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Here's how pricey treatments like lasers and peels stack up against over-the-counter treatments. You might be surprised.

Age Spots 

Pro Solution: 
A Q-switched ruby laser dissolves the melanin that creates hyperpigmentation (dark spots). The treatment results in a scab, which falls away after about a week, taking the spot with it. 
Cost: $300 to $700, depending on how many areas are treated (usually only one treatment is necessary)

At-Home Solution: A hydroquinone cream inhibits melanin production and can often lighten age spots as effectively as a laser. At prescription-strength (4 percent), it should fade darkness in four to eight weeks. An over-the-counter (2 percent) cream takes at least eight to 12 weeks. 
Cost: About $40 for a generic-brand prescription; $5.50 for Ambi Skin Discoloration Fade Cream, with 2 percent hydroquinone

Frown Lines and Crow's-Feet

Pro Solution: Botox injections weaken the muscle contractions that cause lines to form around the eyes and forehead, says Anne Chapas, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. Within two to five days, lines begin to soften; results last three to six months. 
Cost: $500 to $750

At-Home Solution: Retinoid creams build collagen in the skin, which minimizes lines. Prescription ones, like tretinoin (Retin-A), make a difference in two to three months. Retinol, the strongest over-the-counter option, can soften lines in four to six months. Cost: About $40 for a generic-brand prescription retinoid; $35 for Vichy Reti-C Eyes Intensive Corrective Care, which contains retinol

Overall Dullness

Pro Solution: A light glycolic acid peel (usually at a 20 to 30 percent concentration) sloughs away dead skin cells and minor discolorations to reveal a smoother, brighter complexion. 
Cost: $125 to $250

At-Home Solution: Over-the-counter peels shouldn't contain more than 10 percent glycolic acid (which could damage skin if used improperly), but they can polish the skin's surface and, with consistent use over three months or so, will diminish slight pigmentation as much as a light in-office peel. 
Cost: $18 for Olay Daily Regenerist Thermal Mini Peel, with glycolic acid

Next: What not to try at home

Now that our experts have shared their favorite do-it-yourself cosmetic fixes, here are the procedures they say require caution.
"For laser hair removal, see a licensed practitioner," says Jeanine Downie, MD. "I've seen so many patients come in with burns after using at-home kits. It is just plain frightening." Downie owns Image Dermatology in Montclair, New Jersey.

Anne Chapas, MD,  says that a large pimple or cyst warrants an office visit. "You can traumatize your skin by trying to pop or poke at a blemish, and the damage isn't worth it." Chapas is a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at NYU's School of Medicine.

At-home peels are acceptable to Amy Wechsler, MD—up to a point: "Don't use anything that has more than 10 percent glycolic acid; that is too strong for a nonprofessional." Wechsler, author of The Mind-Beauty Connection (Free Press), practices in New York City.


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