An Overview of Laser Hair Removal

Laser hair removal is a method for getting rid of unwanted hair on the body. It involves using a concentrated beam of light (laser light) to destroy hair follicles.

The laser light is directed at hair follicles—small sacs in the skin where hair grows from—whose pigments absorb the light. The light energy is converted to heat, which then destroys or at least damages the hair follicles. After laser removal treatment, the hair doesn’t grow back for a long period of time, if ever, because of the damage that's been done to the follicles. Because the laser beams work by targeting the color (melanin) on the hair follicles, laser hair removal works best on light complexions with dark hair.

You’ll probably need multiple sessions of laser hair removal, typically three to seven, before you can expect semi-permanent or permanent results. If the results aren’t permanent and the hair does regrow, it'll likely be a lot less apparent than it was in the past.

Lasers can be used to remove hair from most body parts, and common areas it's used for include the back, legs, arms, chest, face, and bikini area.

An Overview of Hair Removal Methods

Benefits and Types

Laser hair removal has many benefits, especially when compared to other methods of hair removal:

  • Laser hair removal is very fast, although the time it takes depends mainly on the size of the area being targetted. For example, it’ll definitely take longer to remove hair from your back than from your upper lip.
  • The results last for a long time. Unlike other forms of hair removal like shaving and waxing where it takes days or weeks before the hair grows back, hair effectively removed by laser won’t grow back for several months or years. If/when it does grow back, the hair is finer (less coarse), lighter, and not as visible as it was before. In some cases, the hair is permanently gone and never grows back.
  • It’s a very exact procedure, provided the person performing it is well trained and experienced. The laser beams work with precision and can target the unwanted hair without damaging the skin around it.

Laser hair removal is a safe medical procedure as long as it’s performed by a board-certified dermatologist or cosmetic surgeon. The major types of lasers used for hair removal are:

  • Ruby laser
  • Alexandrite laser
  • Intense pulsed light (technically not a laser but sometimes classified as one)
  • Nd: YAG
  • Pulsed diode array

The contrast in color between the hair follicle and your skin is what allows the laser to pick out and target the hair roots and follicles. With this in mind, certain types of lasers will be safer and more suited to you if you have a darker skin tone. Medically, the Nd: YAG laser is regarded as the best to use on darker skin tones. Diode lasers are also a good choice. In the end, it will be up to your dermatologist to decide which is best for you.

Before the Procedure

There's some information it’s advisable you find out from your dermatologist before having this procedure done:

  • How many laser treatments you will need to have done and how much they will cost.
  • What your dermatologist's qualifications are and how much experience he/she has with laser hair removal.
  • What side effects you should be prepared for and if, based on your medical history, you’re particularly at risk for some complications.
  • What type of laser is being used.
  • Any other concerns you may have.

You should also make sure to disclose any medical conditions (especially skin-related) you may have, as well as any medication you may be taking.

Before agreeing to perform the procedure for you, your dermatologist will examine your skin and the area you want to have hair removed from to determine the right time to have it done, or if it is even the best option for you. If you have white, gray, or blonde hair, you may not be a good candidate for laser hair removal because of the absence of enough pigment in your hair.

How to Prepare

If you’ve decided to have laser hair removal, there are a couple of things you should stay away from.

  • Avoid sunless tanning. This includes spray tanning and the use of tanning beds.
  • Avoid tanning under the sun. You should always protect your skin with sunscreen every single day.
  • If possible, avoid sun exposure for at least six weeks to a month before and after your procedure.
  • Hold off on other hair removal methods like threading, waxing, and electrolysis for at least a month before your procedure's scheduled date. This is so that the follicles on the area you’ll be using the laser on won’t be disturbed.

Your dermatologist may also give you further instructions to adhere to.

To measure the success or otherwise of your laser hair removal procedure, you should take "before" pictures that you can use to compare with pictures from afterward.

During the Procedure

What to expect during laser hair removal
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

Before the procedure begins, the hair that's to be removed will be trimmed very low, or your dermatologist might have instructed you to shave it the day before.

The skin area will be cleansed and numbing gel may be applied, especially if the areas being targeted are sensitive ones. If a numbing gel is applied, you can expect to wait 30 minutes to an hour for the effects of the gel to kick in.

You, the dermatologist, and everyone in the room where the procedure is taking place must wear protective eye gear. The dermatologist will hold the laser to your skin, pull it taut, and begin treating it.

Depending on the kind of laser being used, the dermatologist may use a special cooling agent or machine on your skin to protect it and reduce the possibility of you experiencing side effects.

Laser hair removal can be uncomfortable, and the sensation you may feel has been described as akin to warm pinpricks or rubber bands being repeatedly snapped against your skin. As a result of how the device works, you may see sulfur-smelling smoke plumes.

If the area targeted is a small one, like your chin, for instance, you can expect to be done within a few minutes. If it's a larger area like your back, you can expect it to take about an hour or more.

After the Procedure

Your skin will probably be red, swollen, and maybe even slightly painful to touch after the procedure is done. You may be given ice packs and anti-inflammatory creams immediately afterward.

Despite the redness and swelling, which should subside after a few days, there’s typically no downtime after laser hair removal. You can return to your usual activities right away. You should inform your dermatologist if you think you may be having skin reaction for which a steroid cream may be prescribed.

You can expect to see results immediately—your hair will start to fall out in the following weeks. It’s also important that you follow your dermatologist's instructions on protecting and taking care of your skin after your laser hair removal.

Side Effects and Risks

The most common side effects of laser hair removal are:

  • Redness of skin
  • Swollen skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Small bumps on the skin

These usually go away after a few days. Other uncommon and rare side effects are:

  • Blisters
  • Skin pigmentation changes- hypopigmentation (lightening of the skin) or hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin).
  • Scarring
  • Allergic reaction to the numbing cream or cooling agent.
  • Infections

It’s generally advisable that you don't undergo laser hair removal surgery if you’re pregnant or suspect that you may be. Your dermatologist will likely recommend that you wait till after delivery to have it done. This is because there’s a dearth of evidence on whether the use of lasers is safe for fetuses.

There are some devices on the market for performing laser hair removal at home. To get rid of the hair, these at-home devices generally use low-energy intense pulsed light which technically isn’t a laser but is very similar to one.

It's advisable to be extremely careful with these devices—if possible, get your dermatologist to take a look at it and evaluate its safety. They should never be used to remove facial hair. Instead, you should limit your use of them to body parts below your neck. Also, if they're not used correctly, these at-home laser devices can cause burns, blisters, eye damage, and even blindness.

A Word From Verywell

You should consult extensively with your dermatologist before having laser hair removal. While it’s a safe method of getting rid of hair, it’s not necessarily the best option for everyone. Factors like the body part you want to remove hair from as well as your complexion should be considered before making this decision. If you’ve decided to undergo this procedure, you should have realistic expectations and not expect any long-term changes until you’ve had multiple sessions as prescribed by your dermatologist.

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