I Was Scared Clear + Brilliant Would Zap My Freckles — But I Did It Anyway

Photo: Courtesy of Megan Decker.
Skin experts say that fall is the best time to get a laser treatment. We’re not talking about laser hair removal (though fall would be a good time to start that as well, as it requires many treatments), but a facial laser treatment called Clear + Brilliant, which uses fractional laser technology to address early signs of aging, specifically sun spots. That’s why dermatologists recommend a fall or winter treatment, because you can tackle any damage your skin may have incurred during the sunny summer months. 
Over the past few years, more than a few dermatologists have qualified me as an “ideal” candidate for a Clear + Brilliant laser because my skin is covered in freckles, which are easily confused with sun spots. 
The difference between freckles and sun spots is that freckles are hereditary, very small (about 2 mm, according to dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD), and cluster together. “They tend to occur in young children, as early as two years of age, and get darker and more numerous into early adulthood,” Dr. Bowe previously explained to R29 in a case study on the topic. “If they get lighter during the winter, they’re freckles.” Sun spots, on the other hand, are larger, often raised spots. They “tend to arise in middle age, in individuals who have other signs of skin aging — like fine lines, wrinkles, rough [skin] texture — from cumulative sun exposure,” added Dr. Bowe.
I know that my freckles are, in fact, freckles because they fade a bit in the winter and I’ve had them for as long as I can remember. Through photo evidence, I’d guess the age of two is when they started popping up. I’m now 28 and have so many freckles. If I’ve accumulated a few sun spots over the years, it would be difficult to differentiate which is a natural freckle and which is a new sun spot. I have a mole by my mouth as well, which further complicates things. All of these spots put me at an increased risk of skin cancer, which is why I make sure to get my skin checked every year.
But back to the laser discussion. Earlier this fall, I noticed a bit of dullness in my skin tone and a few new (albeit faint) lines and spots on my forehead. I’m very good about wearing sunscreen and staying in the shade all year long, but as always, the freckles make it hard for me to discern what’s natural and what’s potential damage. I explained this to a dermatologist during a recent consultation and she repeated what I’d heard a few times before: “Have you ever considered a Clear & Brilliant? I would definitely recommend it.” I finally booked in for an appointment to learn more. 

What is a Clear & Brilliant laser?

I saw Lisa Goodman, PA, founder of GoodSkin Clinic in Manhattan who explained more about the technology behind Clear + Brilliant. Though it isn’t new (it first came to market in 2012) it’s new to me. “Clear + Brilliant is a gentle treatment that uses fractional laser technology,” explains Goodman. ‘Fractional’ refers to the treatment of a small part or fraction of the skin at one time. Low levels of laser light “work by creating millions of microscopic treatment zones in the upper layers of the skin, which replaces damaged skin with healthy tissue,” explains Goodman. Essentially, this is skin resurfacing, which exfoliates the outer layer of skin to encourage fresh, new cells and to enhance the texture of the skin. 

How is Clear + Brilliant different from other lasers?

Any kind of resurfacing sounds uncomfortable, but I’m assured Clear + Brilliant is relatively gentle compared to other light therapies. It’s not the same as IPL (intense pulsed light). An IPL laser comprises multiple wavelengths of light, which makes it a great treatment for broader skin concerns. Fractional laser has just one wavelength that is more specific. “Clear + Brilliant penetrates more deeply and is more specific in targeting signs of aging,” explains Goodman. 
You may have heard of another type of fractional laser called Fraxel. “Both Clear + Brilliant and Fraxel are fractional lasers but differ in terms of their intensity and skin concerns,” explains Goodman. Clear + Brilliant is a more gentle option, great for people who have a bit of uneven skin texture, color, or pigmentation (like freckles and sun spots), or those with early signs of aging (like my faint fine lines, which this will not remove but may soften). Also of note, there is little downtime. “On the other hand, Fraxel is recognized for its deeper penetration and is typically recommended for addressing more significant skin issues such as deep wrinkles and scars; Fraxel also involves a longer recovery period,” explains Goodman. 
So compared to IPL and Fraxel, Clear + Brilliant falls in the middle. I’m a good candidate because I’m specifically looking to treat sun-related discoloration and skin dullness. Though because this is my first-ever laser, I want it to be very gentle with no downtime.

What will Clear + Brilliant do to my freckles?

