I spent my childhood obsessed with the horror that was my freckles. I was convinced they were the key to my (imagined) hideousness, and I pressed every grownup about when, exactly, they would go away. I took little comfort from impish sprinkle-faced heroines like Annie or Anne of Green Gables and instead longed for the perfectly porcelain skin of Judy Garland as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
Eventually my freckles faded, along with my memories of 1980s summer camp with Charlie Brown lunchboxes and never, ever wearing sunscreen on my fair skin because who did that?
Now in my 40s, I have freckles again. Or rather, I have a series of unsightly dark splotches splayed across my face like an angry posse of Jackson Pollock paintings that have gotten lost. Age and years of regular sun exposure without sunscreen (which I didn’t start wearing daily until my early 30s. I know, I know, I’m going to beauty hell) have left me with a whole new set of brown spots that can hardly be called cute. Damage acquired decades ago can still “live” in your skin but only show up as the skin ages and thins. That blistering sunburn you got when you were 15? Be prepared to meet it again!
I’ve spent a small fortune on over-the-counter lightening and brightening creams, but nothing seemed to really zap those marks. So in my first outing for this column, I went after those splatters with a vengeance, and dermatologist Dr. Lisa Kellett of DLK on Avenue was my weapon.
“First, we’re going to give you the glow,” Kellett says, examining my skin. “And then we’ll target those really stubborn spots.” Kellett’s prescription for treating my sun spots involves a careful skincare regimen, six intense pulsed laser treatments (IPL) spaced two weeks apart over my whole face, and then one or two targeted attacks with a pico laser on the most tenacious of the blobs at the end. It’s key to get a diagnosis of what’s causing your hyperpigmentation from a doctor. For instance, if you treat melasma—which is sometimes called “the pregnancy mask” and is caused by hormones—with lasers, it will actually get darker. People with very dark skin shouldn’t have IPL either, because the laser targets melanin—the pigment that colours people’s skin. And if your local aesthethician goes after something that’s actually a melanoma, you could be missing skin cancer. “To the untrained eye,” says Kellett, “they all just look like brown spots.”
Kellett loads me up with products from the Clear Clinical skincare line. My haul includes a vitamin C with ferulic acid serum and a sunscreen for day. At night, after cleansing, I’m to wipe one of the Luminate Pads—which are soaked in a mixture of brighteners and antioxidants like arbutin, kojic acid, vitamin C and green tea—over my face, and mix a retinol (Vitamin A) in with my moisturizer every other night.
I also get a sunhat for the first time since 1986 (I know, I know, I’m going to beauty hell)—a wide-brimmed raffi a Tilley Charlie Fedora, for an upcoming trip to Mexico. I’m determined to be a Very Good Patient who Really Murders Her Spots.
One thing that’s definitely missing from this regimen is hydroquinone, the sometimes controversial ingredient that has long been the go-to for people looking to lighten their skin. Kellett refuses to use it, because of its possible side effects including the risk of ochronosis, the skin syndrome that creates grey or yellowish discolouration.
Helen, my assigned aesthetician, takes a series of close-up “before” shots of my visage. Before each IPL treatment, she gives me a “diamond peel”—a gentle microdermabrasion treatment with a diamond-tip device that sloughs off the dead outer layer of my face, which feels as smooth as a baby’s bum when she’s done. Then it’s time for the main event. Helen puts tiny protective goggles over my eyeballs and applies a thin, cold layer of conductive gel to my skin. “I’m going to count you down and then…zap!”
She places a small hand piece against my face, and then there’s a flash of light, which feels like the snap of a rubber band. She does my whole face inch by inch. It smarts, but it’s all over in about 15 minutes. Afterwards, I’m given strict instructions to stay out of the sun as much as possible and slather on the sunscreen (the skin is even more sensitive to Evil Sun afterwards).
A few days after my first treatment, I keep absentmindedly scratching at what feels like tiny bits of sand on my face. “We call them coffee grinds,” Helena tells me. As the sun damage rises to the surface of the skin, it’s not uncommon for spots to get temporarily darker and start to flake off. (The upcoming pico laser treatment will apparently leave me with full-on scabs where my darkest splotches are, but once the scabs fall off those splatters will be gone for good.)
By my third treatment, I start looking fresher, brighter and smoother—like I’m holding an Instagram filter up to my face at all times. I’m so dewy, I even stop wearing foundation. People start commenting on my skin, and by people, I mean my now jealous girlfriends.
“I can’t get over how good your skin looks!” says my butchiest pal, who in 20 years has never said anything about my skin, like, ever.
“You look good,” says another friend, as she peers at me suspiciously through slanted eyes over dinner. “Whatever experiment you’re doing, it’s working.”
When I go on a beach vacation halfway through my six sessions, I bathe myself in sunscreen like a madwoman, reapplying about 113 times a day, and I wear my Tilley even if I’m just taking a two-minute stroll to the poolside bar. I walk by women roasting themselves in the blistering sun and can barely stop myself from shaking them: “Don’t you know what you’re doing to your skin? How you are accelerating the aging process? YOU ARE NOT A TURKEY THAT NEEDS TO BE BASTED!”
After five treatments, Helen does some “after” shots for me. I knew my skin was getting better, but I’m actually surprised at how much better once I see the images side by side. I’m practically nubile!
I still have one IPL and a pico laser visit to go and then it will buh-bye forevah face blotches. Guess what? I won’t miss you at all.