Laser Hair Removal
Written by Heather Mayer
What is laser hair removal?
Does your unwanted hair cause you to be self-conscious or anxious? Perhaps you have tried for years to shave those stubborn areas, only to get irritation, ingrown hairs and hair growing back soon after. If you are tired of the hassle of using temporary hair removal methods, you may want to consider a more long-term solution using laser hair removal. Laser hair removal was first used in the 1990s and has since become one of the most popular non-invasive procedures to inhibit or delay the growth of new hair.
How does it work?
Laser hair removal works by emitting light of different wavelengths to targeted hair. The light is absorbed by a pigment in hair called melanin, gets converted to heat, and destroys or damages the hair follicle. This prevents or delays the hair follicle from producing more hair.
Many different types of lasers can be used to remove hair, with the most popular being the Alexandrite, Diode and Nd: YAG.
- Alexandrite laser – the Alexandrite laser emits light with a short wavelength and is best used in individuals with light skin and dark hair. This is because the shorter wavelength does not penetrate as deeply into the skin and the light may not only be attracted to the dark pigment in the hair, but also to the dark pigment in the skin. This can result in laser-induced burns or changes in skin color in individuals with tan or darker skin. However, the Alexandrite is highly efficient and can reduce hair by 65%-80.6%.
- Diode and Nd: YAG lasers – The Diode and Nd: YAG lasers emit light with long wavelengths and are preferred to be used in individuals with darker skin because the longer wavelength can penetrate more deeply and interfere less with the skin’s melanin. For this reason, both of these lasers result in less pain and fewer skin color changes. However, out of the two, the Nd: YAG is considered the best laser to treat individuals with dark skin.
Are you a candidate?
The best candidates for laser hair removal should have light skin and dark hair, although the treatment can still be performed in candidates with darker skin if done by someone with experience and with the correct laser.
Individuals with white, blond or red hair are not ideal candidates for this treatment because their hair does not have enough pigment to absorb the light emitted from the laser. You may not be advised to have laser hair removal if you also have any of the following.
- Keloids (raised scars) or other scars
- A history of skin disorders
- Recent tan
- A desire to treat an area that has tattoos or pigmented lesions
- A desire to treat eyebrows or other areas around the eye
- A tendency for cold sores
- Take gold salts for rheumatoid arthritis, isotretinoin for acne or aspirin
How to prepare for treatment
Before getting laser hair removal, you will be advised to avoid the sun and use sunscreen and other skin protection 6 weeks before treatment because a darker tan could increase the risk for skin color changes or burns during treatment.
You should not wax, pluck or thread at least 4 weeks before treatment or in between treatments. However, you should trim or shave hairs just before the procedure to minimize the risk of burn from the laser being attracted to the pigment in the hairs above, rather than below, the skin.
You will also be asked to stop taking blood-thinning medications such as aspirin or anti-inflammatory medications.
You can expect the procedure to last anywhere between a few minutes up to an hour depending on the size of the area being treated. Smaller areas like the upper lip will take a much shorter time than the back or legs.
Your doctor or technician will give you a topical anesthetic or local anesthesia before starting the procedure if treating more sensitive areas. You will also be given eye protection to wear to prevent the laser light from being absorbed by pigmented areas of your eye, such as the retina.
During the procedure, a handheld instrument will be used to deliver precise laser pulses to a quarter-sized area of hair. The instrument may have a cooling gel at its tip to lower the skin’s temperature and protect it from burns or discomfort. With every pulse of the laser, you will likely feel a bit of discomfort that feels like a warm pinprick. Many people describe the feeling as similar to a rubber band snapping against your skin.
Following the procedure, you may experience pain and swelling in the area that was treated. Ice packs should be applied to help the swelling go down.
If you experience burns or skin color changes during the procedure, you will be given topical steroids immediately after to be applied daily for the next several days.
You can expect to resume your normal daily activities once the procedure has finished.
Risks and side effects
Laser hair removal is considered very safe but some complications may arise. The type of side effects that may occur depending on the skin type, treatment location and sun exposure. Many side effects are minor and temporary and can include.
- Erythema (reddening of the skin)
- Edema (swelling)
Other more serious side effects that can occur are:
- Hyperpigmentation and Hypopigmentation (skin color changes)
- Permanent scarring
More uncommon side effects are:
- Graying of hair
- Aggravation of acne
- Eye injury
- Excessive growth
- Rosacea-like rash
- Prolonged redness and swelling of the face
- Changes in color of preexisting moles
When to expect results?
Although you might expect hair to fall out immediately after treatment, it usually takes a few days or weeks for this to occur.
Your first laser treatment should delay hair growth for 2-6 months. However, the stage a particular hair is at in its growth cycle may affect how effective laser hair removal is.
Additionally, the color and thickness of hair, the color of skin and the type of laser all can influence the effectiveness of treatment. For example, there may be only a 10-25% reduction of hair following the first treatment.
How many treatments will you need?
For more permanent results you may require between 2-6 treatments spaced apart 4-8 or 12-16 weeks depending on the rate of growth of the hair being treated as well as a maintenance treatment performed annually.
How long will your results last?
The results you obtain from the procedure are not necessarily permanent, as hair follicles may recover and grow hair again. However, treated hair usually comes back finer and lighter. After all treatment sessions, patients may experience hair removal that lasts several months or up to two years.
Alternatives to lasers
If you are unsure about getting laser hair removal, there are other similar options available. Some of these alternatives include:
Electrolysis: This procedure involves putting a very fine needle in each hair follicle. An electrical current passes through the needle and destroys the follicle, preventing hair from growing. Electrolysis is likely to result in more permanent hair removal compared to laser hair removal, but like laser hair removal it takes multiple treatments to achieve optimal results. It is capable of treating all skin colors and can treat areas around the eye, but the procedure takes longer because it cannot cover as much area at a time.
Intense Pulsed Light (IPL): IPL works similarly to laser hair removal, but instead of a laser emitting light with one wavelength, it emits light with many wavelengths. Because the light from the IPL is less focused and more scattered, it can treat larger areas at a time, resulting in a shorter procedure time. Other options for hair removal include shaving, waxing, plucking and chemical depilatories, although none of these methods result in permanent hair removal.
Cost of laser hair removal
The average cost of laser hair removal is $100 to $3,000 per treatment session. The cost of laser hair removal varies based on the technician’s experience, the type of laser used, the region in which you live and the time it takes to perform the procedure.
Your insurance will not typically cover laser hair removal because it is considered to be a cosmetic procedure.
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