July 16 2002 12:00 AM ET
Straight-shooting at the laser spa
The Advocate arts editor continues her lesbian beauty quest at Reniu Laser Day Spa, Southern California’s first medical beauty spa, and learns more about how the experts tailor skin treatments to their clients—without gimmicky come-ons. Part 2 of a series (Click here for part one)
OK, it’s official. After two treatments, I’m sold on laser facials. “You look great,” people are saying. They cock their heads and study me, which of course means that they don’t realize I’ve actually “done” anything. Otherwise they’d be giving me the polite California Averted Eye.
Now I’m impatient for a month to pass so I can go back for treatment number three. Is this how Joan Rivers got started?
Actually, before we start with the paranoia, let’s do some exposition. A couple of months ago, I drove down the California coast to the resort town of Dana Point, where Reniu Laser Day Spa delivers not just massages and waxes but also “cosmeceutical” treatments like Botox, collagen, and a whole range of cosmetic laser procedures. Speaking with CEO Bob Oosdyke, I liked his description of a recent laser facial technique: Instead of the “laser resurfacing” idea we all know about, where you’re Pucci pink for a couple of months afterward, Reniu’s Versa Facial is delivered with a slow pulse that works just beneath the skin’s surface. That pulse causes a much more moderate “controlled thermal injury,” which in turn alerts your own system to wake up and heal the problem, which gets your own collagen-producing cells into high gear, which means you start looking younger.
The capable Bill Lee
I learned all this from William Lee, the ex–Army captain who’s now defending my complexion. Bill started his medical training in the Gulf War, and he’s still together with the man he fell in love with back then, but that’s another story. Right now, the point is that he knows exactly what he’s doing with a laser beam, and I’m very glad I’m on his side.
With my first treatment, Bill was very cautious. We needed to test how my skin reacted to the laser. He had already told me that my results should be good; the paler you are, the less risky the laser procedure, and I’m the palest person I know. (I asked Bill about the comparative benefits of treatments for people of color, and he said the darker your skin, the greater the possibility that you’ll develop hyperpigmentation—a splotchy patch—where the laser hits. Still, Bill told me that because of his wide experience he feels comfortable working on all complexions. As a precaution, he asks the client to use a special bleaching cream for two weeks prior to the first treatment. The results give valuable information about how the skin will react to the laser.)
As I told you last time, the first treatment didn’t hurt—stung a little, maybe. It was also much quicker than I’d expected. And my aftercare was simple. Per Bill’s instructions, I periodically rinsed with vinegar and water, then coated my face with a thin film of Vaseline, which did give me sort of a nervous sheen for the next couple of days. Other than that, nothing to it.
Over the next couple of weeks, I looked in the mirror a lot. I could feel a difference; my skin was smoother. But I couldn’t see much of an effect. Bill had told me that my body’s response wouldn’t really get started for about three weeks. Yeah, fine, but was this thing going to work or what?
On my second visit I got my answer, when Bill pointed out a freckle (actually a brown spot caused by sun damage) he’d zapped during round one. “See how it’s vaporizing,” he said. Sure enough, the little solid-brown spot had become a tiny cluster of faint specks, like a pointillist painting of a freckle, on its way to disappearing entirely. Not that I have anything against freckles specifically, but wow! I’d never seen anything like this. I started to understand that this treatment is powerful indeed.
For my second treatment, Bill upped the power. Here’s why, from an E-mail Bill sent me just after our treatment:
“The first thing I look for in a patient coming in for the second treatment is any red or pink marks lasting from the first treatment. Rule out the bad first....Then I look for positive signs. With you I noticed more uniformity in tone and color. The brown spots (solar lentigos) are not so visible from 5 to 10 feet, and only slightly noticeable at close range. With the pigments I stretch them a little and look for the particleization of the spot, meaning it becomes a lot of little dots rather than a solid brown area even when stretched as it was before the first treatment. You had a couple of little dilated capillaries that went away with the first treatment and did not return around the nose area. With no problems from the first treatment, on to the second.”
Hearing the machine whir, lying on the table with my little lightproof eye shield, I got curious to learn a little more about this laser thing. OK, I get it, it's a ray of light that delivers heat. But what kind of light? Bill started with the wavelength of the beam: “Light that comes through the atmosphere has to be at least 280 nanometers. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter—that’s a measurement of light wavelength. The closer you get to 200, it’s a little bit closer to what you get from the sun, around 280 to 310.”
It turns out that different wavelengths address different problems. “There’s a psoriasis laser that’s about 308,” Bill said. “There’s a new laser, strictly for acne, which is about 450. The one we’re using on you is 532.” He went on to mention beams at higher and higher wavelengths up to 810, which Bill uses for hair removal, and even 1064, which he uses to remove tattoos.
Why was I getting a 532? “That wavelength is attracted to red,” Bill explained. What’s red in the body, of course, is blood—blood vessels, for starters. The laser will eliminate the tiny broken capillaries in your face by collapsing them. And what actually happens to those brown sun spots, which I’m still seeing disappear before my eyes? “Some of that [brown] will flake off,” Bill told me, “and some of the pigments will get absorbed into the body and drain out the lymph system.”
Are you on data overload yet? Because there’s a lot more to this, and I mean a lot.
Doing laser therapy correctly requires a lot of knowledge and a lot of expensive machinery. Knowing all of that, Bob Oosdyke cautioned me, we should be plenty skeptical about the discounted laser-treatment ads we often see. They frequently promise but don’t deliver—or don’t deliver the right treatment with the right equipment. “We won’t run an ad that says, ‘Come in for $99 hair removal,’ ” he said. “What they don’t tell you is, the $99 is for five minutes. Or it’s for three inches or whatever, and then the rest of the treatment’s at regular price. We’re just not getting into that kind of game.”
In fact, I don’t think these guys are getting into any kind of game at all. Everything they’ve told me has happened exactly as they said it would. Which is why I’m looking forward to another first on my next visit. In addition to his third treatment on my face, Bill is going to apply the laser to my hands. Can you imagine? Boy, I’d like to see them look a little less battered. After all, my face I only see from time to time. I watch my hands all day.
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