Arlington, VA, dermatologist sheds light on laser birthmark removal

Despite his highly visible presence on the international political scene of the 1980’s, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev refused removal of his highly visible port-wine stain birthmark. Instead, Gorbachev’s official government portraits were air-brushed, he was typically photographed from the left side, and he lived with the nickname “The Marked Man.”

In 1985, there weren’t many good options for removing port-wine stains. Surgical skin grafting led to poor results and the complications of treatment with radiation were enormous. At the time, laser birthmark removal was still being perfected. Today, however, it is a treatment of choice, and it’s available in Arlington, VA, from Dr. Kenneth Neal of Washington Dermatology Consultants.

Facts about birthmarks

Most people have some form of birthmark, which is a colored mark on or below the skin that is often present when born, or that develops soon thereafter. Many times, birthmarks are very small or light, or disappear during childhood. In other cases, they can be prominent, even disfiguring, and produce an untold amount of anguish for those who must live with them.

No one really knows exactly what causes birthmarks, although experts have several theories. For the most part, birthmarks can be classified as one of two types:

  • Vascular birthmarks – These are red, pink or purple blemishes that likely result from an abnormal growth or clustering of blood vessels under the skin. Examples include salmon patches, flat pink or red spots on the back of the neck or the forehead, cheeks or nose; hemangiomas, raised, bright red bumps that resemble a strawberry in color and texture; and port-wine stains, flat dark red or purple spots that often show up on the face, increasing in size and sometimes deepening in color over the years.
  • Pigmented birthmarks – These are usually brown and are thought to be caused by cells that produce excess melanin, the substance that gives skin its color. Examples include café au lait spots – patches that are the color of coffee with cream; moles – raised areas typically smaller than a pencil eraser and most often brown; and Mongolian spots – grayish-blue patches that may resemble bruises. They usually appear on the backs or bottoms of babies with darker skin types.

Lasers make light work of birthmarks

Just because you were born with a blemish doesn’t mean you have to go through life as “the marked man” – or woman. Laser birthmark removal is highly effective and has become a treatment of choice. It does not typically require general anesthesia and is not invasive like surgery. It also does not produce the side effects that often come with other treatments.

Laser removal is just about the only option that is safe and effective for port-wine stains. Lasers are also used to treat hemangiomas, café au lait blemishes, and bluish patches on the skin.

During treatment, the laser releases intense bursts of highly focused, single-colored light beams to lighten birthmarks and reduce their size. Each burst penetrates the top layer of the skin to a depth of just one millimeter. The light is converted into heat. In the case of vascular birthmarks, the heat causes the extra blood vessels to clot and “die.” They are then absorbed. For pigmented birthmarks, the color of the light combines with the heat to target a specific pigment shade. The laser fragments the pigment, most of which comes off as a crust following treatment. Some may be absorbed back into the skin.

Patients say they have a sensation of heat and of being flicked with a rubber band as the laser penetrates their skin. A topical anesthetic can be applied before treatment begins, and a jet of cool air is often directed across the treatment area to keep the patient comfortable.

Laser treatment may take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending on the size and number of birthmarks to be treated. Patients may also need a series of six or seven sessions for complete treatment.

After treatment, there may be some bruising and temporary blistering or crusting. Patients will be very prone to sunburn for at least six months following treatment and must wear sunscreen and avoid heavy exposure to sun for the first year following treatment.

Many patients will see a 90 percent improvement following laser removal of a birthmark. With results like that, why wait another day to become your blemish-free best? Call Dr. Neal today at 571-431-6175 to schedule a consultation.

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