Everything You Need to Know About the Laser Treatment that Supposedly "Cures" Acne

InStyle editors put this FDA-approved laser to the test to find out if it's worth the hefty price.

<p>Getty Images/ InStyle</p>

Getty Images/ InStyle

Achieving flawless, Hailey Bieber glazed donut skin can cost a (literal) pretty penny between luxe treatments and so-called “miracle-working” products to dermatologist visits and prescription co-pays. Not to mention, using skincare products doesn’t necessarily guarantee a solution, no matter how marketable they look on the shelf; a lot of times clear, acne-free skin goes well beneath the surface.

Earlier this year, Cutera’s AviClear laser became the first laser to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of mild, moderate, and severe acne. The service is being considered a game-changer among skincare professionals since this laser targets your sebaceous glands to change the makeup of your skin (in a similar way to Accutane) instead of only treating surface level breakouts,

However, as you can probably imagine, this service comes with a pretty large price tag. While cost is dependent on the practice where you receive the treatment and who does it, you can expect the total payment for AviClear to be in the thousands range.

It's a lot of dough to shell out for blemish-free skin, but consider all the money you spend on your skin every year, and you may find that you're spending close to that number for less-than-satisfactory results.

To see if it's worth it, two InStyle editors (Tessa Petak and Tamim Alnuweiri) put AviClear to the test. Read on for their first-person accounts of their AviClear journeys to clear skin


Tessa Petak

<p>Courtesy of Tessa Petak</p> Left: Before first treatment. Right: Three weeks after third treatment.

Courtesy of Tessa Petak

Left: Before first treatment. Right: Three weeks after third treatment.

Acne is nearly impossible to treat. Take it from someone who has tried everything from pills, topicals, antibiotics, facials, chemical peels, birth control — everything would work for several months and then, out of nowhere, my skin would erupt with inflamed, red zits all over again.

You name it, I did it — save for the so-called holy grail of acne-treatment Accutane, which comes with practically a novel of adverse side effects such as depression, joint pain, birth defects (were the patient to get pregnant on it), dry skin, and cracked lips. I was desperate for clear skin but afraid of the impact Accutane would have on my body. So, for the last decade, I have dealt with breakout after breakout — despite the numerous topical and oral prescriptions I have used — which has greatly impacted my self-confidence to the point of many tears and downright anger.

When I heard of Cutera’s new AviClear laser — the first FDA-approved laser to treat acne — I thought it was too good to be true. The treatment promised to target the skin’s sebaceous glands to produce less oil and change the makeup of my skin. "AviClear uses a 1726 nm wavelength to treat acne at the source by selectively targeting and suppressing the sebaceous glands,” Dr. Goldberg explains. “Most acne treatments target other causes of acne, and until recently, limiting the sebum production and offering long-term clearance was offered only to the most severe patients after failing other treatments.”

This science behind the laser works similar to Accutane by reducing oil production and therefore acne formation but without any downtime or harsh side effects.

“While Accutane was the only treatment available to selectively target the sebaceous glands before AviClear, it is typically used as a last resort, as it has significant side effects,” David J. Goldberg, M.D. of Schweiger Dermatology tells InStyle. “With AviClear, dermatologists have another way to suppress the sebaceous glands, but with minimal side effects and no downtime.”

Dr. Goldberg was actually in the room where it happened — he participated in the AviClear trials for FDA-approval (and has an extensive background in laser dermatology) and says this specific treatment is the first of its kind. He’s seen lasting results that continue to get better over time, with 92% of his patients seeing improvements up to 12 months after their final treatment. “After AviClear, the patient’s sebaceous glands produce less oil and existing acne is reduced,” he says, adding that if/when future breakouts do occur, they’re shorter, less intense, and more infrequent.

Nearly everyone is a candidate for AviClear (it’s “proven safe and effective for all skin types, skin tones, and acne severity,” says Dr. Goldberg) which hasn’t always been the case in some traditional types of acne treatments. “It’s a great, less-invasive alternative treatment for those who have tried prescription medications for acne but failed to see results,” says Dr. Goldberg. “It is also equally effective in all ages, and in both women and men.”

I felt like the prime participant given my past with treating my acne. Nothing I tried had worked, and I didn’t want to subject my body to the harsh realities of Accutane.

"Physicians and patients have long sought a modern alternative to the acne pills, peels, and topicals that have been static for nearly 30 years,” CEO of Cutera David Mowry said in a press release earlier this year. "Developed with extensive physician and patient input, AviClear was created to redefine the treatment of acne — all without a prescription.”

The treatment is quick and nearly painless — the whole appointment took about 20 minutes in total and the quick zap of the laser felt a little like being shocked, but was no match for the years of physical and mental pain caused by my acne. Plus, the machine includes their trademark “AviCool sapphire contact skin cooling and sensory controls” to regulate your skin temperature and reduce pain.

