Overview and Definition
Laser hair removal, as highly suggested by the term, is the procedure where unwanted hair is removed through exposure to laser beams that destroy the underlying hair follicle. It is one of the most common cosmetic procedures and has been commercially available for about two decades now. It has become an excellent, widely used, and dermatologically approved alternative to other means of hair removal including plucking, waxing, and shaving. Common treatment locations for laser hair removal include the bikini area, upper lip, chin, legs and underarms.
How laser hair removal works
Laser hair removal is a procedure that is performed by a dermatologist with the use of a laser-emitting machine, which produces an intense, pulsating beam of light. This light is directed to the skin, causing selectively localized damage to the hair follicle, the source of hair growth, while not damaging or heating the rest of the skin. Lasers specifically target the melanin (substance responsible for hair color) located in the hair follicle, which readily absorbs the light and destroys the hair in the follicle. FDA-approved lasers typically used for the procedure are ruby, diode, alexandrite and intense pulsed light systems.
Because of this melanin-targeting mechanism, laser hair removal produces best results for dark-colored hair on light-color skin. Advances in the technology of laser hair removal have made possible the production of new machines that can be utilized for dark-colored skin. Up until today, laser hair removal is not recommended for white, gray, red and blonde hair.
Although laser can effectively remove hair and slow down hair growth, this procedure does not guarantee permanent hair removal. As the hair follicles naturally recover, and the hair growth cycle resumes, hair may start to grow after a certain hair-free period. Several hair removal and maintenance treatments may be necessary to completely destroy hair follicles for a longer and extended hair-free period.
Benefits of laser hair removal
With laser, dermatologists can safely and effectively treat large areas of unwanted hair with minimal discomfort and complications than other hair reduction methods. The benefits of the procedure are outlined as follows:
- Precision - Lasers can precisely and selectively target coarse, dark hair strands while the skin that surrounds the area is kept damage-free.
- Predictability in results - Results of hair reduction through laser have been consistent; about 90% of patients experience permanent hair loss after about 3-5 sessions.
- Speed and convenience - One pulse of laser that takes only a fraction of a second can remove a significant amount of hair at the same time. Small areas such as the upper lip can be treated in just a few seconds while larger areas can take less than an hour.
- Painless and convenient - Laser hair removal doesn't give the inconveniences and pain otherwise experienced during plucking and waxing, and the ill effects of shaving.
More importantly, laser hair removal is perhaps the only procedure that can provide permanent hair removal after several sessions.
Preparing for laser hair removal
Laser hair removal is considered a medical procedure. Before it is performed, your dermatologist may ask and review your medical history and perform a basic physical exam, especially on the area where the procedure will be performed. Before the procedure, you will be advised to:
- Avoid chemical peels, electrolysis, waxing, and plucking at least four weeks before the treatment, as hair roots may be temporarily removed by these methods.
- Avoid tanning beds and sunbathing as these can make melanin-targeted hair removal less effective.
- Avoid the use of deodorants, perfumes, and other possible irritants before and after treatment.
- Avoid the intake of aspirin, herbal supplements and anti-inflammatory drugs before the procedure to lessen the risk of possible bleeding should complications arise.
What to expect during laser hair removal
The procedure is relatively simple. The dermatologist will simply press a hand-held laser device onto the skin. Depending on the kind of laser used, there may be a cooling agent or gel at the tip to protect the skin. As the laser device is activated, the laser beam passes through your skin right to the hair follicles. No sensation is usually felt when the laser beam is active. The doctor may apply a steroid or topical cream to minimize irritation in the affected area.
What results to expect
After the procedure, redness and swelling of the hair follicles, as well as light pain and discomfort may be expected on the area where the procedure was performed. Topical antiseptic creams are often prescribed, along with over-the-counter pain medicines. Your dermatologist may also advice that you keep the area away from direct exposure to sunlight within the next week.
The effectiveness of the laser removal procedure generally varies depending on the area where it was performed. Thinner-skinned areas such as the bikini and underarm areas usually give better results than thick-skinned areas (such as the back and the chin). Studies have shown up to 25% reduction of hair growth following a laser procedure. The hair that grows after the treatment is usually lighter and finer. Your dermatologist will also suggest a repeat treatment within four to eight weeks for a more permanent hair-free effect.
Safety and possible risks
Laser hair removal is generally safe when performed by a licensed and experienced practitioner. Today, however, the procedure can now be performed in informal settings including walk-in clinics, spas, and even shopping malls. It is very important for the treatment to be given by an experienced health care provider, or performed by or strictly under the supervision of a dermatologist or well-trained physician.
In the recent years, improvements in light and laser technology have resulted in home-use, portable hair removal devices that lead to impressive results. Although highly expensive, these are also safe to use and offer impressive results when performed as directed.
Common side effects of the procedure include discomfort, soreness and redness that typically subside in a couple of days. Complications of the procedure are very rare and may include burns, herpes simplex outbreaks, blistering, bacterial infection, scarring and skin darkening.
Alster, Tina S. MD, FAAD. American Academy of Dermatology. “Laser Hair Removal” Available: https://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/cosmetic-treatments/laser-hair-removal
American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. “Do's and don'ts for laser hair removal.” Available: http://www.asds.net/DosAndDontsLaserHairRemoval.aspx Shenenberger DW. “Removal of Unwanted Hair.” Available: http://www.uptodate.com/index