to prevent swelling, two Valtrex to combat latent herpes) and covers my face with anesthetic gel. An hour later, Anolik is zapping me with the Gemini to sizzle broken capillaries, the V-beam to incinerate my skin’s “pink background” (i.e., diffuse red pigment) and the Ruby to erase coffee drips. He finishes with the Fraxel Dual all over, which stings like I’m caught in a sandstorm. He warns me that I’ll be “a little pink” for two days.
As I head back to my office (how did I forget I was hosting the More holiday lunch?), my face tingles. Ducking into the bathroom, I notice my features are starting to pucker, and I look vaguely Muppetish. Though my assistant, Daniela, says my face is fine (liar!), I duck out of the party before dessert. That night my skin turns coppery-red. Anolik said I’d be “a little pink.” Is he color-blind? And I worry about how I’ll look the next day, when I’m scheduled to lunch with media mogul Arianna Huffington; we’d chased each other’s calendars for months, and it’s too late to cancel.
I awaken to what looks and feels like windburn on top of a sunburn. I pile on the foundation I save for TV appearances and play up my eye makeup to divert attention from my embarrassing skin. At lunch Arianna is kind enough to pretend that “you don’t look as bad as you think,” but when I meet a close friend for dinner, she blurts, “What have you done to your face?!” My skin has now turned into black pepper and is flaking off into my pasta. My friends and I wonder if I’ve gone one beauty adventure too far: After the pepper falls off, I see gray stripes—tracks the Dual left behind as it crossed my cheeks. I look as if I’ve been backed over by a truck.
Two days later, however, something wondrous happens. The gentle vibrations of my Clarisonic Mia Sonic Skin Cleansing brush ($119; clarisonic.com) loosen the last of the sandpapery remains, and I can’t believe what I see: skin as clear and luminous as a newborn’s butt. Though my goal was to look better, not younger, my husband says I’ve shaved 12 years from my face. And after a meeting with a new colleague, I hear through the grapevine that she remarked on my “gorgeous skin.” No one said that even when I was 25! If I’d paid thousands of dollars for my new clear complexion, I’d feel it was worth every penny—even if I do now have to slather on SPF 50 daily and avoid direct sun. My skin no longer needs to be buried under heavy foundation, and some might even call it my best feature.
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