Shaving. When you are young (think back), and you start to develop hair on your legs, and in your armpits, you start begging mom to teach you how to shave. Maybe you even got brave and tried it on your own only to learn about shaving cuts on your knee or Achilles tendon the hard way? Now a few (or several) years later, the winter months are a little sweeter because you can forget about shaving for a few days. After all, you aren’t likely to wear shorts or a bathing suit until the sun shows its face again. Be honest, the idea of having to spend an extra twenty minutes in the bathroom to shave is the last thing you are interested in. Add to lack of interest things like shaving cuts, stubble, and itchy shaving rash, and you have all the reason you need to begin the search for a better alternative.

Enter laser hair removal. Laser hair removal is used to reduce the appearance of unwanted hair in the locations we most commonly shave. These include the legs, upper lip, armpits, chin, and bikini line. Some people also choose to use laser hair removal to help with unwanted hair in other areas such as their backs or arms. Frankly, except for the eyelids and the areas closely surrounding the eyes, laser hair removal can be used anywhere.

How Does Laser Hair Removal Work?

First, we need to address the elephant in the room. No, laser hair removal is not permanent. The only permanent hair removal option currently available is Electrolysis. A procedure where a needle is inserted into each of the hair follicles and an electric current is sent through the needle to kill the hair follicle. If you think that sounds unpleasant, you are correct.

Laser hair removal is a semi-permanent hair removal option that damages the hair follicle (it does not kill it) to minimize hair growth and regrowth. The laser damages the hair follicle by focusing on the pigment cells that reside within the follicle. For this reason, hair color and skin type and color do influence the success of the laser hair removal process. With the idea being that the pigment of the hair (as opposed to the pigment of the skin) should absorb the light a contrast between the color of the hair and the color of the skin provides for the most successful results. This contrast also limits the chances of damage to the skin during the laser removal process. These risks are elevated when there is a close match between your skin color and the color of your hair; however, advances in laser technology have reduced these issues, and advances continue to be made.

What are the Pros of Laser Hair Removal?

As previously mentioned, laser hair removal does not get rid of hair growth entirely; however, it does reduce growth so extensively that you can likely stop shaving some of your body areas altogether. Laser hair is also highly flexible when it comes to where it can be done and how fast the process is. As compared to Electrolysis, for which the appointments can be lengthy and time-consuming, laser hair removal machines can cover large areas of the body very quickly, making the time you spend in the salon much shorter.

What are the Cons of Laser Hair Removal?

The process is indeed time-consuming. Although a session of laser hair removal on the underarms takes less than a few minutes, multiple sessions are required to achieve commonly desired results. Depending on the size of the area anywhere between three and ten sessions may be needed, and it is necessary that most people wait eight weeks or more between treatments. So, to get those smooth summer legs without breaking out a razor, it could take over a year. As mentioned above, if your skin is darker, it may be challenging for the laser to pick up the contract between your skin color and your hair follicle. This is also true of people with very fair skin and light hair (blonds, reds, or white). If your skin/hair combination falls into these categories, it is crucial that you research the facility you choose to make sure they have the most advanced equipment capable of working for your skin and hair type.

Finally, if done by someone who is improperly or inadequately trained, laser hair removal can be harmful to your skin. Unfortunately, licensing procedures are not the same from state to state (sometimes states do not have any requirements at all), so it will be essential for you to to do your homework and make sure the facility you are going to has highly trained professional providers who understand the procedure and how it can cause you injury. Laser hair removal is not a course taught in medical school, so even physicians who perform laser hair removal require advanced training to make sure their patients do not leave the office with permanent burns or scars on their skin!

The final consideration, which could be a pro or a con (depending on how you react personally to the process), is pain. Laser hair removal is described as ranging on a pain scale anywhere from shaving (no pain at all) to waxing (ouch!) and everywhere in between. Technicians do use ice to numb the area before and after laser treatment, which does help to take the edge off. Fortunately, the process becomes less and less unpleasant with each subsequent visit as the hair gets finer, and the person having the treatments knows what to expect.

Risks and Side Effects of Laser Hair Removal

All good things often come with a little bit of bad-or not so good-and laser hair removal is no exception. Risks and side effects associated with this process will vary depending on skin type, hair color, treatment plan, and how well you adhere to pre and post-treatment care. The most common side effects of laser hair removal include:

Skin irritation
This can include temporary redness, swelling, and discomfort. These symptoms should disappear within a few hours of completing treatment.

Pigment changes
The laser hair removal process may cause the skin to become darker or lighter. This is usually a temporary effect and most commonly affects those with naturally darker skin or those who do not avoid sun exposure before or after treatment.

On rare occasions, laser hair removal treatments can have more significant side effects such as blistering, crusting, scarring, or other long term (or permanent) changes in skin color or texture.

How Do You Prepare for Laser Hair Removal?

Before you head to your provider to start the laser hair removal process (assuming you have met with a professional who is trained in the process, and together you have determined this is right for you), there are a few things you should consider.

  1. Staying out of the sun. Above, we mentioned that sun exposure before (and after) your treatment could increase the risk of skin discoloration. It is usually advised to avoid long term sun exposure for up to six weeks before treatment. Daily sunscreen use is also essential. Immediately after treatment, your skin is in a more vulnerable state, particularly to the ultraviolet rays emitted by the sun. Sunning yourself too soon after your treatment can cause an increased risk for skin damage, including pigment changes, burns, and other unpleasant side effects.
  2. Do not use skin lighteners, bleaching creams, or sunless tanners.
  3. Avoiding other hair removal methods such as plucking, waxing, or Electrolysis as these can disturb the hair follicle and impact the effectiveness of the laser treatment.
  4. Avoiding blood-thinning medications such as aspirin and anti-inflammatory medications- if you take a daily medication, as your provider for advice.
  5. Shave the area being treated the day before your procedure. This removes the hair above the surface level and reduces the risk of surface skin damage due to burnt hair.

What Should You Expect After Laser Hair Removal Treatment?

Your hair will not fall out immediately; however, over a period of days to weeks, you will begin to shed the dead hair. Hair growth will initially still continue, which is why repeated treatments are necessary. Results vary from person to person, so it is not possible to definitively say how the treatment will work for each individual person. Laser hair removal does not guarantee permanent hair removal; however, when the hair does grow back, it is usually finer and lighter than before.

What About Home Lasers?

In recent years for both convenience and cost savings, lasers that can be used at home for laser hair removal have become available. These devices may indeed help you to achieve a modest reduction in hair grown; however, there are no extensive studies that have been done to compare how effective (and safe) these devices are as opposed to the treatments provided in a professional setting.  It is important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers these at-home laser hair removal kits and devices to be cosmetic in nature. This means they do not receive the same level of scrutiny and inspection as other devices that are considered medical devices.