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My eyes are one of my least favorite features. Not the actual eyeballs, which are a pleasant shade of blue, but the size (petite) and shape (almond slivers) of my eyes. Now wrinkles have been added to my list of eye-related grievances. Earlier this year, a pair of crow’s feet became stubbornly stamped in the corner of both my eyes. These starter wrinkles used to disappear as soon as I stopped smiling, but then they began to linger long after my face returned to status quo. Besides the natural forces of aging, I have the sun to thank for my crow’s feet, both for making me squint and for breaking down the collagen and elastin in the skin around my eyes.
If I had the chance to erase these faint signs of age before my wedding day later this year, I would take it, as long as injecting foreign substances or putting a knife to my skin weren’t part of the deal. So when I became acquainted with an FDA-cleared handheld cosmetic laser called PaloVia ($499), I performed a thorough cost-benefit analysis for the sake of my skin.
The powers of fractional laser resurfacing technology, which uses narrowly spaced micro-beams of laser energy to prompt new collagen growth, were seductive. Unlike topical potions and lotions, which work only on the skin’s outer layer, the laser treats the skin’s aging support structure and relies on the body’s natural healing process to sweep away old, damaged tissue and rebuild it. The risks, according to clinical studies and initial user reviews, were trivial and temporary. And so I took the plunge with PaloVia, ready to kiss my crow’s feet goodbye.
I was surprised at how quickly I mastered the device after just a few applications. All I had to do was make sure that the laser was fully charged, turn it on and select the desired setting (low, medium, or high), smear a gob of greasy gel on the treatment area, and zap away. This last step takes some getting used to. To get a feel for the sensation, imagine lots of hot, microscopic rubber bands being snapped against your skin. Once I got over the initial shock of essentially electrocuting my face, I enjoyed the process of tracing the lines stemming from the corners of my eyes and, bizarrely, I enjoyed the pain. Who knew I was into skincare S&M?
Keeping it on the medium setting, I pressed the PaloVia device, reminiscent of a grocery store checkout scanner, into my skin until it emitted a steady glow of blue light - the only cue that it is in proper contact. There were quite a few times, especially during my initial treatment, when the laser became misaligned and the beam of light was interrupted. Luckily, the device allows a generous 25 misfires per treatment. After completing the zapping (which is accompanied by strange sing-songy robot noises) the real pain kicked in. The lasered skin immediately turned a scorched shade of red and felt as if it had been in the sun all day. I dabbed cold water on the red areas and wiped off the gel residue. I then went to bed feeling flushed and mildly uncomfortable but buoyed by the product literature’s assurance that my skin would return to normal by morning.
How very untrue that was. In the morning, my skin looked scarlet as ever, like I had been punched in the face or was suffering from a severe allergic reaction. Or, apparently, had just treated my lucky skin to a laser resurfacing procedure. Up close in the mirror I could see a cross-hatched pattern which gave my red skin a rough texture that made hiding it under makeup a challenge.
Nonetheless, I persevered, and a few weeks into my trial, I started to notice visible changes. My skin was adjusting to the laser treatments and not flaring up as dramatically each time. The medical term for the redness I experienced is erythema, which is caused by an increase of blood flow in the lower layers of the skin brought on by injury or inflammation. Though the dryness and roughness persisted for quite some time - even after I had discontinued treatment - they were eventually replaced by a stretch of smooth skin. For now, the fine lines have faded and the corners of my eyes no longer keep company with crow’s feet.
PaloVia seems surprisingly easy to use, once you get the hang of it. Requiring only three additional minutes in your nightly routine, PaloVia is less tedious than the LED-equipped Baby Quasar and falls in the same price range (at $450-$500). Of course, that’s like comparing apples and oranges, since the two devices use very different technologies. LED contraptions emit low intensity light to improve the skin’s overall texture. The non-ablative fractional laser employed by PaloVia targets a small portion of the skin with light for faster healing and fewer risks. This technology, which was patented by Palomar (the maker of PaloVia) in 2000, is used to treat specific skin conditions like acne scars, wrinkles, and stretch marks.
I am not convinced that it is safe to use PaloVia regularly over a long period of time, due to the potential dangers of any new technology (whether or not the FDA has approved it) and the mysteries of the Hayflick Limit. However, I doubt that the two in-home devices of the Baby Quasar and PaloVia should be combined simultaneously. Though LED is by far the gentler light-emitting treatment, both can result in redness and swelling. Laser therapy is said to penetrate and stimulate much deeper tissue and thus to accompany more severe side effects, like rebound hyperpigmentation (as Jaysie pointed out after my initial dissection of PaloVia). During my trial, I did not notice any change in the pigmentation of the skin around my eyes, which is mostly free of freckles and age spots. But who knows what might happen after extended use?
In this study on fractional laser technology, researchers found that the fill factor (treatment area to total skin area) has to be carefully controlled to reach an optimal balance between efficacy and safety. The lattice of “islands” in the skin which were stimulated during the experiment with optical-thermal modeling technology must be distributed regularly to ensure safety. I found this conclusion to be worrisome in the case of PaloVia, which is intended to be used by untrained hands. If the fill factor isn’t carefully monitored, couldn’t someone easily overlap the treatment areas and leave the skin susceptible to damage?
I was thus surprised to find a rather concise user manual within PaloVia’s product package. The primary warning is to always precede laser treatment with the included gel (enough for up to four months), which ensures proper light penetration. I can’t imagine what is so special about this gel, which is formulated with some of the worst skincare ingredients under the sun - basically a mixture of mineral oil, propylene glycol, copolymers, and propylparaben. After each application, I made sure to remove the gel thoroughly with a dab of cleanser and toner. I then followed up the laser treatment with my usual serums and creams, hoping to maximize the production of fresh, healthy skin.
Though I would call my experiment with PaloVia a success, I think that the laser is much more effective on newer, shallow wrinkles than cavernous creases. I find it odd that the device is only recommended for the delicate skin surrounding the eye area. Could it be because the skin around the eyes is so thin and quick to heal? The inquiry that I sent Palomar on this matter has gone unanswered. Yet, I wonder how it would perform on those horizontal expression lines etched on my forehead...
With my PaloVia trial complete, I don’t think that lasers will make another appearance in my skincare routine for some time. I put PaloVia to the test to see if it would in fact have an effect on my fine lines. (Also, it wouldn’t hurt to look the part of a fresh-faced beautiful bride at my wedding later this year.) But no laser resurfacing treatment can result in permanent changes, since the facial muscles continue to move and the lines resurface over time. Besides, crow’s feet lend character, or at least that’s what I’ll tell myself when they come back.