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We trialled AFT, the new era of laser treatment, to undo years of tanning

Here, we find out if laser treatment can really reverse sunbed and tanning skin damage

As a person who came of age in the 00s, tan was life. The girls of The OC reigned supreme, the fake tan industry was raging on, and Kate Moss’ sunkissed hue was absolutely obligatory. Fast forward to 2020 and I have settled, if somewhat reluctantly at first, into my natural pinkish-sometimes-yellow skin tone. In fact, I don’t mind it. To think I used to not feel like “me” without a tan feels alien, but hey the 2000s were a crazy time, and while other friends mourn the loss of their hair to bleach or their eyelashes to glue, my personal hangup is the skin damage that lives on my chest, back, and face.

The legacy of the bronze age will be felt by many people in their 20s and 30s who, like me, slavishly fell under the tan regime, and are now living with the after-effects. 10 years later, as a beauty editor, I’m embarrassed at the blasé nature with which I treated my often unprotected skin, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. While people often compliment my freckles, I’m stung with a quiet regret for the hours spent on tanning beds in my youth. They’re not natural to my complexion, and while I think they’re cute, I understand they’ll darken with age. There is a slug of white pigmentation on my left shoulder blade. Freckles cover my chest, neck, and shoulders. Beauty is entirely personal, and while, for many, pigmentation isn’t too bothersome, it is for me. The fun of lying in the sun has been lost. I now schlep down European beaches in t-shirts, caps, sun-block and shorts, a summertime vampire seeking the refuge of a lopsided umbrella. 

I’m a big fan of lasers and what they can do for the epidermis, so when one of my favourite London salons of all time, Pfeffer Sal, got in touch to let me know they were offering the ‘next generation of IPL’ I was intrigued. This new wave of laser called AFT (Advanced Fluorescent Technology) looks to correct pigmentation. Pigmentation occurs when your melanocytes, the cells that are responsible for the colour of your skin, react creating excess melanin resulting in uneven colouration. So AFT doesn’t just treat sun-damaged skin. AFT can also help with rosacea. AFT works a lot like IPL in that light pulses are converted into heat and absorbed by the chromophore – the molecules in the skin that are responsible for its colour – permanently targeting the pigment while leaving the surrounding skin unaffected. Three to four sessions, spaced four weeks apart are recommended because the pigmentation darkens after the treatment, and eventually sheds – doing its work between sessions. It works best on fair skin (like most lasers) and is sadly not effective on very dark skin. It’s best to do treatments like this during the cold months when you’re less likely to receive sun exposure. It’s £90-350 a session, so not cheap, but with the promise of “the closest thing to make-up free skin,” I embarked on my AFT journey. 


I’m pretty hardcore when it comes to the mantra of ‘beauty is pain’. I have nodded off during waxes and am known to send emails during IPL laser hair removal sessions. Before my first AFT session, the lovely Iolanda at Pfeffer Sal warned me that the procedure is not comfortable. As a rule of thumb, the more pigmentation you have, the more it’s going to hurt. I felt relaxed as she cleansed my cheeks and chest for the patch test before applying the cold ultrasound gel that’s always applied before laser treatments. The pain that ensued was pretty uncomfortable. In fact, I was shocked at quite how hot the laser was. Areas that are bony were the most unpleasant. I left, stinging, red, and extremely hot, loathe to put a t-shirt and jumper on but relieved to step into the cold London air. Most of all, I felt quite nervous for session two. 


The second session was intense. It’s unusual for someone to have three large areas covered and I understand why. Iolanda was incredibly patient as I swore like a pirate the whole way through the hour and a half session. Again, I left tomato red and hot and bothered. The redness and heat do subside after an hour or so, but I regretted walking into a meeting 20 minutes later with huge sweat patches. The following few weeks saw all my pigmentation get a lot darker which is quite shocking because it reveals the extent of the damage, but extremely satisfying when, about two weeks in, the skin has shed. My skin looks the best it’s ever looked on my back and face. No hyperbole. Friends ask me if I’ve had botox and what foundation I’m wearing – the answer is no and none. My chest takes the longest to peel, and when it does it looks a lot clearer and more even in tone. I’m excited for the next session. 


The third session is a walk in the park and I have a nap when turned over onto my front. I can’t believe it’s the same treatment. I’m embarrassed at the way I whimpered through the last appointment. Iolanda reassuringly tells me this is because the pigmentation has been much reduced. Again the redness and heat persist for around an hour post treatments as per usual, I imagine this is what a menopausal hot flush feels like, but I feel good and excited to see the results. 


Prior to the session, my skin has been totally changed by the course. I’m amazed at the difference AFT has made. My skin tone is much more even. The white patch on my back has evaporated. My chest is the most persistent with some dark patches and freckles remaining. My shoulders look baby smooth and flawless (I had repeatedly burnt my shoulders each summer leaving splatterings of freckles all year round). I arrive for the appointment incredibly hungover and on my period and burst into tears as soon as the treatment begins. We get through it – just, but I can’t recommend enough avoiding having laser anywhere near and around your period. I leave shaken up and, of course, hot. 


My back, shoulders, and neck have been so improved by AFT Iolanda decides we don’t need to cover those areas again. We decided to treat just my face and chest. I’m not sure that the treatment will ever feel entirely comfortable on the face. It’s much too bony and sensitive an area, but the session is fast and bearable. 


Beauty is personal. For many, pigmentation won’t be a hangup. For me, or anyone like me, who’s looking to reverse any kind of sun damage I can’t recommend the treatment enough. It also banishes some rosacea around my nose that I’d never been too fussed by but am glad to see the back of. It is without a doubt the most effective, most confidence-boosting treatment I’ve ever had. I had some concerns (does laser thin your skin? I was ensured not, and in fact, AFT thickens the skin and produces collagen) because laser is still new, can be uncomfortable and involves a small amount of downtime, but the results beat anything any facial or filler or cream could ever achieve. 

One of my main concerns was the return of freckles and dark marks, which will, with repeated sun exposure return. However, I’m reassured that if I look after and protect my skin with high factor SPFs and take sensible precautions that everyone should, i.e not sunbathing at midday, the pigmentation will not come back to the same degree and can be kept at bay with the occasional session. It’s an expensive course, but if you’re looking for a permanent solution to pigmentation, this is the only thing I’ve tried that truly works. If anything the course has made me value my skin a great deal more and for that I’m grateful.