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Ditching your razor and avoiding annoying stubble days after shaving sounds like a dream. That's where laser hair removal comes in. But, is it worth the cost? And how do you know if it's right for you? Is laser hair removal permanent? We've got you covered.
Before you commit to a treatment, it's best to research any questions you might have. Lots of people love the results laser hair removal brings, but that doesn't mean it's for everyone. You have to commit to several sessions for the best results, and let's face it: it isn't cheap. There's no guarantee you'll be hair-free forever, but at least you won't have to shave on the daily. We asked dermatologists Rachel Maiman, MD, and Rosemarie Ingleton, MD, to shed some light on the process of laser hair removal from how it works to what to expect. Read on for everything you need to know about laser hair removal.
What is Laser Hair Removal?
Laser hair removal is one of the most effective ways to remove unwanted hair from the body and face. When performed, a laser emits a light that works to absorb the melanin (pigment) in the hair. This damages the hair follicle and prevents future growth. It is important to have a pre-treatment consultation with a professional to determine what type of wavelength will be used based on the patient's skin color and type.
What is laser hair removal?
According to Maiman, "Laser hair removal works by sending light at a specific wavelength that targets melanin, the pigment that colors hair, at a depth sufficient to act on the hair bulb. The intended outcome, hair removal, results from thermal injury to the hair bulb produced when the energy in the light is absorbed by the pigment located there."
Benefits of Laser Hair Removal
Lasers use pulsed light to target, break down, and destroy the dark pigment in the hair. This is why it works so well on dark hair. But, unfortunately, this also means the lasers will also target skin pigments, which can cause discoloration.
Lasers and pulsed lights work best on people with darker hair and lighter skin tones. According to Maiman, "the ideal candidates for laser hair removal are patients with light skin and dark hair. In patients with blonde hair, the laser is relatively ineffective because there is minimal pigment present in the hair bulb for it to target, and it relies on this target for its mechanism of action." However, there are devices like the Diode and Nd-Yag, created to give results to people with light hair or dark skin.
For deeper skin tones, using the incorrect type of machine and lasers can cause discoloration. If your skin is dark, you should never subject yourself to an Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) treatment. "Those with darker skin are at higher risk of adverse events like potentially permanent hyper or hypopigmentation. This is because they have more pigment surrounding the hair follicle that can be inadvertently hit and destroyed by the laser," says Maiman. "This, of course, does not mean that patients with darker skin tones cannot get laser hair removal. It simply means that going to a board-certified dermatologist is even more important because it is critical that the provider choose the right laser and use the right settings to minimize risk."
Lasers have come a long way and the technology is continually improving. When you book your appointment, describe your skin tone and hair color and ask the salon what lasers they use (and if they'll provide results with your hair and skin tone). Some businesses specialize in the removal of light hair or lasers for deeper skin tones, making it easier to know what kind of treatment you'd receive there.
How to Prepare For Laser Hair Removal
Once you decide what type of laser is best for your hair and skin tone, you'll likely be told to either shave a day or two before your sessions. You'll also want to avoid tanning and self-tanners before and after treatment. It is possible that you will need to stop taking certain medications to avoid adverse effects, so be honest about everything you take.
On the day of your appointment, avoid using any products on your skin, including lotions, deodorant, or anything else. Be sure to check with your aesthetician about any other things you should and should not do before and after your sessions.
It's often advised to take a couple of ibuprofen an hour before your session. Some people recommend numbing the skin 20 minutes before your session with a spray or cream that contains four percent lidocaine.
The pulsed light in laser hair removal feels like a rubber band snapping against your skin, although some machines perform differently. Not every zap will hurt and some areas, like the lower legs, hurt more than others, like your thighs.
What to Expect During a Laser Hair Removal Treatment
The office visit itself typically doesn't take long. It depends on the area being treated, though. Your back or legs may take an hour or two, while the upper lip may only take minutes.
You'll see results after your first appointment, but it will take several treatments to permanently remove hair. According to Ingleton, "After each treatment, the hairs may seem to continue to grow for a period of 1-2 weeks, but these hairs are, in fact, lifeless and are simply being cast out by your body. Once these hairs are pushed out, a finer hair grows back in its place. With each treatment, the hairs get finer and sparser. Usually, it takes 6 to 8 treatments to see no re-growth." For best results, get maintenance treatments done once a year for at least a couple of years.
Lasers and pulsed light target several follicles at once (making them great for treating back, shoulder, arm, and chest hair), so you can treat large areas of skin. While it can take years to perform electrolysis on larger areas, a typical laser hair removal session on both legs usually takes less than two hours. Lighter colored hair on the upper lip and chin can be tricky. Some lasers are able to target light hair without issues, but it can take a few treatments.
After treating an area, hairs fall out within 10 to 14 days. Using a mild sugar scrub in the shower on the tenth day will help exfoliate skin and remove hair. It's also a good idea to use products your aesthetician may recommend and follow their after-treatment suggestions carefully.
At-Home vs. In-Office
While not as effective as in-office treatments, at-home hair removal devices have come a long way. "At home devices work similarly to professional treatments but use lower energy levels. They are more time-consuming to use, but they can help and are a great option to maintain improvements between professional treatments," says Maiman. "The majority of at-home hair removal devices don't actually use lasers, but instead use Intense Pulse Light (IPL), a light-based technology that targets melanin to destroy the hair follicle after repeated treatments. Because IPL emits a broad spectrum of light, rather than a single wavelength, it’s safe for a wide variety of skin tones."
Maiman recommends the Silk’n Infinity 400,000 because its design allows for easy and fast treatment of large areas of skin and it also has five energy levels to customize the treatment. "While extremely safe, it is hard to cover a lot of surface area. These are best used for in-between treatments or small areas such as the upper lip," she adds.
While the side effects are minimal, the most common is skin irritation. Redness and swelling can occur and will typically subside within the first few hours after treatment. Skin pigment discoloration can also be a concern, which is why it is important to do your research and go to a professional that you trust.
There's never a guarantee that you'll enjoy a hair-free life after treatment. It's important to remember that laser hair removal works better for some people than others.
No one knows for sure what hair regrowth rates are. Some people notice regrowth after several months or years, while others find they never have to shave again.
The Final Takeaway
Laser hair removal is not cheap. Depending on what body part you choose to treat, it can run anywhere from $200 to $2,000 per session. That is not including tax and tip.
Many salons advertise discounted procedures, but the best places don't have to resort to discounts. Do your homework before signing up for services. Protect yourself and your skin by booking an appointment with a dermatologist or licensed technician only.
As with any big decision, just be sure to do your research to find out what will work best for you.
American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. Hair removal.
Thaysen-Petersen D, Erlendsson AM, Nash JF, et al. Side effects from intense pulsed light: importance of skin pigmentation, fluence level and ultraviolet radiation-a randomized controlled trial. Lasers Surg Med. 2017;49(1):88-96. doi:10.1002/lsm.22566
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Laser hair removal: FAQS.