The full cycle of the laser includes three sessions about a month apart. After each laser, my skin was slightly red and flushed, but that didn’t last long, and you can resume your regimen immediately after, though I’d recommend staying away from harsh topicals and always applying SPF. After my second session, I started to see a difference as I experienced breakouts much less frequently (and usually just around the time of menstruation). After the third, my skin felt smooth, clearer, and brighter.

At the moment, the only blemishes I have are small bumps that quickly go away — a tremendous improvement from the cystic, under-the-skin pimples I’ve been plagued with since the 9th grade. Dr. Goldberg says this progress is on par with what they’ve seen since the laser hit the market. You can expect a small change with the second treatment, but it’s not until after the final session that you’ll really see a difference.

<p>Courtesy of Tessa Petak</p> Left: Before first treatment. Right: Three weeks after third treatment.

Courtesy of Tessa Petak

Left: Before first treatment. Right: Three weeks after third treatment.

AviClear is now broadly available to physicians and practitioners in the United States with a limited release in Canada, according to a release. Dr. Goldberg predicts that the service will become more widely accessible as more providers begin to offer the treatment (you can find one near you at this link). The price depends on each individual practice, but you can expect to pay around or upwards of $3000. The good news is that Cutera now offers a financing plan for $99 a month.

It’s been a little over a month since my final installment of AviClear, and I could not be happier with the results. My skin feels soft and smooth, and my complexion overall looks clear and even. And according to Dr. Goldberg, it’s somehow only going to get better from here. In my book, this treatment is definitely worth the money considering the amount of time and finances I have dedicated to taking care of my skin over the years.

Tamim Alnuweiri

<p>Courtesy of Tamin Alnuweiri</p> Left: Before first treatment. Right: Three weeks after third treatment.

Courtesy of Tamin Alnuweiri

Left: Before first treatment. Right: Three weeks after third treatment.

My path to AviClear was full of worst-case scenarios. I have naturally oily, sensitive, and acne-prone skin which is exacerbated by the hormonal fluctuations of PolyCystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Similarly to Tessa, I felt like I had tried everything under the sun except Accutane, which I am not a candidate for because of my clinical depression and the medications I take for it.

For a while, I took doxycycline, a pretty standard antibiotic used to treat acne by killing the bacteria responsible for breakouts and inflammation. I developed a rare side effect known as a pseudotumor cerebri wherein I had horrible migraines and felt immense pressure in my skull that was a result of brain fluids not draining.

I quit doxycycline and a few months later began taking hormonal birth control pills. It helped my skin, but another medical scare was around the corner. After six months, I was hospitalized when I realized I was having trouble breathing. It was during this stay that doctors discovered a cluster of pulmonary embolisms (blood clots) in my lungs. After some tests, birth control was determined to be the cause.

Following those two harrowing experiences, I felt hopeless. My skin was congested, incredibly prone to cystic and hormonal acne, and constantly dotted with whiteheads, blackheads, and welts I could not identify.

I heard about AviClear during a lecture about the newest innovations in the dermatology space by Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank, who I subsequently went to for my treatment. The promise of less oily sebaceous glands with no downtime or side effects was too good to resist for someone who's never gone more than a few days without a blemish.

My sessions took somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour (longer than Tessa’s, potentially because of difference methods between doctors), and they were uncomfortable but not very painful. I laid back on a chair and my face was swabbed with acetone pads. The treatment doesn’t sting, the worst part about it is the laser smell. After that, cotton pads are put on my eyes followed by goggles. A shower cap is put on my head and cotton pads are placed over my ears. For the next hour, water was continually poured onto my face and then it was zapped by the laser. The pain was generally very mild, an average of two on a 10 point scale. But above my upper lip, the area around my nose, and random spots around my jawline the pain sometimes reached a six-seven.

When the first treatment was finished, I was told to expect my skin to breakout after a week and was sent home with a clindamycin and niacinamide cream to use should that happen. For the first week, my skin seemed to improve but by the eight day, my skin began to breakout, as they had told me to expect. It was mild compared to the welts and almost boil-like blemishes that have plagued me my entire life, so I didn't really mind it. After a few days my skin calmed down and began to improve.

The turning point for my skin came after the second session. I waited anxiously for my period to come, which is always when my skin is the worst. But it came and went with little to no mayhem. There were no large, semi-firm, yet headless cysts to speak of and I came out the other side with nothing but a few small bumps I wouldn't even classify as zits.

I’ve regained hours of my days and so much of my mental capacity simply because I'm not stressing over or trying to find a solution for my skin. My complexion should continue to improve over the next few months, and ultimately, I am so happy with the texture. Now I’ll be able to focus on the hyperpigmentation, which I’ve always found less daunting than the acne. Less blemishes means fewer dark spots, and the existing ones can be hidden in the short-term with makeup, and in the long-term with a smart skincare regimen.

The Splurge is our recurring column dedicated to expensive beauty products that are worth it. This week, we're explaining why we love Cutera's new AviClear laser for acne-prone skin, despite its hefty price tag.

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