Some acne cases require more advanced treatment methods. In some individuals, the motivation isn’t just the severity of the acne as much as the desire to avoid side effects from medication. Whatever the motive, advanced acne treatments offer an alternative that is attractive to many. Among the most popular are light and laser treatments.

In decades past UV was used as a light source. It has the beneficial effect of killing the Propionibacterium acnes bacteria that plays a role in acne formation. But, when studies showed that UV can increase the odds of skin cancer, the treatment became much less popular.

Other forms of light don’t have that problem.

Blue Light

One form is called ‘blue light therapy’, where the name derives from the color of the light used. The main effect is to kill the bacteria, but there is some effect on the skin oil. It can cause a slight dryness. The narrow band light contains a negligible amount of UV wavelengths.

Patients receive treatments twice per week over a period of about a month. It’s effective on forms other than more severe acne, such as those that produce nodules or cysts. The latter can actually be made worse with blue light treatment. Improvements ranged from complete remission to about 40% decrease in the number of lesions, in several studies. About two-thirds saw between a 59% to 67% reduction of inflammatory acne lesions.

Pulsed and LHE (Light Heat Energy)

Other forms of light therapy, such as LHE, have similar effects – they kill acne bacteria – but do so by a different means. LHE also tends to decrease sebum (the natural skin oil). Excess sebum production is considered one of the major factors encouraging acne development. This green light tends to shrink sebaceous glands.

The therapy is approved by the FDA for treating mild to moderately severe acne. Both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne can be reduced by two treatments per week over a period of one month. Drug-based treatments tend to take two or three months or longer.

In some cases, though, light treatments are combined with the use of prescription medications.

ALA (5-aminolevulinic acid)

ALA is a compound applied to the skin. It doesn’t have any of the antibacterial properties of standard acne treatments like Accutane. It works by making the skin more sensitive to light, thus increasing the effectiveness of light treatment.

It’s kept on for 15 minutes to an hour, during which the patient receives blue or red light treatment. The jury is still out so numbers are sketchy, but early results suggest the treatment is safe and effective.

Lasers

Normal light contains waves that scatter in all directions. Laser light is called coherent because the waves all move in an organized train in the same direction. That’s one of the reasons lasers can do all the things they’re used for.

The chief difference, though, between different lasers (just as it is with other forms of light) is the wavelength. In the case of acne treatment lasers, one popular type produces waves of 1450 nm (nanometers, a billionth of a meter). This type is particularly safe and effective.

In one study, one treatment reduced acne lesions by nearly 40%. Two treatments decreased them by nearly 60% and with three the number rose to over 80%. There is some mild pain associated with the treatments, however, so a topical anesthetic is used during the procedure.

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