The spectrum of laser skin resurfacing: nonablative, fractional, and ablative laser resurfacing

J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008 May;58(5):719-37; quiz 738-40. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2008.01.003.


The drive to attain cosmetic facial enhancement with minimal risk and rapid recovery has inspired the field of nonsurgical skin rejuvenation. Laser resurfacing was introduced in the 1980s with continuous wave carbon dioxide (CO(2)) lasers; however, because of a high rate of side effects, including scarring, short-pulse, high-peak power, and rapidly scanned, focused-beam CO(2) lasers and normal-mode erbium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet lasers were developed, which remove skin in a precisely controlled manner. The prolonged 2-week recovery time and small but significant complication risk prompted the development of non-ablative and, more recently, fractional resurfacing in order to minimize risk and shorten recovery times. Nonablative resurfacing produces dermal thermal injury to improve rhytides and photodamage while preserving the epidermis. Fractional resurfacing thermally ablates microscopic columns of epidermal and dermal tissue in regularly spaced arrays over a fraction of the skin surface. This intermediate approach increases efficacy as compared to nonablative resurfacing, but with faster recovery as compared to ablative resurfacing. Neither nonablative nor fractional resurfacing produces results comparable to ablative laser skin resurfacing, but both have become much more popular than the latter because the risks of treatment are limited in the face of acceptable improvement.

Learning objectives: At the completion of this learning activity, participants should be familiar with the spectrum of lasers and light technologies available for skin resurfacing, published studies of safety and efficacy, indications, methodologies, side effects, complications, and management.

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia, Local / methods
  • Cicatrix / surgery
  • Contraindications
  • Dermatologic Surgical Procedures*
  • Face / surgery
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Laser Therapy / adverse effects
  • Laser Therapy / methods*
  • Low-Level Light Therapy / adverse effects
  • Low-Level Light Therapy / methods
  • Photochemotherapy / methods
  • Postoperative Care
  • Rejuvenation
  • Skin Aging*