ASK THE EXPERT: Can laser treatment cause skin cancer?

By Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD

Dr. Sarnoff, clinical professor of dermatology, NYU Langone Medical Center and Vice President of The Skin Cancer Foundation, is a board-certified dermatologist, a Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. 

She has served as a clinical researcher at the National Institutes of Health and is a member of the Medical Council of the Skin Cancer Foundation.  She is a member of numerous professional organizations, and is the President of the Long Island Dermatological Society and Vice-President of CancerCare of Long Island.

Dr. Sarnoff has appeared on national television, has frequently been interviewed by the most highly profiled national magazines, and has given lectures across the country.  Dr. Sarnoff is the co-author of Beauty and the Beam: Your Complete Guide to Cosmetic Laser Surgery and Instant Beauty: Getting Gorgeous On Your Lunch Break.


Q: My dermatologist has just informed me that I have sun damaged skin.  I am looking into a laser or similar treatment. Can these treatments increase collagen?  Do they cause skin sensitivity or increase the chances of skin cancer?

A: Sun damage can manifest itself on the skin in a variety of ways:  brown spots (also known as sun spots, age spots or liver spots); broken blood vessels; wrinkles; and pre-cancerous rough, scaly patches (called solar or actinic keratoses).

There are wonderful laser treatments available today that help reverse sun damage and improve the appearance of mottled, rough, leathery-looking skin.

Specific lasers target particular problem areas of the skin.  For example, pigment-specific lasers (e.g., Q-switched ruby, Q-switched Nd-YAG and Q-switched alexandrite) remove brown spots.  Broken blood vessels are treated with vascular-specific lasers, such as the Pulse Dye Laser (PDL).

There are also many lasers that are highly effective for treating wrinkles.  These lasers can be ablative (i.e., they vaporize the top layer of the skin), such as the CO2 or erbium laser, or nonablative (i.e., a resurfacing laser that eliminates wrinkles without any peeling of the skin).

The use of either ablative or many of the nonablative lasers increases collagen formation, which translates into an improvement in fine lines and wrinkles.

None of the aforementioned lasers increase the chances of developing skin cancer — in fact, some of the lasers are useful in treating pre-cancerous lesions, thus reducing the risk of developing skin cancer.