Laser Hair Removal for Beginners

Laser hair removal might not be new, but it’s permanent and involves hot lasers—so the first time around is intimidating. Does it hurt? Will it leave you hair-free forever? Where should you go to get it—and when? If you want to be fuzz-free in time for summer, now’s the time to start, so we’ve put together a beginner’s guide full of answers from three experts: board-certified New York dermatologist Dr. Ariel Ostad, Beverly Hills board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Suzanne Trott, and Roberta Moradfar, registered nurse and laser technician at LaserAway, one of the largest laser chains on the West Coast. Read on for laser hair removal 101!

What does the laser actually do?
It sends a concentrated beam of light into the pigment of the targeted hair, damaging the follicle and prohibiting future hair growth. Sounds scary. But Dr. Ostad says, “The procedure is very safe!” The FDA approved the first hair-removing laser in 1995 and technology has come light-years since then. New machines can effectively remove hair with minimal pain and the newest technology works on all skin tones. Common areas to have treated are the legs, bikini area, underarms, and upper lip.

Does it hurt?
Sort of. It can feel like mild pinpricks or a rubber band being snapped against your skin, but most people find it tolerable. “For sensitive spots, like the bikini zone, patients can apply numbing cream beforehand,” says Moradfar. “After the treatment apply hydrocortisone cream, aloe, or ice to soothe skin.” (Many laser clinics sell numbing cream, or try BareEase & Cream Prep Kit ($25) by Dr. Edna.) The laser may leave the area pink, which should go away within an hour or two. If you can handle waxing, you can handle laser!

Will it work on me?
It depends. “The ideal candidate is fair with dark, thick hair,” Dr. Ostad says. “But there are also lasers that can work on Mediterranean and African skin tones now. Unfortunately, there is nothing that we can do for blonde, red, or gray hair.” Pregnant women and those on certain medications should avoid the procedure as well. Most clinics and medical offices will offer a free consultation to determine if laser will work for you.

How many visits will I need?
 Every person is different, but you can expect to need between six and eight treatments to get rid of most of the hair—the more hair you have, the more treatments you’ll need. Most doctors recommend having visits every four-to-six or six-to-eight weeks, and while you don’t have to stay on schedule, it will help you get better results by hitting the hair in the growth cycles.

Do I have to prep?
Yes, but it’s easy! “The hair follicle has to be intact for the laser to be effective, so no waxing anytime before, during, or after the treatments,” says Dr. Ostad. Sun exposure and sunless tanners are also off limits. “You can’t be tan when you get the procedure and you can’t have sun exposure for about a week after or you’ll risk skin discoloration,” says Dr. Ostad. Finding an experienced practitioner is important as well, so look for a personal recommendation and always go in for a consultation before committing to a clinic or doctor’s office. Prep the day before your session by shaving the area to be treated.

How much does it cost?
It varies. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ 2011 Plastic Surgery Report the average treatment is $358. Of course smaller areas like the bikini and underarms are less expensive than larger areas, like the legs. And while it’s not bad to get a deal on a treatment, it is important to go to an experienced individual. “Laser hair removal is a serious matter and should only be done by a registered nurse or higher provider,” Dr. Trott says. “We’ve seen some pretty severe burns from misuse of these lasers—it’s best to spend a little more and go to an expert in the field.” Conclusion? Do your research on local options.

Will it last forever?
If you’re lucky. It’s best to understand that laser is not an exact science, and while the results are permanent for the follicles properly damaged, you can’t expect to get every hair. “I call it permanent hair reduction because there is no way we could get every single last hair,” Dr. Ostad says. “We can get between 80 and 90 percent of the hair to disappear forever.” But wait, there’s more to think about. Some individuals have varied amounts of hair grow in treated areas down the road. “Regrowth years later is usually new hair, not the follicles that have been destroyed by the laser. It’s often from hormonal changes,” Dr. Trott says. Translation: having a baby or just getting older can result in regrowth.

What can I expect after?
Each session will leave the skin relatively hair-free for one to two months, but only about 20 to 25 percent of the hair is permanently gone. So when it starts to grow back you’ll head in for another office visit to kill another 20 to 25 percent, and so on; the more sessions you have the more hair will disappear forever. You can shave throughout your treatments, but do not wax or use depilatory cream. “By the third treatment, most of our patients are only shaving once every few weeks, and the hair growth is very stunted,” Moradfar says.

So is it worth it? We’d trade in shaving and waxing for a few pinpricks any day.