Ablative Or Non-Ablative? That Is The Question

If you’re looking to reduce fine lines, wrinkles, discolorations and scarring, as well as to improve surface texture and the overall tone of your skin, laser skin resurfacing has your name all over it. But, as with most things in life, skin lasers are not as simple as black and white. Sigh.

Like a high intensity workout for your skin, laser resurfacing uses energy to stimulate collagen and elastin production and for all intents and purposes ‘renew’ your skin. There are more laser choices at the doctor’s office than we’ve had hot dinners, but they all sit under two umbrellas: ablative and non-ablative.

No idea of the difference between the two? Then buckle up and read on…


Ablative skin resurfacing uses lasers to physically remove the damaged outer layers of your skin, while stimulating collagen and elastin production beneath the surface. It targets the skin on a much deeper level than non-ablative resurfacing, but this means it can be a tad uncomfortable and has a much longer downtime.

There are two main types of ablative lasers: CO2 lasers and Erbium: YAG lasers. CO2 lasers are the highest intensity available and most commonly used for scars and deep wrinkles. Traditional CO2 lasers take months for your skin to heal, whereas fractional ones are far less invasive and generally only require two or three week of recovery.

Erbium: YAG lasers, on the other hand are slightly less powerful and burn less of the surrounding skin tissue, but they are very precise and have less recovery period (usually around one or two weeks).

First things first, ablative resurfacing is a pretty hard-core technique that requires skill and expertise so please, please, please make sure you only ever employ a board-certified physician who has training and expertise in this specific area. Oh, and don’t try your hand at the many handheld at-home devices on the market. Not. Worth. It.

Ablative resurfacing is usually a one-off outpatient procedure but expect dryness, swelling, scabbing and redness for up to 21 days depending on the type of laser used, as well as the condition and size of treatment area. If you don’t want the world and his wife to know what you’ve been up to, we recommend taking a few weeks off work post-procedure.

Potential risks are minimal but can include: burns, scarring, discoloration, herpes reactivation and bacterial infections. Patients who scar easily should also be a little wary, as skin resurfacing can be extremely hard on the immune system. In better news, results for last for years. Up to five, in fact.

Ablative resurfacing treatments vary in cost but you should expect to pay between $2000 and $3000 depending on your location, your surgeon’s fees and type of laser used. Split this cost over the year with a personalized treatment plan, however, and you’ll only have to pay a few hundred dollars per month. Just saying.

Ablative Skin Resurfacing Is Best For: Deep set wrinkles, acne scars, sagging, sun damage and discoloration.

Ask Your Doctor About: Pearl, Active FX and Fraxel Repair


Non-ablative resurfacing is a milder version of its ablative cousin and combats all manner of aging issues like loose skin, wrinkles and sun damage without removing or damaging the skin’s surface. It’s a great choice if you don’t mind a course of treatments rather than a one-hit-wonder and is perfect if you have neither the time nor the energy for weeks of skin peeling.

Non-ablative resurfacing works by producing microscopic zones of heat-induced injuries while leaving the surrounding tissue unharmed. This makes it less expensive, less aggressive and able to target smaller areas with fewer side-effects. It does require between three and six treatments, however, and is often thought of as being less effective. The jury’s out on that one.

The procedure itself is a swift one that can usually be completed at the doctor’s office in less than an hour, so yes you might be able to squeeze it into your lunch break, but your skin will be quite pink afterwards, so, call us vain, but we’d rather do it at the end of the day when we can go home straight away.

Unlike ablative resurfacing, non-ablative resurfacing is almost pain-free. Most patients experience a slight tingling sensation that feels like tiny pin pricks but if you are sensitive, your aesthetician will apply a topical anesthetic to reduce discomfort. It’s also much less expensive at around $1000-$2000 for a course of treatments. Again, this will depend entirely on your location, the severity of your concerns and your laser/surgeon choice.

Results require maintenance for the best results, but keep up with your personalized treatment plan and you can expect the benefits to last around a year or two.

Non-Ablative Skin Resurfacing Is Best For: Fine lines, crow’s feet, discolorations, sun damage and shallow acne scars.

Ask Your Doctor About: Laser Genesis, VBeam and Clear + Brilliant.