This was my main question. Because although this treatment came highly recommended to me based on my individual skin type and concerns, I didn’t understand what exactly was going to happen to my natural freckles. I heard some people talking about them “flaking off” — I didn’t want that (which surprised me because I used to hate my freckles, so to feel protective of them is new for me).
Goodman assured me that a single Clear + Brilliant treatment would not zap my freckles away, but it could lighten them. “Clear & Brilliant targets melanin, the pigment responsible for skin color, and this can impact freckles,” says Goodman. “The treatment may lighten freckles — the extent of this effect can vary based on factors such as the intensity of the treatment and individual skin characteristics.” Additionally she warns: “Freckles can flake, but again, depends on the individual.”
To be safe, I went for the lowest possible intensity of laser for my treatment and I asked Goodman to steer clear of the areas where I had freckles that I didn’t want touched. She wanted me to specify. I told her to avoid my nose and cheeks altogether. “I feel like that’s a Punky Brewster thing,” Goodman noted, referencing the ’80s sitcom where the main character had freckles smattered across her cheeks and nose. (I had to google it when I got home to confirm the reference.)
This conversation was important, though. It made me feel more comfortable with the treatment. “I advise everyone, regardless of freckles or not, to consult with an expert technician who considers your unique skin characteristics,” explains Goodman. My philosophy on all skin treatments has always been low and slow; I never want to be surprised by a result.

What is Clear + Brilliant like?

The first step of the treatment was the application of a topical numbing cream. Goodman says some people can go without it. Numbing cream extends the appointment, as it takes effect in 20 minutes, but I asked for it because I’m a baby about pain. Fun fact: Red hair has been linked to low pain tolerance.
Then my laser technician, with Goodman’s guidance, went over my skin with the laser. I was expecting pain, but this was not bad. It was described to me like the pain of an elastic snapping against your skin, and I felt like it was less than that. I’ve also done micro-needling and if you’ve ever had that, this is a comparable sensation. It’s not painful — and shouldn’t be — but it’s a little warm and uncomfortable. My laser technician did two passes and it was over in about 20 minutes. 
Afterwards, my skin looked pretty much the same, just a lot glowier. I was expecting redness and inflammation, maybe a difference in my freckles, but there was none of that. The weirdest side effect was the texture of my skin for the three days following: It was a little sandpaper-y and rough to the touch, but it wasn’t visible. After day three, the roughness kind of sloughed off. I’m told this is the effect of the treated tissue working its way out of your body as new skin is regenerated.
My skin a day after my Clear + Brilliant treatment

What should I do after getting Clear + Brilliant?

I was advised to not use a lot of makeup in the days following my Clear + Brilliant treatment and to avoid any active skincare (so no exfoliation, acids, retinol, and avoiding any potentially sensitizing ingredients like vitamin C). However, Goodman stressed the importance of sunscreen, which is imperative every day but especially after a treatment where the skin is sensitized. Additionally, Goodman recommended I use skincare with EGF (epidermal growth factor), a type of peptide or protein chain that was developed to speed up wound healing. “This is fantastic at aiding in recovery,” explains Goodman. I immediately started using the RMÈD Renewal Serum with EGF, which contains different peptides that help stimulate collagen and elastin plus polyglutamic acid for hydration. A month after my treatment, I’m still using the serum — it’s that good. My skin is still brighter and more radiant than it was in late summer before I went in for my Clear + Brilliant treatment.

Is Clear + Brilliant worth it?

It turned out the dermatologists were right; Clear + Brilliant is a great treatment for my specific skin type and concerns. I will say: It is expensive. At GoodSkin, the facials are fully customized and require a consultation to determine a treatment plan and cost. However, most Clear + Brilliant treatments average around $600 for a single session. Plus, Goodman tells me that she often recommends a few rounds of treatments for long-lasting results.
With a single session, I’m very happy. I think my favorite part is the subtle change in my skin. I know, if you’re paying $600 you want to see a change, but I’m thinking of this more like a skin-maintenance treatment. My skin looks brighter, more refreshed this past month than I’ve ever seen it. Not for nothing, I learned lasers can be used on freckles without an extreme result. I never noticed any freckles flake off and while it may have lightened some on my forehead and lower face, it’s not all that perceptible to me — and hasn’t been to anyone who knows my face. Believe you me, my mother would have noticed.
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